The difference between successful writers and unsuccessful writers is editing. That might sound like a bold statement but it’s true. No one writes well the first time. I thought this week I’d give a few tips on how to go back to your work and edit it effectively.
1. Leave writing to rest
Sometimes you have a tight deadline and you don’t have days to leave your writing, then give it an hour. Walk away. Go eat lunch. Then come back to it. You’ll be surprised how important that break is, enough to let you see errors you were blind to see before. The longer you can leave it to rest the better.
2. Read it out loud
You might feel silly but reading your work out loud is very effective. You will hear awkward sentence structures. You will hear words that are repeated too close to each other. For me, this is one of my most important tools during the editing process. I read 80,000 word novels out loud. If I’m in my office and I’m speaking, I am not talking to myself, I’m editing.
3. Edit only after you’ve finished your rough draft
This is my way of doing it but not the only way. I let my ugly rough draft come out on the page any way it can get there. I don’t edit; I don’t judge it. I just want it out. This allows the creative part of my brain freedom to go where it wants without my editing rule-following parts to stop it.
4. Check for inconsistencies
I’ve had characters switching names along the way. They change age and hair colour, even partners. I limit this during my writing by keeping handwritten notes of important facts regarding the people and places I’ve made up.
On which street does Osego live? What year did Mike have his accident? How old was Stella when her mother disappeared? Check if your facts are right, but also more nuanced aspects. For example, if Libby is a free spirit why is she so upset that her best friend is quitting school? Insecure Lesego easily gets over her boyfriend cheating on her—does that make sense? These are inconsistencies you should pick up during your edits. Yes, people can be complicated, but the reader needs to see some motivation behind that. Maybe Lesego has Boyfriend No. 2 already waiting on the side, or perhaps Libby is not the person she likes to think she is.
5. Be careful of long complicated sentences
Long sentences can make reading unnecessarily difficult and can hide your meaning. Use simple, straight forward sentences.
6. Avoid clichéd writing
We all know how to avoid clichés such as: thick as thieves, pot calling the kettle black,
These might be phrases such as Nubian goddess, tear rolling down the cheek, smooth as silk, lump in his throat. These are not clichés in the literal sense but they are so overused that they become unexciting and nearly meaningless in your writing.
They are indications of lazy writing. Take time to think of new, exciting ways to describe what is happening.
This will keep your readers interested. Even entire plots can be clichéd. The poor boy making it and becoming rich. The jealous wife poisoning the husband. The butler did it. Avoid such storylines.
7. Be ruthless
Sometimes it is hard, but you must remove what is not working.
Try to look at your work objectively. Yes, that particular sentence might be beautiful, but if it does not move your plot forward, if it is awkward in the flow of your story—it must go.
8. Don’t trust your word processing programme
Those squiggly blue lines under words are sometimes wrong. Don’t rely exclusively on your spell checker either. Both of these can lead you astray.
9. Avoid useless words
“She was really beautiful”—Is that really needed? If you felt beautiful alone was not enough, you could say: “She was gorgeous”. Often we think we’re adding words to bring a stronger effect but in fact we’re repeating ourselves. “The judge was absolutely right.” Either she is right or wrong, the absolutely is hanging about doing very little work in the sentence. Also, be careful with adverbs and adjectives; try to use stronger verbs and nouns instead. For example: “He ran quickly to the front door” could be improved by removing the adverb quickly and writing: “He dashed to the front door”. Stronger nouns make sentences more exciting too.
10. You’re never done but you have to be
At some point you need to say: enough is enough. I have a quote on my office wall which I read often: “Perfection is the enemy of greatness”.
Your writing will never be perfect. I often edit my writing in a published book just before a public reading. This is writing that I have edited numerous times and the publisher has hired an editor and a proof-reader to edit it as well— and still I see things that must be fixed. It is how this game is. Try your best and then send it off.