A Damn Good Edit

© Jane Wenham-Jones


First published in Writing Magazine June 2009

Please can you tell me what is meant by a “damn good edit”? I have been told several times that this is what my short stories need and now I have finished my first full-length manuscript, similar comments have been made. I have spent a year writing my novel and, as far as I am concerned, have done everything I can to make it as good as possible. So what am I supposed to do now to “sharpen and polish” it as has been suggested? I know this sounds like a silly question but I really don’t know where to start.

Chrissie Howard — Edinburgh

It doesn’t sound silly at all. This is a very good question and one, as I’ve heard agents and publishers agree, a few more writers should ask. Editing is as much a skill as any other aspect of writing – the most important one, I would say – and none of us are born experts. We have to learn how to edit effectively and when we do, the difference it makes is profound. Which is why every successful writer I know, goes over and over their manuscripts, cutting, tweaking and honing until they feel they’re absolutely right. And still, something may slip through – that’s why copy editors have a job.

Lynne Patrick, Managing Editor of Crème de la Crime (www.cremedelacrime.com), believes that the months or years an author spends immersed in their manuscript leaves them “too close” to their work and makes it difficult for them to see it objectively. Describing her read-through of a manuscript the company was planning to publish she says “I found far too many repetitions of one specific expletive; three minor characters all with the same first name; a couple of acronyms whose meaning wasn’t clear from the context; and an incorrect Famous Name. This was after several rewrites by the author.”

Lynne recommends putting the manuscript away for a few weeks after typing “The End” and then working on it again before sending it out. This is an excellent piece of advice albeit one that I’m usually too impatient to follow. It is true, however, that if you can manage it, all sorts of flaws will become apparent when you re-read your work after a suitable break. And it’s getting rid of those flaws, making the writing smooth, seamless and effortless to read, that is the aim of that “damn good edit” all manuscripts need if they’re to make their fortune.

You ask where to start. The answer is at the printer. Do edit on paper. You may think you can save the rain forest and be just as proficient reading your work on the computer screen, but believe me, you can’t. I check things a dozen times on screen and still find all sorts of typos, missing words and speech marks in the wrong place once I’m staring at a hard copy. After it’s printed, many authors would suggest reading the manuscript aloud. If you find yourself stumbling, then something is wrong with the rhythm of that sentence and other faults will show up too.

“Repetition jumps out at you if you actually hear the words in the air,” says writer and tutor Sue Moorcroft, “and punctuation errors become obvious.”

Biddy Nelson, who’s had more short stories published than you can shake a stick at, likens editing to weeding the garden. “Go through the manuscript cutting out anything unnecessary to the plot or the characterisation – i.e. do away with all your favourite bits,” she says wryly. “It can be done over and over again, there’s always something that could or should go.”

As a brief checklist, things to hoik out include repeated words and dull superfluous detail, any overuse of adjectives and adverbs and weakeners like “rather” and “quite.” We often have one or two of these we use more often than we realise. I have a tendency to litter my dialogue with “just” and “really” as in “I just feel…” or “I really thought” and have to prune them out at the end, while writer Anne Catchpole tells how she recently edited a chapter of her work in progress – mostly dialogue – and had to delete “twelve Ohs, fifteen Wells and several Buts.”

Also, watch for places where you’ve stated the obvious: “he yelled loudly,” or “she whispered quietly” and keep an eye open for the sort of spelling errors and grammatical glitches that the spell check won’t pick up. E.g. the misuse of “it’s” instead of “its”, “there” instead of “their” and so on. Make sure it’s clear who is speaking in any dialogue and that your paragraphs don’t continue for several pages.

Different authors have different methods of working at this. Penny Alexander believes in the ‘counsel of perfection’ which she explains as “only ever editing while focussed ferociously upon ONE aspect: e.g. punctuation, or repetition, or information dumping… and NEVER to get sidetracked from that.”

Others, myself included, look for everything at the same time. Whichever way you do it, try to be ruthless. “I have always found that you can edit out far more than you think,” says magazine writer Pam Weaver. “I’ve even managed to get a 3,000-word story down to 1,500 and still sell it, so it can be done! If you think what you’ve written is quote of the month, you can always save it for another time.”

“My first drafts are always too long, too fluffy, too wordy,” says novelist Hilary Lloyd. “So my approach to editing is to cut, cut and cut again. Like writing, editing needs confidence, only gained from sharp practice!”

So grab your red pen and practise away. Editing your novel may take some time but, like clearing out an old cupboard, it’s strangely satisfying and you’ll be very glad you did it. Good luck!

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