Writing is a fantastic way to pass the time but, eventually, all good things must come to an end and when it does, the editing begins. No matter what you write, everything has to be reviewed, revised, and edited. This is never more important than when you want to submit your work to magazine editors or publishing houses. There is nothing more embarrassing than sending your work out into the big, wide world with a glaring typo on page one.
Every day you hear tales of cringe-worthy spelling mistakes (invitations to ‘pubic’ meetings), misused punctuation (the infamous grocer’s apostrophe e.g. potato’s in place of potatoes), and confusing sentences (“Has anyone really been far even as decided to use even go want to do look more like?” – anonymous 4Chan comment, posted 19th January 2010). So, how do you avoid such gaffes in your own writing? Through proofreading and keen editing, that’s how.
Nobody’s work is perfect right off the bat. A writer’s profession is less about ‘qualifying’ and more about constant on-the-job training. Each time we write (and edit), we learn something new about the language we use, the nuances of grammar and style, and even the voice we adopt. Our brains move so fast through the tangle of words, eager to get them down onto the page, that what we are left with is often a great, but somewhat unrefined, story.
Edited work is the polished diamond, the panned gold, the fired pot. It is NOT an admission of failure nor should it be a reason to beat yourself up. Every writer worthy of the title edits their work; they know it’s the only way to make a good story great (or, in my case, readable…okay, sheesh…passable).
Editing and proofreading tips
1. Treat ’em mean
Have you finished writing your story? You have? Great! Want to edit it? Well tough! I don’t care, stop crying and listen…shut up! I know you’ve worked hard on it and you can’t wait to get it out into the world, but resist the urge. Once you’ve finished writing, the best thing you can do for your sanity story is to forget about it. Let it sit a while before you return to it.
Oi, no peeking!
As your work sits, your subconscious continues to work on it. It mulls over the plot, the characterisation, and the wording – all without the distraction of writing or editing. Your brain starts to notice plot holes and unravel overly complicated plot structures, and you should let it. When you finally return to the story, your brain will know exactly what needs to be done to get the best out of your writing.
How long should you leave between writing and editing? That’s entirely up to you. I often base mine on the length of time I’ve worked on the story i.e. the longer I’ve worked on it, the longer I leave it. For example:
- Flash fiction – leave for a minimum of one day;
- Short story – leave for a minimum of one week; and
- Novel – leave for a minimum of one month.
2. Print it out
It’s been a day/week/month (where did the time go?) and now you’re ready to edit. But, what do you do now? Print your manuscript, of course. I know many writers who prefer to read and edit on the screen but I’m not one of them. I find a paper copy much easier to read and notate. I also find that writing up your notes allows you to rethink potentially rash editing decisions before the damage is done.
3. Read it through
Nothing beats reading through a story when you’re looking for elusive typos, issues with flow, clumsy sentences etc. These things become even more obvious when you read the story aloud. A wrong word or a misused phrase is as jarring as a scratch on a LP (that a huge, flat MP3 player for all the kids out there) and a break in the flow feels like striking a wall. Always read through your story, the whole story, and circle typos/make notes as you go.
Do not try to edit “on-the-fly”, you may regret your changes.
Things to look out for during a read through:
- Breaks in flow
- Strange pacing
- Plot holes
- Unplanned repetition of words/ideas
- Clumsy/confusing/misleading sentences
- Misused/confused words
- Excessive adjectives/adverbs
- Missing or disjointed dialogue tags
4. Be ruthless
The hardest part of editing is knowing when, and having the courage, to cut. This comes with practice and through reading/studying the works of others. Remember, first drafts tend towards being wordy and losing a few extra words won’t hurt it. A general (and I mean general) rule of thumb is:
If the word can be removed and the sentence still means what the writer intended, then that word is superfluous.
5. Get someone else to read it
I’ve already extolled the virtues of beta-readers and this kind of thing is what they’re there for. Trust them to tell you but don’t rely on them; do the work yourself too. No beta-reader? No problem. Anyone with a sense of grammar and spelling will do: friends, family, that lad down the pub nicknamed “The Professor” because he listens to Radio 4 – anyone.
Bonus tip for flash/short fiction writers:
6. Read it backwards
I know how odd this sounds but when you read a story in reverse, the spelling and grammar mistakes are SO obvious. I wouldn’t recommend doing this with your novel though, unless you fancy wearing a jacket with extra-long sleeves by the end.