A writer is simply a word for a person who writes. That’s all it takes to ‘qualify’ as a ‘writer’. But published stories and novels very seldom emerge fully formed, or perfect, as if by magic. They undergo many transformations before they reach the shelves. They are rarely, if ever, the raw expression of a writer’s output.
A great part of writing fiction is knowing how, why and when you should edit your own work. This is just one of the points at which honesty enters the equation of writing. The more ruthless you can be about your own work, the better it will be.
So, what counts as editing and when should you do it?
It’s important to balance ‘editing’ against ‘self-censorship’. To write in perfect freedom – to express yourself without self-censorship – is one of the most important aspects of writing fiction. Your aim is to tell a story as you think it should be told, to the best of your ability. Editing, once that piece of work is done, is simply a way of clarifying that intention, of saying more clearly what you mean to say.
For example, you write what you think, at first, is a wonderful opening paragraph. You are very proud of it, understandably so: it is a fine piece of writing. But by the time you’ve finished the piece, something doesn’t ‘ring true’ about those opening lines. ‘But they’re so good!’ You can’t bear to part with them.
- Do they belong in that story, for sure?
- Are they really what you meant to say, or do you just like the way they sound?
Be ruthlessly self-critical and scrupulously honest at moments such as this. You will develop the ability to say what you mean (and not just like what you say: ‘showy’ writing is much easier to achieve than good writing).
Remember to ask:
- What really matters about this scene?
- What ‘adds’ something to the scene?
- What merely adds confusion, detracting from the main point?
After you have written a first draft, interrogate your writing using this editing checklist. Remember that the aim in editing is in many ways the aim in writing: clarity of expression.
- Is it what you meant to say, really?
- Have you found the best way to convey it?
- Would a particular event really have happened that way?
- Would a particular character definitely use that expression or turn of phrase?
- Does an idea or scene really belong where you’ve put it, or would the piece be better if that element was cut?
- Could it be used elsewhere, or on another occasion?
- What’s missing from your story? Details or background information?
- Is there enough to engage your reader?
- Do events occur in the best order and are significant events given enough weight, or are they lost beneath less important things? If so, is that what you intended?
- Does it read too slow, or too fast?
- Overall, does the writing convey the right tone – does it create the mood you hoped for?
Look at your writing through the eyes of a reader:
- Opening sentence. Does it hook the reader?
- Are there any unnecessary/redundant words or phrases?
- Is there an over-reliance on adverbs and adjectives?
- Does the excerpt rely on tired, stock phrases. Does it make use of cliché?
- Does the writing provide easily pictured images/characters?
- If there is dialogue is it convincing and natural?
- Does the writing transport the reader into the writer’s world?
- Does the writing seem crafted and well-considered?
- Is the writing free of poor syntax and typographical error?
- Would you as reader genuinely like to read beyond the submitted extract?
Remember, editing is your friend! An average piece of writing can become a good piece, with good editing.