Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Self-editing . . . editing your own writing

As an editor, the least ‘professional’ first drafts I see are often from my own keyboard.

Most writers I’m working with are kinder souls, and the writing extracts they email to me here at Writeaway are invariably ‘as good as it gets’, from their point of view. I’m spared the porridge I offer myself! In other words, the craft of self-editing needs to be deployed before you pass it around for comment. I assure you even a brief but forensic read will catch more absurd typos and errors than you can shake a stick at, unless, of course, you write with immense care and control in the first place (not advisable for sparkling prose, I suggest). And if, like bread dough, you are able to let the writing prove overnight, you will find your brain refreshed and better able to spot the absurdities it was happy to overlook when your muse was in full flight.

Here’s how I attack my own output: Having left the work for as long a period as practicable, I read through as slowly as I can, talking to myself as it were, or if the cat’s out and I’m alone, reading aloud. The alarming mistakes then become apparent and, if your breathing’s in good form, by reading as though it were for an audience, you will find a rhythm that demands you have correctly inserted commas where small yet critical pauses are demanded, or not. The simple comma, omitted or incorrectly inserted, is more a matter of commonsense than grammar driven. Get your commas under control and your punctuation nightmares will be nearly over.

At this stage, be on the lookout for repeated words and phrases. As you create prose, and thoughts crystallise and are transferred to the page or screen, the fact that you have trawled up, say, the word ‘well’ may well persuade your mind it has found a real winner and, well, it just trots it out again, whenever an opportunity arises. Well, put a stop to it. One well is enough, per chapter, unless you are seeking oil in the North Sea.

Repetition of a word, phrase or sentence, can be a powerful device if used sparingly and appropriately. But, if repetition is rampant, and by that I mean the same word or phrase pops up every page or so, or even in every chapter, then your reader will subconsciously gain the impression that something’s up, and once they notice the trait they can get irritated beyond belief. Beware of unnecessary repetition.

One final thing to be on your guard for: a proliferation of adjectives. Novice writers frequently trundle out far too many of their favourite adjectives. It’s understandable. They write as if they were in ‘police witness’ mode: they believe everything they imagine as seen or heard must be described, down to the last rivet and passing sparrow. Not wise. Storytelling needs to be about balance. And descriptive prose should be reserved for elements of the story that demand to be coloured and conveyed intensively.

A simple example:
“Agnes opened the green kitchen door, removed her soiled and bright orange pinafore and then looked out through the grimy window at the unkempt and overgrown garden where she’d despatched her elderly husband to collect some more earthy parsnips.”
On the above evidence, it’s going to take a few chapters before the poor husband returns to the kitchen with the vegetables. Too many adjectives weaken the nouns they are attached to, and clobber the pace of narrative.

Self-editing should not be regarded as a chore, but rather, an essential part of the writing and creative process. In my next blog, unless distracted, I’ll talk about the value of having an independent assessment of your writing.

Like a good plumber, we know where to tap to clear blockages, . . . but at a fraction of the cost, thank goodness.

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