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Thursday, 19 January 2012

The Editing Process and Why I Enjoy It.

Unlike many writers, I enjoy the editing process that follows the white hot period of creation. This is the time when you find the right words to replace those that flew off the end of your fingers in the rush to get the ideas down before they escaped into the ether. This is your opportunity to turn a banal phrase into something poetic and memorable. It's the time to hone, sharpen, tighten and close up the text to build in the pace that carries the story forward. It's the chance to spend some prime time with your characters and understand them better than was possible at the beginning of the story, since even the most well-drawn characters have a tendency to diverge from the author's view of them as they grow during the story. It's the place to do that hardest of all things every writer must do in order to succeed; to murder your darlings. Most writers will understand this expression. For those who don't, it simply means that you have to examine your writing critically and decide whether that exquisite phrase you used to describe the heroine, the scenery, the hero, is actually necessary to the story. If it isn't, you cut it out and toss it away. Your darling infants consigned to the bonfire of vanities.

I've always held to a short but, for me, true mantra on writing: write from the heart, but edit from the head.

I've also always placed a distance between the writing of a piece and the editing. If you can come to your work with a fresh mind, following a break without reading or thinking about it, you're far more likely to spot problems within it. So, after the creative phase, I always lock away the piece for a period, the length of which is more dependent on circumstances than any formal programme. But when I return to it, I work methodically. Whether my method will work for you, however, depends on the type of writer you are.

I do a first read through, quickly and without stopping for changes I see as necessary - merely marking these points as prompts for the next read through. This first read I do more or less as a reader, rather than a writer. It re-acquaints me with the work, allows me to see whether the ideas have translated into something that will interest readers, and highlights any glaring inconsistencies in plot, character or setting.

Next, I read through and look at those marked places, making whatever alterations seem necessary. As I do this, I also make any changes that might affect pace by removing redundancies and repetitions.
I then subject each chapter, or section, to the check. This wonderful and simple program provides a graphic (see the illustration for this post) that highlights words used according to frequency and is an invaluable tool for identifying overused words. I thoroughly recommend this free editing helper.

The next stage is the crucial one, which I advise every writer to do, regardless of genre, habit, type or experience. I read the entire work aloud, from a typed script, marking it as I go along to indicate any areas of error, confusion, repetition, clumsy construction etc. Reading aloud makes errors far more evident, and reading from a printed source, rather than the screen, makes mistakes and inconsistencies far more obvious. I can't emphasise too strongly how important this step is. If you do nothing else in editing, at least do this.

Once I've been through and made the changes indicated by the read-through above, I subject the piece to the mechanical spell and grammar check. This highlights a number of issues and, in spite of its shortcomings and inadequacies, often reveals odd things missed during the manual process.

A final read through allows me to ensure consistency in plotting, characterisation, timeline, setting and theme. I keep a spreadsheet for the timeline, so that I know where each character is at any given time. This includes a hyperlink to each character's sketch, so I can ensure I haven't inadvertently changed hair or eye colour or suddenly made an atheist into a godbotherer, or aged a youngster, etc. I also include phases of the moon and sunrise/sunset times on the timeline, so I can keep track of such items when I'm describing activity or scenes.

You will no doubt note that I haven't described a session where I make changes to improve the language of the piece. That's because I do this as I go along, as part of all the other checks and alterations.

That's it. I know I could go through the piece again and again, and find other faults or places where improvements could be made, but I write to be read and there comes a time when the piece must be revealed to readers. Some writers find this final phase the most difficult and I suspect their reluctance to get their piece out in front of an audience is due to either misplaced lack of confidence or an unwillingness to let go of their child and send it out into the world.

There are writers, particularly amongst the indie writer category, who don't bother with even the most basic editing. Their work is readily identifiable by its numerous spelling errors, lack of grammatical accuracy, inconsistencies in expression and poor story planning. It puzzles and distresses me that readers give such writers the time of day, but perhaps I consider such things as correct language use, basic spelling and grammar, as tools of the trade and see their lack as insults to the readers; insults that, perhaps, certain readers don't perceive as such.

So, there you have it: the process of refining the initial piece of created fiction into a story worthy of exhibition before my readers. Yes, it's a lot of work, time and effort. But nothing worthwhile was ever created in ease. I can only hope that my efforts produce stories that readers find entertaining, illuminating and enjoyable.

An unrelated question for you to ponder: Why do doctors leave the room while you undress, since they're going to see you naked anyway?

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