Wednesday, November 14, 2007

How Do I Edit My Story?

I don’t know about you, but I find it far harder to edit my own story than to write it in the first place. The problem is, I’m happy with the way I’ve written it, and when you read your own work you’re blind to mistakes. Lots of people have written lots of useful advice on editing and critiquing. I don’t claim to be very good at it, but I thought I’d share my experiences.

Hopefully, if you’ve used a decent word processor, any obvious spelling mistakes will be picked up, so you shouldn’t need to worry about that. The problem is when you’ve made up names of people or planets, or created new words to describe some amazing piece of technology. The spellchecker highlights them every time, so then you don’t notice when you’ve spelled one wrong. I always add new words to the dictionary to avoid this happening, after being caught out several times.

The other thing your spellchecker doesn’t spot is malapropisms, where you’ve accidentally used the wrong word. A grammar checker would pick it up, but I don’t like using them as they never like anything I write!

So, now you’ve checked it says what you intended, there are a couple of things I’ve found that help me spot things that need changing. One is to leave the manuscript for a couple of weeks before looking at it again, the other is to read it out loud. That way you’ll more easily notice:

• Sentences that made sense at the time but now just seem gibberish
• Word echoes – using the same word repeatedly
• Tautology – saying the same thing twice
• Pointlessness - explaining things irrelevant to the plot
• Dullness – whole swathes of text where nothing happens
• Info dump – explaining the physics / history behind your story in one big paragraph
• Technobabble – info dump disguised as dialogue
• Other dull dialogue that adds nothing to the story

If you remove all of the above and discover that you have nothing left, it can be a bit disheartening.

Now it’s time to look at the word count. Every story must be as long as it needs to be to tell the tale, but you’ll find that it gets more difficult to find suitable markets as your manuscript gets longer. So now comes the most difficult bit. What else can you cut out without compromising the flow of the story? I know. You don’t want to cut out any of your lovingly crafted prose. So to make it easier, join a critiquing group where somebody you don’t know will go through your newly refined story and hack it to pieces all over again.

It’s all for your own good!


Anonymous said...

This is all very good advice. I, too, have a hard time catching things in my manuscripts sometimes, and often it's because I've read the thing so many times and edited it so often I skip over mistakes because I practically have certain sentences and paragraphs memorized. Another helpful tip is to print off the manuscript and edit a hard copy with a pen. I don't know why, but I always catch more mistakes this way.

Marshall Payne said...

Hi Gareth:

I saw your post on my blog which said:

As far as I can see, unless the on-line version has been horribly corrupted, my manuscript has no such errors. I still can't see what's wrong with the line:

“I gotta protect my interests.” Said Billy the Kidney. “Now just pour it away.”

If you could point out the errors in this line I can put my mind to rest.

Frankly, Gareth, I can’t believe you’re asking me this question, but I’ll assume it’s in earnest. The line should read: “I gotta protect my interest,” said Billy the Kidney.

I know I gave you an unfavorable review, but before I did I ran your story by a couple of trusted colleagues and they were annoyed as was well by these sort of punctuation mistakes. I appreciate what you said above, but learning to edit one’s own fiction entails a whole lot more. You have to really look deep down into the sentences on the page and see what they’re doing. Or not doing. Sure, we all miss a few things. What amazes me is that your editor didn’t catch this. Is there a reason you punctuated it this way? Why is the word "said" capitalized? And why no comma after "interest"? It really knocks the reader out of the story wondering what-the-f***! :)

Gareth D Jones said...

Well, you learn something new every day. Apparently that is the rule.

Anonymous said...

Cool! Glad we got to chat! :)