Ruthless Self-Editing

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Paul Whybrow

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Although the editing process seems interminable to me, I am merciless when it comes to chopping flowery excess from the manuscript. I mean passages where I've shown off my vocabulary with unusual word choice or used ten words to describe something that would be better said in two words.

I start off wielding a machete, before moving on to modifying sentences with a scalpel. After doing that, I turn to artificial aids. I recently re-edited my five novels using the proofreading apps Grammarly, Writely and Hemingway Editor.

They caught stuff I'd missed, as well as offering me useless advice. For instance, Hemingway Editor treats every word that ends in a 'y' as an adverb, suggesting it should go, which is tough on my characters Mary and Gary.

After using the apps, I read the manuscripts as stories, rather than scrutinising them as words to edit. I replaced some adverbs I'd removed, especially in the dialogue said by witnesses—who would naturally be long-winded, unconcerned with talking in a way that would satisfy a book editor!

Editing at the tweezer and scalpel level, while reading my books, also involved reordering the words in some sentences to improve the flow.

I'm really not precious about my writing, afraid to delete passages that don't work, for I always think that I can write something better. That sounds arrogant, but a writer has to have self-belief to get anything accomplished; no one wants to read the scribbling of a ditherer! :confused:

French writer Colette put it well:

"Sit down and put down everything that comes into your head and then you're a writer. But an author is one who can judge his own stuff's worth, without pity, and destroy most of it."

Occasionally, if I've used language that's too florid for a crime story, but which might work in a yet-to-be-written historical novella, I'll store the phrase in a folder on my laptop's desktop.

I'm well-organised in planning a book, including researching facts beforehand, which I think helps the editing process. I'm a combination of pantser and planner. I'd never impose a rigid template on the plot if it involved a character doing something untrue to themselves. My sense of order means that I've never had to do major rewrites. The largest alteration I've made was in the first novel I wrote, in which I reversed the order of two chapters because I'd got a bit ahead of myself in what I divulged.

I came across this quote from children's author Shannon Hale who said: “I'm writing a first draft and reminding myself that I'm simply shovelling sand into a box so that later I can build castles.”

With me, I certainly store sand to build the castle of my story, but my sand is kept in neat turret-shaped tumblers...not heaped in a box.

We all work differently, but I can't help thinking that if you start out shambolically, then you're entering a jungle of writing that's going to need lots of tree surgery when the editing begins. Forget the machete, you'll be wielding a chainsaw! o_O

One form of writing that I find beguiles me into repeated tinkering is poetry. I find it very hard to say that a poem is finished. It may work on the reader to amuse or move them, but what if I'd used a different word in verse 2 or altered the layout?

I certainly wouldn't want to work as a professional editor, and I admire those who can do so, instantly picking out mistakes and knowledgeable about the rules of punctuation and grammar. I've sometimes wondered if everything in an editor's life is perfectly ordered; is editing the perfect job for someone with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder?

How ruthless are you when editing?

Is it hard to follow Steven King's advice?

"Kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler's heart, kill your darlings."

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I tend to follow the approach of: Every sentence needs a reason to exist, if it isn't delivering any new vital information about the plot, character, setting or theme then it isn't needed; kill it, no matter how pretty it is!

I do tend to overwrite and then trim down afterwards. On early drafts I'm not too worried about repetition as making a similar point a few times, usually means that at the editing stage you've got a few options to play with and you can condense similar ideas into the most succinct and eloquent form of the concept possible.
 
Like @Amber I'm not the best to judge of what should be deleted. It was said that half of Wordsworth's poems should have been eliminated, but as he didn't know which half were good and which weren't he kept them all. I hope that doesn't happen to me and my future publisher/editor just gets rid of the stuff that doesn't work... I would have no objections at all. :D
 
I took great inspiration recently from that jokey foul-mouthed writing blogger whose name I forget, that you don't have to kill your darlings, just put them to work. So I've been able to keep a lot of scenes that didn't contribute much to forward momentum, but which I liked, by having them as the occasion for plotty stuff. For instance, I had a funny but pointless scene at the zoo, which I've now turned to use by making it the occasion for a duel challenge. Actually, the mix of the funny with the dramatic actually makes it a better scene than if I'd just had the challenge alone.
Or that's what I think now. Tomorrow I may put a big red pen through it!
 
I took great inspiration recently from that jokey foul-mouthed writing blogger whose name I forget, that you don't have to kill your darlings, just put them to work.

I've always thought it was a crying shame to simply throw away material which doesn't seem to have a place anymore. So I didn't feel too bad about taking out a chainsaw to my work, I simply cut and paste the discarded material into a holding document. That way I can always recycle the choicest morsels whenever I can find a use for them.
 
I've always thought it was a crying shame to simply throw away material which doesn't seem to have a place anymore. So I didn't feel too bad about taking out a chainsaw to my work, I simply cut and paste the discarded material into a holding document. That way I can always recycle the choicest morsels whenever I can find a use for them.
Quite right David, I feel the same way. It doesn't matter to me if someone chops up my work, to make it more suitable but I never totally destroy any of my old copies... you never know what can become of them.:cool:
 
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