Friday, 24 May 2013

E is for Editing

I'm an avid reader. I read as much as possible. Sometimes to the extent that I've had less of a life because of it at times (a testament to the writer, who has written a gripping book!). 

There are countless times when I've turned the pages breathlessly, however, only for the ending to cheat me (and no doubt, thousands of others). Sometimes deus ex machina (a highly improbably event that conveniently wraps everything up) has been the culprit. Others the cavalry coming over the hill have been responsible. Then there are the factual books in which the conclusions haven't fitted the facts. 

It's all very frustrating. Those are hours of your life you'll never get back. 

But why does it bother us so much? What's behind it? Poor editing, that's what.  

How to edit
To be a good writer you have to be a good editor. Those aren't just my words: they're the words of the world's most famous copywriter, David Ogilvy, a man who did some serious selling back in the day.

Of course, being a good editor is easier said than done. Where do you start? 

Be objective
Editing is about honesty. Be objective. Is what you've written really any good, or are you just trying to make the word count? If it seems like a load of rubbish, it may well seem like it to others too, so take it out. 

If you can't decide, ask yourself: 'Would I be embarrassed to show this to a client or publisher?' If the answer's yes, you know what you need to do.

One other trick is to observe whether you're feeling smug and showing your work to everyone in the office, trying to give others a laugh. The part you love the most is normally the part that has to go. 

Ask if it makes sense
Take a look at your draft. Do the pieces fit together? Do the events happen in a logical order, or does something within the text feel out of place? Is everything you've written plausible? If there's something in there that's tenuous or doesn't fit, take it out. It's weakening the text. 

This is especially so with the conclusion. Check you're not drifting into deus ex machina territory. Remember the Stephen King novel Misery and how psychotic bibliophile Annie Wilkes went beserk about the ending of a novel? Endings should be fair to the reader.

Delete the first paragraph

Just like you don't start exercising without warming up first, you don't in writing. The first paragraph get our thoughts flowing and our fingers bashing away at the keyboard. Read it at the end of the piece and you'll find it rambles on aimlessly, struggling to find its path. You may even find that it has nothing to do with the rest of what you've written. Chop it out. You'll see how your writing suddenly becomes tighter. 

Cut out the fluff
Are you getting to the point, or are you saying more than what needs to be said? Is what you've written adding value to the text, or is it simply surplus? If it does nothing for the text, get rid of it. 

Cutting out fluff is important, especially in the day and age of emails, in which everyone feels more hurried than they used to. They don't feel as if they have the time to wade through a forest of words. If you're writing a novel, your words should be valuable. They should help carry events forward. Even if they're just reading for pleasure, readers won't hang around forever to find out what happens (at least I don't). They've taken the time to start reading your novel. Reward them with some plot and character development, not pages of filler.

For me, the king of plot development is crime fiction writer James Ellroy. It's only once you get to the end of his novels, twist after twist after twist, that you realise he was already starting the conclusion halfway through the novel. Fantastic!

These are just a few tips on the mighty art of editing. Like any other, it's a skill and isn't something you just develop overnight. It takes time and plenty of writing. If you've got any editing tips you'd like to share with me, I'd love to hear them. Meanwhile, if not, then happy scribbling, and until we meet again in F is for... 

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