Writing Craft

20% of the Best You’ve Got

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Carroll County News

Editing is misunderstood by newbie writers. What does it mean to edit? How is it done? What gets edited?

The concept of editing implies the existence of a draft. A draft is what gets edited.

Now a draft contains a beginning, middle and end. It’s not finished, but it’s complete. Like a newly-hatched bird, all its parts may not be fully developed, but they are all there.

A draft is not an idea, no matter how brilliant, complex, and well thought out. It’s not an outline, a synopsis, or a discussion of your theme.

A draft is your story, start to end, spewed out in words on the page. It’s very rough. It may have dead ends. Characters may walk on, say hello, and never be heard from again. Your cast of thousands may become an unruly mob. You may have settings described only as “a room in the castle with bats and rusting armor.” Your characters may all sound alike and speak in monosyllabic grunts.

But it’s still your story, from beginning to end.

Obvious? But many a newbie writer faces the blank page, as paralyzed as a deer in headlights, because he thinks he’s supposed to write a finished piece, polished, elegant, perfectly plotted, with just the right buildup of tension, and characters who develop like yeast rolls.

So the newbie writer can’t begin. Or he begins and then he changes the beginning. Or he begins earlier in the story. Or later. Now we have many beginnings. But no middle and certainly no end. And no draft. And nothing yet to edit.

I think of the first draft as 20 percent of the best writing I can do. If I’m going to edit my story five times, that means that each time, it should improve in quality by 20 percent. And most importantly, that means that the first draft only has to be the initial 20 percent.

How freeing this is! As I write my draft, I don’t have to go back and change the beginning. Or cut out that character I decided I don’t want. I don’t have to worry about how many times I’ve repeated myself. I only have to worry about one thing. Beginning, middle, and end. Words spewed on the page. And before I know it, I’ve got a draft. And now, it’s time to edit.

In my last column, I told you that one thing to edit out is repetition. I told you that 1 + 1 = ½. In other words, each time you give the same information twice or show me something about plot or character twice or repeat anything, its power is weakened. So on my first careful rereading of my story, I make every word fight for its life. It must give the reader something new. It must tell something more about a character or it must take the plot forward. If it doesn’t, it gets cut. That’s editing.

Newbie writers tend not to trust their readers. They want to show the reader a scene and then summarize it and then explain what it means. They want to tack on a little moral. All of which is repetitious. Edit that out. But repetition was the editing lesson for my last column. (I’m repeating myself.)

This week’s editing exercise is easy. Take a piece of your work and see how many times you’ve used the word “just.” Take them out. How many times did you use the word “so” to mean “very?” Take them out. Did you use the word “very?” Make it fight for its life. It must be absolutely necessary to the meaning of the sentence or out it goes.

How many times did you start a sentence with “There was” or “there is?” Take them out. “There was a cat on the railroad track” becomes “A cat was on the railroad track.” And then, use a strong verb in place of “was.” “A cat crouched on the railroad track.”

Look at every sentence, one at a time, and take out every unnecessary word. Replace every verb with the strongest, most vivid verb you can find. That’s editing.