There are as many ways to edit as there are to write, and the amount of editing needed probably depends on the way you write your first draft, and your experience as a writer. Some writers produce only a few hundred words during a session, but each are perfect and need little editing. I am not one of these.
I started out as a writer who edited and tinkered with everything along the way. That can work for short stories, but I certainly wasn’t making progress with my novel. Then I read an article on the merits of getting your first draft finished as quickly as possible, giving the story pace and the author something tangible to work with. Since then that’s the way I’ve tried to work. It means I have quite a lot of editing to do, but I do have a finished first draft.
After the Big Picture edit my manuscript has had some big changes, but is in much better shape. As with the previous editing I try to do this read through in a concerted time period, and then work on the various ‘jobs’ once the entire mark up is complete. This means if I only have a few minutes I can take a simple task such as a find and replace for changing a character’s name. There are also times of the day when I’m not so creative and these are useful for more mundane editing tasks.
However onto the things I cover in the detail editing.
This is when I start to read out loud. It helps me to check things such as:
- Rhythm and flow of my sentences. Have I varied sentence length and structure? Do they work with the pace? For example shorter sentences for action.
- How does it read? Are there parts where I stumble over sentences or words?
- Word usage – have I used the same words or phrases too often, or too close together? It’s amazing how you notice those things when you are reading out loud.
Dialogue - reading out loud is especially good for dialogue. Does it sound natural? Is it there for a purpose, or just padding out the word count.
Speech tags – enough, too many? Is it always obvious who is talking? Have I added some action, or do I just have talking heads.
Do my main characters have a distinctive voice?
If I’m using a close third person POV I want to get into the character’s head so I look for and remove things such as: he muttered/ she thought.
Non-verbal communication – this isn’t just linked to dialogue (but seemed a good time to mention it). Do my characters have habits or mannerisms? Have I made each occurrence of them fresh in the way I’ve written it, or am I just repeating the same thing?
I search for words such as: smile, grin, frown, eyebrow, fist, laugh, lips etc. to make sure I’m not describing emotions or people in the same way.
Beginnings and endings – of sections/chapters but also paragraphs. All should be working to pull the reader along, making them want to read more. For sections/chapters do the beginnings inform the reader as to where, when and who? If it’s a follow-on from the previous section you need to do very little here, but if time has elapsed, or it’s a different setting, now is the time to alert the reader to this. You don’t have to slow the pace with too much detail, simplicity is best here. The following afternoon… Later that day… When they reached London…
Do your chapter endings urge the reader to carry on rather than going to sleep?
Description – too much, not enough. This is difficult to gauge as some people love description and others hate it. Look at where you’ve placed it. In the middle of a chase scene your main character isn’t going to admire the rose garden, and think of the beautiful flowers her mother used to grow.
Is the description being seen through the eyes of the POV character? Different people will see things in a different way, and their mood will also colour what and how they see things.
Have I used all the senses? Do descriptions of people show personality and character or just physical attributes?
Clichés – look for these and delete them, or write them in a different way. Included in this are often-used word pairings. It might not be a cliché, but if the words roll off your tongue, or someone can finish your sentence for you it needs to be changed.
Adverbs and adjectives – delete the majority and the few you leave will stand out strongly.
Weak words – these are words that I think make writing weaker, but unfortunately they appear throughout my first drafts. During the editing process I do a search for them, and delete most. Those that stay really have to earn their keep. Words on my list are: almost, about, appear, seem, nearly, some, sometimes, occasionally, often, few, fairly, really, very, just, many.
At this point I’ll also mention tautologies – repetition or using different words to say the same thing. For example free gift, widow woman.
These are my thoughts, and things I’ve found I need to change in my writing, your writing will be different, as will the way you work. The most important thing I’ve found whether detailed editing or big picture, is to do the read through in as short a period of time as possible, and don’t mess around changing little bits unless it is on your task list from a read through. I’ve wasted so much time in the past looking at little bits in isolation, and making changes only to find I’ve messed up my timeline, or deleted something I needed for the plot further on in the manuscript.
Happy editing and I hope this has been of some use.