Editing & Revising

By Victor DiGenti

Change is the general theme of this issue, so I thought I’d write about executing change in our writing. And to most of us, change is akin to an execution. As semi-normal human beings, we hate change, and that applies to changing our precious prose. But isn’t good writing all about change? Oh, we might call it editing and revising, but it boils down to change.

Writing and editing require different skills and mindsets. That’s why it doesn’t pay to edit your work as you go. You have to have something to change, so finish your first draft and then go back and make your changes. Ernest Hemingway had an earthy one-word description for first drafts. While they may not be quite as bad as Master Hemingway implies, the professional acknowledges that first drafts are seldom very good.

You may have heard it said that as writers we should “murder our darlings.” Sounds terrible, doesn’t it. Of course, I don’t believe the author of that pithy saying was endorsing filicide, but instead referring to those darling phrases we fall in love with. Sometimes, they’re the one’s we’ve spent the longest time crafting and we’re too close to the forest to see the trees. In other words, those darlings of ours may be clever, but they don’t do anything to move the story along. If that’s the case, then darling or not, it’s probably a good idea to kill them off.

Maybe we should do what crime writer Elmore Leonard does. When he was asked how he goes about editing and revising, he said, he “takes out those parts that people don’t want to read.”

Simple isn’t it? Well, not really. But we should develop an eye and an ear for prose that slows down the story, that yanks the reader out of the dream-like spell good writing can cast over the reader. Is it a mater of clunky writing? Too many adverbs and adjectives? How about long paragraphs of narrative summary and exposition that causes a reader to skip those imposing solid blocks of gray and search for white space in the form of dialogue? Or does your story have frequent flashbacks which tend to bring the narrative flow of a story to a screeching halt?

Okay, DiGenti, you say, just how do you develop an eye and a ear for writing that needs to be changed? Good question? Here are a half dozen ways to make positive changes.

  1. First things first. You’ve completed your first draft. Now put it away and find something else to do for at least a week. Preferably two or three weeks. Maybe there’s a short story you’ve been wanting to write, or you need to do some research for another book. Or maybe you just want to act like a normal person for a change and mow the lawn, do some shopping and read a good book. Whatever. Let the manuscript cool for a while before picking it up and reading it with fresh eyes. Read the entire book to get a general impression of it, making brief notes in the margin or a notebook. You might note where characters seem weak, where more material is needed, or material needs to be cut. Look at the big picture. Does your plot ring true and have you stayed on course. Or does the story meander hither and yon? Sol Stein calls this the triage method—working on the most seriously injured victims first. In doing this you should ask yourself, What is the story I’m trying to tell? You might think you know the answer to that since you’ve just spent months writing your story, but this fresh reading might surprise you. Maybe there’s more to the story. Or a different story is trying to emerge from your first draft. And since we’re talking about reading your draft,
  2. Read your work aloud. It’s amazing how much easier it is to spot examples of awkward writing when you try to get your mouth around those clunky phrases. Poor writing may be overlooked when using just your eyes, but it really jumps out at you when spoken aloud.
  3. Get out that red pen and start trimming excess verbiage. Most of us are too wordy. Today’s readers have been influenced by movies and television. We live in an age of instant gratification and when we pick up a book we expect it to flow by in swift-moving scenes, just like those action movies filled with car chases and explosions. So, edit out the long flowery descriptions and purple prose that slows down a good story.
  4. Look for redundancies in your writing. Not just the use of the same words or phrases (You’d be surprised how often that occurs over the course of a novel. Try using your search function to check on common words and phrases to see how many times you’ve used them), but the repetition of an effect can be just as problematic. In their excellent book, Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, Renni Browne and Dave King have this to say about repetition. “Whether it’s two sentences that convey the same information, two paragraphs that establish the same personality trait, or two characters who fill the same role in the plot, repetition can dissipate your writing and rob it of its power.” Give your readers credit for having the intelligence to get it the first time without hitting them over the head with repetitious writing in order to make your point.
  5. Sometimes it comes down to deleting characters or even entire scenes. Here’s an exercise I’d suggest you try after the first draft. Take a look at what you consider your most memorable scene. Ask yourself what made it so memorable and make some notes. Then find a scene that’s the least memorable. Hopefully, you’ll have a hard time finding one, but when you do you should examine the reasons why it’s the least memorable. Check your notes as you compare it to your most memorable scene. The solution may be to do away with the scene entirely or at least revise it to make it more memorable If it make sense to do away with the scene, be sure you find another way to impart any important information in the scene to the storyline.
  6. Get rid of those adverbs. Your writing should explode with strong action verbs, not flabby adverbs. In most cases an adverb, which describes a verb, an adjective, or another adverb, is totally unnecessary. See? They often end in ly so they should be easy to spot. Words like angrily, giddily, awkwardly describe an action when the action should be apparent if you’ve done your job. So whenever you see adverbs hiding amongst the foliage, take a machete to them.

If you’re one of those people who hate to revise and rewrite, you might agree with that great philosopher, Homer Simpson, who said, “If something’s hard to do, then it’s not worth doing.” Homer’s wisdom aside, good writing requires that we embrace change. Think of it as an opportunity to separate yourself from the average or mediocre writer, and perhaps from the rejection pile.

This article first appeared in The Florida Writer, the official magazine of the Florida Writers Association. My column, The First Million Words, has appeared in the magazine since 2006.

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