It’s probably the most common saying about writing there is; “good writing is re-writing”. Actually writing the story is a large part of the battle, but it’s your editing skills that will make the difference between a decent piece of work and an unreadable hotch-potch of words.
As part of my day job, I write and edit online content. It’s something I think I’m quite good at and also something I like to do. It appeals to my organisational side and I’ll happily take re-writes over first drafts any day. So here are seven bits of advice on editing your writing from an editor.
1) Before you start, take a break
The first piece of advice is to do…nothing. Really. Once your first draft is done, don’t start editing straight away. The kind of deadlines we have at work, means taking a break can often just be the length of time it takes to a cuppa – but even a quick break resets your mind. If you don’t have a deadline to meet, how long you take is up to you. I’d suggest at least a week. And once you’ve done your first edit, take another break before the second.
2) Read it out loud
Yes, I’ve done this at work many times. Probably a good thing I work from home now – fewer odd looks from my desk mates. It’s easiest to read your work out loud alone. The reason this tip is so good is it highlights so many parts of your work. By reading what’s actually there (not what you think is there) you’ll spot any typos or potential confusion over who’s saying what. Plus you’ll get the best idea of how your story flows and hear how your dialogue sounds – so don’t forget to do the voices!
3) Use any and all tools to help
At work, we often have to get work out within tight timescales. Relying on our own skills alone won’t cut it and why should it? You’re no less of a writer if you use help – a dictionary, a thesaurus, a name book – all tools. An obvious one in this digital age is a spell checker, but a surprising number of people overlook this simple step. There are also a bunch of other (free) tools out there such as Grammarly, the Hemmingway App, and Readable. And there are tools that help you keep track of complicated plotlines, plan your time, and ones to make notes as you go. Oh and here’s a handy blog post covering nine writing tools.
4) Editing isn’t just taking words out
A lot of people have this idea that a first draft is always an over-bloated mess of words. But in reality, there can be some sections that are quite lean – or even missing entirely (“put fight scene here, for example). Your first edit is not just about taking words out – it’s also about putting them in. And yes, this means some of your story will have a “first draft” whilst other parts may be further along. That’s ok. That’s why you do more than one edit.
5) Keep hold of anything you cut
So what about what you do end up cutting? Well, the odd word or sentence you chop or re-word doesn’t need to be held on to (unless it’s really good and you just can’t let go). But if you decide to hack out an entire section, chapter, or even plotline, I’d suggest creating a file to stash these edits in. You may never come back to them, but you may also realise you want to put them back in or that they make more sense further on in your tale. So whilst you’re in edit mode, make sure to hold onto these words.
6) Do more than one edit
The number of times you choose to revise your writing can be quite a personal thing. Personally, I use three as the “standard” to aim for, but each piece of work is different. The first is the hardest, it’s when I really whip things into shape, connect the plot dots, and get it into a readable, coherent stage. This is where I may add or chop a lot of wordage. It probably takes longer than writing the first draft. The second edit is where I really focus on fleshing out everything – characters, descriptions, and any symbolic threads. The third is the proofread stage, fixing typos, formatting, and all the boring stuff essentially. But only you will know when to stop.
7) Get a second (or third, or fourth) pair of eyes
Not literally of course – that kind of thing will get you locked up. But getting someone to read what you’ve written is a useful if daunting step. At work, we always review each other’s work.
Some writers use Beta readers, people you’ve specially recruited to read your work and give you honest and detailed feedback. It’s usually a good idea to put together some questions if there are areas you want specific information on from your Beta reader. Most of the time, people will offer to be Beta readers for free, but be prepared to become someone else’s Beta reader in exchange. It’s all good experience after all.
You may feel more comfortable with a trusted friend whose opinion you value. If they’re prepared to help, this could be an excellent option. Just be clear about timings and exactly what you need from them.
So those are some editing tips. What other tips and tricks do you use? Please share in the comments.