The Writer's 'Other' Job
In my last post, I wrote about one way we can increase our chances of avoiding rejection; through clear formatting that meets the expectations of a publisher, agent, or judge in a competition. In terms of getting a story ready to send out, this is the easiest step. The next, and hardest, step in the preparation of your work is editing.
Before we go any further, I’d like to put on my pedantic hat and suggest in no uncertain terms that editing is YOUR job. And it is your job until your work reaches a state of as-near-to-perfect-as-you-can-make-it. Then, and only then, should you hand your story over to another person for feedback or editing. When you receive the feedback, start the editing process again, polishing until the work is your brilliant best. Only after this rigorous editing process should you send your work to someone from whom you are seeking publishing/payment in some form.
I remember being at a writer’s boot camp once, at the Q & A after the writing sessions, and hearing an emerging writer say that she never edited her work because that was the job of an editor.
‘Have you had anything published?’ another participant asked.
‘No, but I’m working on it,’ the writer replied.
But is she? The reality is, no first draft ever comes out perfect. Like children, stories need shaping, developing, nurturing and refining. So the first step in the editing process is to accept that your work is not going to slip from you fully formed and beautiful, even if, in the afterglow of entering that last full stop, it may seem that way. Editing is always required.
There are a few other reasons to accept editing as part of your writing process:
1. When you write, you are writing for a reader, not for yourself.
Publishers, agents, and competition judges are first and foremost readers. When they have to fight, or wade, through your writing, this makes them less receptive.
Make their job easy! The clearer and cleaner (i.e. mistake free) your writing, the more likely the reader is to fall inside the story and stay there until the end, giving you a better chance at publication.
2. When you write, you are conveying meaning and becoming part of a broader conversation.
Dense, unclear, mistake-ridden writing is murky and confuses the intended meaning of the writer.
If a reader is focused on the mechanics of a work (words, sentences, paragraphs, punctuation etc.), they are missing the story and, therefore, the whole purpose of your writing.
3. Your writing stands for you.
Sloppy writing speaks to the reader, and what it tells them is you don’t care about your work; that you don’t approach your work as a serious, professional writer.
Unedited work tells the reader that they are not important to you; that you don’t value their time or the ‘mind-space’ they must give to your work.
This raises the question: if you don’t care about your work, why should your reader?
Okay, let’s say that you’re ready to commit to making editing a part of your writing process (if you do this already, consider yourself ahead of the game), what sort of editing can be done to increase your chances of publication? There are three types of editing: line, copy and content (what I’ll call structural editing). Copy editing is essentially when someone checks your work for accuracy of facts etc., which I would include in a structural edit, so I’ll write about line and structural editing here.
Line Editing – the easy stuff:
When I’m editing work, whether my own or another writer’s, this is where I start and this is what I look at:
Word usage (incorrectly context; overuse of clichéd adverbs/adjectives)
Repetition (of words, actions/gestures, and ideas)
Clichés and stereotypes
Overwriting (in description, actions, and dialogue)
I usually do this on-screen in the early drafts, but as the work gets closer to ‘near-perfect’, I print the story – regardless of length – and do this editing in hardcopy. Maybe that sounds old-fashioned, but it’s surprising what we miss on the screen; what will leap out at us when we can hold our work in our hand, with pencil at the ready.
Line editing really is the easy work of editing, but it’s also important work because, to borrow an old cliché, ‘the devil is in the details,’ and - in this case - the devil could look like a comma splice, or an inappropriate article, or a dangling modifier.
Structural Editing – the hard stuff:
There’s no getting away from it; taking a microscope to your work is tough. When you’ve struggled to bring a work into existence, it’s hard to look at it with a critical eye, to go deep into it, look at its structures, and acknowledge what is wrong or missing. This resistance comes, I think, from knowing that what we are really doing is giving ourselves more work to do, when what we really want is for the story to be finished so we can get it out there. But, this is a pointless exercise in denial that turns our work into a boomerang: we send it out and it keeps coming back. Better to dig deep and do the work; to make our story an arrow that will hit its mark.
In a structural edit, I look at the creative elements and interrogate them in the following way.
How are the event organised?
Is this the most effective or coherent way to put the story together?
When I wrote my first novel, Mira Falling, I chose a post-modernist structure, which I thought worked well, until my supervisor (I wrote the novel during my Honours year at uni) suggested that a chronological structure would be more suited to the work. The novel at that stage was around 50,000 words, and the idea of pulling it apart and re-ordering the chapters was daunting. Eventually – after completing a thorough line edit, which got me back into the world of the novel – I printed out the work, laid the chapters out on my bed and, like organising a puzzle, I shifted them into a chronological order. From there, I needed to weave the chapter together into a solid whole. It was difficult work, but the payoff was— publication.
Are all of the events necessary?
Are the events accurate (particularly if relating well-known events)?
Are the events set up so that when they occur, they feel natural to the reader?
Are the events linked together?
Are there unnecessary or unintentional gaps?
Do the events have verisimilitude (the appearance of truth) or do they stretch believability too far?
Are all of the characters necessary?
Are they, as Forster suggested, ‘rounded’? That is, are they complex and nuanced?
Do the characters develop, or are they stable (i.e. unchanged)?
What is revealed about the character, and what is withheld, or hinted, at for the reader to interpret?
Are the characters believable?
If the characters are non-human, do they have enough human-like characteristics that assist the reader to build empathy?
Are the characters consistent in: name, appearance, mannerisms, speech, and behaviour?
Do these things change and, if so, has the change been set up so that they have verisimilitude?
Is the setting the best for the story?
Is there consistency across the elements of setting: time (of day), era, infrastructure, and environment?
Are the details included in the setting significant?
Do they create mood and atmosphere?
Can the setting be used to deepen theme, character and plot?
Does the setting have verisimilitude?
Dialogue/Point of View:
Who is narrating the story? Is this the best choice for the story?
Who is the viewpoint character? Is this the strongest choice?
Is the POV consistent?
Does the dialogue sound natural?
Is the dialogue consistent with the character and show who they are?
What is your purpose in writing this story?
What are you trying to communicate to the reader?
Are the themes addressed consistent and developed?
Are the themes conveyed through, and embedded in, the characters, plot, dialogue and setting?
Have literary devices such as allusion, foreshadowing, metaphor, symbolism etc. been used to support and convey the themes?
Finally, I take a grand view of the work and ask: is it predictable? Is it plausible? Is it an accurate rendition of the story I envisioned?
The task of editing is a laborious one that will add time to your process; a few weeks perhaps for a short work, or months for a novel, but it is work that must be done. Getting published, or winning that competition, is difficult because there is so much competition. Give yourself an edge; learn to love your other job, and embrace the editor within.