January and February are the NaNoWriMo ‘Now What?’ months. For those of you not in the know, every November thousands of crazy writers sign up to attempt writing 50,000 words in one month, which makes the better part of a novel’s first draft. The ‘Now What?’ months cover the basics of editing, how to not be disheartened and actually try to shape this mess of words you’ve created into something brilliant.
Of course, if you didn’t participate in NaNoWriMo, that doesn’t mean you can’t take advantage of the countless tips that will be going out over the next few weeks. Maybe you have decided that this is the year that you will finally(!) finish a piece of writing. Perhaps you want to go back and revisit something you hid away at the back of a drawer long ago. Whatever it is, know that there is a lot of support out there at the moment for getting stuck into ‘killing your darlings’ and other such editing tropes.
I am by no means an expert in editing my own work like everyone else I find it difficult to be objective when reading the words I spent so many hours typing out. However, I have completed my fair share of writing courses, workshops, etc as well as completing courses in professional copyediting and proofreading (no, this doesn’t mean I will never ever make a grammar error or typo, shit happens…), so I have learnt a thing or two. So here are my thoughts and suggestions for when it comes to editing your work, whether it be a novel, short story, poem, play, script…
It is incredibly difficult to look at your own work with any objectivity. You might be like me, thinking everything you write/create is appalling, or you could be someone who has an over-inflated ego. But in order to edit your piece well, you need to get a sense of what your strengths and weaknesses are.
One way to do this is read – a lot. The more you read, especially in a critical way, you start to see what even the best writers do well and what needs work. If you can see it in others, you are more likely to see it in your own work. You can start picking up on things that annoy you and make sure you aren’t doing it in your own stuff, or see something you’d like to try and emulate (but make sure you don’t try to copy anyone else’s style, you are your own person with your own unique voice, though there’s no harm in appropriating good technique).
Receiving feedback from others is also incredibly helpful. But make sure you pick your readers wisely. Is this someone who will actually give you honest feedback? It also helps if they are someone who enjoys reading in the genre you are writing, as they are more likely to be aware of what your intended audience will expect. No matter how self-aware we think we are, it is always easier for others to see what we can’t. Don’t dismiss their feedback out of hand, even if in the end you decide not to take it on board. It is always helpful to see how others interpret what you have written.
For me, I find that a generic first pass edit is the way to begin. In this edit, I will just note down anything that jumps out at me be they typos, grammar, adding in actions I’ve missed, fleshing out action or character, whatever it might be. After that initial, fairly shallow first pass, I find it helpful to edit the entire manuscript with one particular thing in mind (which, again, is where it helps to already know what your weaknesses are).
For instance, my first drafts tend to lack a lot of detailed description. I focus so much on characters and action that I forget to add much detail about what they look like (something I never think is all that important, but I do understand that writers are painting a picture for the reader, but hey, my characters can look like whatever you want them to unless their physicality is important to their personality!) or where they are (especially blocking characters within the space of a scene). So, for one editing pass I will focus just on descriptive detail – adding it in where it is missing, making it sharper, more economical, and deleting anything that doesn’t add to the story. It is ok to add words while editing, as long as there’s a reason for it.
Other specific editing passes you might like to do is grammar/typos, you could focus on one particular character and their voice, plot, speech identifiers, and so on. Maybe you have a tendency to overuse the word ‘suddenly’, for instance, so you can go through and find each time you have used it and rewrite that section. If you tend to be a ‘pantser’ when writing (someone who doesn’t plot before hand), map out the plot as you read through it and make sure there are no plot holes.
This could potentially fit under the category of editing specifically, but it is so crucial that I thought it worth emphasizing. For any story of any length, consistency is paramount. This goes for every aspect of the story as well, the writing, the voice, characters, setting, the world. If you are writing a fantasy story with a magic system, you better be certain what the rules are for that system and stick to them throughout.
George R. R. Martin, someone known for careful planning, accidentally got one detail slightly wrong about a character that it sparked of hundreds of conspiracies amongst his fans. Readers will pick up on inconsistencies and they will be merciless about it. Anything inconsistent will pull the reader out of the fictional world you so lovingly crafter, ruining the experience. You don’t want that, do you? So keep track of things.
One way I deal with this is lists – endless lists. For characters, every time I note down a preference or any detail about them, I put it in a list of their character traits. Be it that they like coffee, hate a particular TV programme, don’t like baths, have read every single Jane Austen novel more than ten times each… whatever it is, note it down. If you forget or mix it up later on, it will irk the reader. Same goes for the setting, world, politics, family histories, plot, magics, technology, everything.
Above all else, make sure you are happy with the finished product. If by the end of your edits you have a story that you would love to pick up off the shelf of a bookstore, you’ve won. While it is great to have others like your work, if you don’t like it, there’s not much point.