14 September 2018

8 things to remember when embarking on your edit

Lisa O'Donnell, Author and Creative Writing Tutor
by Lisa O'Donnell Writing Tips

When you’re preparing to send your novel off to agents and publishers, ask yourself if you’ve really done enough at that vitally important stage of the process: Editing.

All too often, once a writer has got all the words down in a complete draft, they’re way too eager to rush forward to the submission moment. Don’t be one of those writers!

But editing can be tricky – you may find it hard to know where to start, so here’s a list of points to consider:

  1. Is it too long?   Writers hate to part with their prose, and I’ve heard every excuse there is to avoid cutting. But epics like Middlemarch were written at a very different time – when eight volume novels with a large cast of garrulous characters were all the rage. These days a word count of over 100,000 can put off agents and publishers.  Always think: why are you including this particular thing in your story? What’s the purpose of this sentence, paragraph, chapter? If you want to shape your novel into a story people want to read, then you NEED to edit.
  2. Do you really need all those characters?
    Can you combine two of your characters into one? Does anyone remember Mary from Pride and Prejudice? She was one of the Bennet sisters. No, I don’t either. So, find your Mary Bennet.  You don’t need her.
  3. Adverbs should be subtle – only use adverbs if they’re adding meaning, and get rid of them if you’re over-stating. Readers don’t need you to highlight the obvious, and sentences read more sharply without unnecessary padding.
  4. Get rid of long sentences.  Cut em in half.
  5. Eradicate repetition. Writers often say the same thing twice. Comb your novel for this. We’re all keen for our reader to understand everything, but your reader is smart. Trust them to notice and understand the first time you told them your character was allergic to almonds.
  6. Go over your dialogue. It always needs an edit in my experience. Remember people talk in short clipped sentences.  Large monologues reek of exposition and only lecturers and dull politicians speak that way – oh, and bad guys in movies who are about to kill you and then don’t. Also check those speech tags (“said”, “asked” –  but also, and far worse  “intoned”, “chorused” etc). Do you need them? Also, beware of describing feelings in your dialogue. ‘“That’s amazing,” she cried happily.’ If the narrative is doing its job we won’t need the note about her happiness. Let your dialogue imply feeling. Less is more.
  7. Dump fillers like “very” and “really” and “suddenly” – they don’t add anything and they clutter up your prose.
  8. And finally … Every writer knows what’s not working in their novel or are aware of problematic areas. Ask yourself what you’d change if you had the time, and then make the time – or your reader won’t.

For some more useful guidance on the editing process, take a look at our Edit and Pitch Your Novel course.

You’ll also get lots of space to hone and edit your manuscript on our longer selective courses, working closely with a published author, either in London or online.

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