Editing, rewrites, and drafts
It took me many years to really learn how to edit and rewrite my own fiction – and I’m still learning. A great story idea, great plot and original characters don’t always lead to great reading for another person. The first draft of a story is like picking out the right ingredients to make clay and mixing it together. Even though it is now a well kneaded, smooth ‘clay’ it is still just a lump. It needs many layers of refinement to become an interesting work of art.
Editing and rewriting is not only grammar. In fact, grammar issues should be your last refinement in the editing process. Provided you have a good plot, conflict, and story structure, the bigger concern is making your writing lean.
I had often heard tips on editing like:
Trim the fat
Make every word count
I had no idea what these tips meant. I thought I did, but I didn’t.
Here are three rules that took me quite a while to grasp:
1) Don’t dilute the power of a word by using other words with it.
Ex. John ran quickly to the phone.
Do you think if John was running, it was because he wanted to get the phone immediately? There is no reason for the adverb, quickly. In fact, most writing advice will tell you to drop all of your adverbs – because, most of the time, the verb conveys what you need without them.
In Stephen King’s “On Writing’ he says, get rid of most ‘-ly’ words – quickly, exactly, fairly, hungrily, simply.
Here’s another example:
Ex. Henry stamped up the stairs angrily.
I think readers can deduce that, if Henry is stamping, he must be mad. Aside from that, in the context of a story, we would already know that something had happened to make Henry angry.
Don’t use an adverb or ‘modifying word’ when the simple verb will state what you need.
**Get rid of precursor add-ons like: I feel, I felt, I felt that, I thought, he thinks, he started, he began to, etc.
Ex. I thought he was going to meet me at six, but he was not here.
Better: He was going to meet me at six, but he was not here.
Ex. I feel that it will run better without his constant interruptions.
Better: It will run better without his constant interruptions.
If we know the point-of-view and the character who is talking, the words, ‘I feel that’ are not necessary. These are just a couple of words in each sentence, but in the course of a story, they add up to hundreds of words.
Ex. Slowly, I drift back into sleep… The word ‘drift’ implies slow movement.
Better: I drift back into sleep…
Ex. She started to crawl toward me once again. … ‘started to’ and ‘once’ are completely unnecessary words.
Better: She crawled toward me again.
Ex. Finally, I broke free, spilling to the ground… ‘ly’ words are mostly unneeded. (see what I did there?)
Better: I broke free, spilling to the ground
2) Don’t state the obvious.
If the writing is really tight and lean, a reader will not miss anything. Its only when they are disengaged with the writing and they start feeling bored with the words that they begin to skim and could miss something important. By restating the obvious you are putting a reader though unneeded work and losing their concentration. The first time a reader has to skim or skip over a group of words because they already ‘get it‘, you’ve lost them.
3) Don’t repeat yourself.
I have a bad habit of this. It’s a bad habit that I’ve always had…see what I mean? I hope you can see what I mean.
Many writers are guilty of this and don’t realize it until someone points it out.
Items to look for and delete:
**Location – some writers keep repeating what room the scene is happening in, as if the reader will forget. If it is stated at the beginning of the scene that the characters are in the kitchen, you don’t need to mention it again unless they leave the kitchen.
Ex. Harry turned on the kitchen faucet.
If they are in the kitchen what other faucet would it be?
Better: Harry turned on the faucet.
Ex. She looked out the kitchen window.
Same scenario, if the scene is in the kitchen, she wouldn’t be looking out the bedroom window, would she?
Better: She looked out the window.
**Two sentences that should be one – In the first draft, I’ll have many sentences that can be combined because some or all of the aspects have been stated already.
Ex. Jimmy started to climb the tree. While climbing the tree he tried to avoid carpenter ants that had made a home there.
Better: Jimmy climbed the tree, avoiding carpenter ants along the way.
Here is a great exercise to see the importance of trimming these words. Take a story you have already written. ’Cut’ all of these needless words from your story and ‘paste’ them into another file. Now read the story. Does it still make sense? Does it still convey the plot and characters?
In a 10- page story, you might find you have several pages of words cut out of the text, without effecting the story at all. Look how hard you were making a reader work to achieve the same results. All of these extra words dispersed throughout the story make reading a chore.
I recently edited my story, Steel Deliverance, before submitting it to a publication. The word count started at 3875 words. When I was done (approximately 3 days of revisions) it was 3575 words. That’s 300 words less. I don’t believe it has lost any of its impact. It will be a tighter read for a reader and move along at a much better pace. And this story is far from succinct; I wrote it in my ‘Poe’ style voice using lavish description and poetic words. This story was done and self-edited three years ago, but when I went back and took another eagle-eyed look at it, there was more work to be done. It’s the leanest its ever been and more focused because of it. It was quickly accepted into the anthology, Terror Train (JWK Fiction).
“Substitute ‘damn’ every time you’re inclined to write ‘very;’ your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be.”
― Mark Twain
“The first draft of anything is shit.” – Ernest Hemingway
“The most valuable of all talents is that of never using two words when one will do.”
― Thomas Jefferson
This is really interesting, thanks for sharing 🙂
Excellent advice, for all fiction writers!
Thanks Nicholas, I just read your ‘4 Golden Rules of Writing’ post and enjoyed it very much. And I will probably spend more time reading you other writing tips posts in the next couple of days 🙂
Thanks! I think you’ll find a lot of common ground between our posts. Much like you, I eschew dogma for common sense. 🙂
Such an interesting article, thanks for the tips.
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