BLOOD, TOIL, TEARS, SWEAT . . . EDITING
You’ve finished your novel? If so, you know only too well the blood, toil, and tears needed to reach the finish line. That’s the time to put our feet up, pour a glass, sit back, and smile.
That’s when the plot bunny on the shoulder whispers the dreaded word . . . “edit.”
Editing . . . Blech!
Editing is the sweaty part of fictioneering, be it short story or novel. I’m the first to admit to the perils of rushing to print, relying on MS word to correct my spelling and grammar.
Winston Churchill’s great speech referring to blood, toils, tears, and sweat was his call-to-arms when Britain faced an imminent threat of invasion and war.
It also serves as a call-to-editing. In fact, Churchill was no stranger to editing. He rehearsed and edited his famous speeches up to the last moment. As a writer, he was a relentless self-editor.
I’m still learning the craft of self-editing. That said, our writing must be subjected to a third party. A friend, if need be. A professional, if possible. Having a novel in print with CHAPTER THIRTEER serves as my reminder.
It’s hard, I know. But the rewards are worth it. I can’t emphasize the importance enough.
There are some great resources. I use Grammarly. It costs but serves as an added layer of protection. MS Word is getting better. The two of them combined help, but there (or their) are gremlins that slip by. That’s why a careful reading of your own is critical.
I’ll end this with some tips below. I found them helpful. They’re from Sterling Watson, author, and Professor of Literature and Creative Writing at Eckerd College.
Good luck, and good writing,
Odds and Ends in Editing
- The ing problem. Convert going, doing, saying to past tense, went, did, said, unless you really need to describe a process that is ongoing.
- The then problem. She then did this, he then did that. The next thing done is always done then. Also, never proceeded to except in comedy.
- The problem of expected language or language that fails to surprise. This is not writing we would call cliched, but it makes holes in the page. Verbs like swigged, shimmered, trudged and swirled usually qualify. All memo language qualifies: “He had progressed in his job to a position of authority.” Flaubert said, “Astonish me.” A lot of people have said, “Make it new.”
- Too many semi-colons. Yes, you know how to use them, but don’t.
- Using too many character names. Usually, after establishing the names of the characters, the fictional convention is to use the pronouns he or she to designate the protagonist/point-of-view character and names for the other characters. This contributes in a subtle way to a feeling of emotional and intellectual closeness to the protagonist. In most contemporary fiction, point-of-view is used so that closeness to the protagonist is a virtue.
- Cut modifiers when you can. The superstructure of a good sentence is Subject – Verb – Object. If these words are chosen well, your need for modifiers decreases. Cut quickly and slightly as often as possible.
- Don’t change tenses indiscriminately. Use as few tenses as you can (you almost never need the conditional tense). Know that tenses are used in sets: past with past perfect (did, had done); present with present perfect (does, has done).
- Use contractions in dialogue unless expressing especial emphasis: “I don’t/ do not want you to go.”
- Don’t make excessive references to time (At that moment, he . . .). Just let the action happen. Also, be careful with suddenly. Just make it sudden.
- Don’t underestimate the power of short declarative sentences, especially at the beginnings and ends of paragraphs.
- Don’t write, “He thought to himself.” To whom else would he think? Well, maybe in science fiction.
- Don’t use towards, forwards, backwards, or ways, as in, “It was a ways farther.” Further means discourse (“He speculated further.”); farther means physical distance.
- Put a comma before the conjunction in a compound sentence but not before the conjunction in a sentence with a compound verb. He went to the store, and he bought groceries. He went to the store and bought groceries.
- Unless there is a compelling reason not to do so, report actions in the order in which they happen; e.g., don’t write, “After killing Jim and burying him, she went home and had a drink.”
- First lines of stories and novels are important and should be memorable if possible. Last lines, too.
- Be careful not to confuse your reader at the beginning of your story. Clear details of time, place, and character will keep your reader from wanting a divorce. Burroway says we should know on the first page gender, age, race, nationality, class, period, region, profession, and marital status.
- Don’t start sentences with there. There was a man standing at the counter. A man stood at the counter.
- Don’t compound prepositions. He got up off of the chair. He got off the chair. We met up at the dance. We met at the dance.