When it comes to our novel, this is the moment we must be extremely honest with ourselves and be ready to face the chopping block. It can be difficult to determine what is necessary when we’re editing and that’s because we’re attached to our stories. And of course we are, they’re our babies! But what are some practical steps to keep in mind when we are going through the editing process? Here are just five:
1. Do Not Write and Edit:
It can be extremely tempting to cut an entire section, sentence, character or chapter of our story when we feel it in the moment. While we’re writing we are keen to our work flow. If something just doesn’t feel right, we might be quick to stop what we’re writing and be rid of it. However, that is not usually the best idea. If you acted on the impulse, later on in your story you might realize you in fact did need that section or that character. Worse yet, it might surprise you to find that if you do in fact edit while you write, the flow of your story may have some very noticeable hiccups. Don’t interrupt your flow! Do not expect perfection your first time writing, either! Don’t focus on the flaws while you write, focus on the flow. As Margaret Atwood once put it:
“If I waited for perfection, I would never write a word.” Keep in mind, it is important to separate work and pleasure. Let your mind stay succinct with what you’re writing. Later, when your mindset is clear and ready to cut away, when it is ready to get real, then you can read through with editor’s eyes. Meanwhile, don’t kill the flow!
2. Ask Yourself: “Is this Vital to the Plot?”:
When the time has come for us to face the chopping block, it is vital to ask ourself one continuos question throughout: “Is this vital to the plot?” Now, what do I mean by that question? While your story progresses it is of utmost importance to keep your characters’ goals, your story’s message, and the eventual outcome as constant threads. That is after all what your story is made up of. So, when you face a section of your story you are not sure about, whether it be a scenario, a sentence, a character, or even a whole chapter, ask yourself: Is this VITAL to the plot? If it’s not- get rid of it. If it is not moving your story along in any way, the reader will get bored! This includes too much description or extra sentences that the reader will just skim in order to get to “the good part”. Now, this one area I myself have a tough time with. I have to constantly look at my work and ask this question. It helps me to think the way the reader will think. In fact, I was recently editing my first fantasy story, what I like to call “my eight year saga”. Because, yes it took eight years to write and edit. Talk about baby-attachment concerns! But, as I was editing, I realized there was an entire ten page chapter that was completely unnecessary. I had to be honest with myself and realize it was time to chop it completely. This is when editing our own novel can become dangerous, but we must remain as un-attached and critical as can be.
3. Ask yourself: “Why Does the Reader Care?”:
Another vital question to ourself while we edit is: “Why does the reader care?” this is especially important when it comes to our characters. The reader will only grow more attached to your characters, the more they care about the issues they face. If there is no reason for the reader to care about what happened to the character, get rid of the circumstance! Taking this point to the next level: make sure each one of your characters has a purpose in the story. There can be no “extra” characters. Think about your characters like a boss running a business. All the workers you employ have an important job, down to the janitor. There are no unnecessary workers. They all keep the objective of the business moving forward. If you think about some background characters of a favorite book or movie, you can think of their purpose, right? You can name why they have been mentioned, even if it was just once. Make sure your characters do the same, no matter how small a purpose, make sure they are truly there for a reason.
4. Make the Dialogue Purposeful:
Dialogue is a major factor in moving the story along. Dialogue should serve to move the plot forward just as much as character’s actions do. While some can argue that dialogue serves to expose the character, as oppose to the plot, it’s truly not the only purpose dialogue serves. Dialogue should be not only building the character, but also pushing the plot forward. This means it is important to be discerning. If the characters talk quite a lot throughout the story, but each interlude is akin to “small talk”, then they’re already talking too much. As Raymond E Feist put it, “If you are writing without action, your characters are nothing but ‘talking heads’, and if they are ‘talking heads’ they better be saying something important”. In line with that thought, I think K.M Weiland, of Jane Eyre The Writer’s Digest Annotated Classic puts it best when he says, “The only dialogue that needs to be in your story is dialogue that moves the plot forward, develops characters, or preferably both.”
5. Don’t use a Butcher’s Knife, use an Exact-o Knife.
Now I know I just basically finished saying heartlessly wielding the editor’s machete is the only way to edit. But, keep in mind that you want to be precise when it comes to chopping. You want to discern what is fat and what is meat, and be sensible about it. Sometimes, yes this means being brave enough to throw away the whole story if you have logically discerned that it’s all just trash. But, more often than not, simply being discerning and being honest about your story delivers a most satisfying editing result. And, if you need help from an extra pair of eyes, then that too is advised. In fact, that’s really a vital step an author should take before selling their product.
Well those were just five steps I have found help when editing a story. But what about you? What tricks do you find help your editing process be more effective? Write in the comments section please, I’d really love to hear your thoughts!
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