Editing, by Elizabeth Kay
The days of reliable editors in publishing houses and magazines are long gone. Although many of them are still excellent, the changes in English teaching here in Great Britain over the decades have taken their toll. I notice far more mistakes in professionally-published books than I ever did forty years ago. And if you’re considering the self-publishing route, you need to be your own editor which is very hard work. Always remember that writing is about communicating; if you cannot express yourself adequately, without waffling, you won’t achieve the impact you want.
In the commercial world, word-count is very important. Magazines have specific slots to fill, and children’s books may be part of a series with a house style that doesn’t vary. Competitions will have a maximum word-lengths for short stories, and if you run over you’ll be disqualified.
It is always possible to cut, even if it doesn’t feel like it. Honestly.
For the first pass, look at ways of eliminating repetitions, condensing what you say, and cutting out unnecessary adjectives and adverbs. It’s surprising how much you can get rid of this way.
For the second pass, look at the order in which you present information. Would it be more economical to do it another way? Do you have any superfluous characters? If they’re necessary for furthering the plot, can you combine two of them? Do you really need that scene – what does it achieve? Try justifying each sentence to yourself out loud, and asking yourself whether it furthers the plot, develops the characters, and illustrates the theme. Not every scene can do all these things, but it’s something to aim for.
Sometimes it seems as though you’ve edited out important moments to ensure the piece doesn’t over-run. This kind of thing is an integral part of being a professional writer. I have often been required to drastically cut a manuscript – usually because I’ve decided to aim it at a different target. My book for reluctant readers, Fury,
The whole process of doing such a drastic edit was really interesting. You start by getting rid of everything that isn’t vital, and you condense wherever you can. But that’s not enough for a cut this drastic, so plotlines have to go as well. It’s rather like trying to unpick a piece of knitting or embroidery. If you don’t follow the thread all the way back to the beginning you’re left with a question – what happened to the man in the top hat? Where did the horse go? What was the result of the drought? I think we’ve all read books where something has gone unanswered, and neither the writer nor the editor has spotted the problem. It’s an easy error to commit, but it may stop the suspension of disbelief because it’s reminding the reader that this story is a fabrication – it only ever happened in the mind of the writer, not real life.
Don’t be afraid of cutting. All things are possible!