Monday, December 21, 2009

The Steps of Editing

Recently, I have been planning to edit some of my almost finished work.  As I was poring over some ideas to finish my WriMo novel, Dark Mountain Mean, I was considering the different levels/steps/kinds of editing.  I have always prescribed to the thinking that editing writing (especially fiction), is done in steps or levels.

After an author pounds out the short story or novel, they should read their finished work.  Note that I said "finished."  Too often, we begin the editing process too soon.  Finish first.  Editing is the NEXT step.  When reading through the work for the first time, the author--and those worthy individuals who have volunteered/had hands wrenched behind their back--should edit the work for CLARITY.  Now, clarity is just "does this make sense?"  Are characters doing stupid things?  Did they cry too much, sigh too often, make movements not anatomically possible?  Does time march on or stutter throughout like a PC game played on a bad graphics card?  Did you write "the the?"  Does one of your characters change hair color or change thier last name inexplicably (I've done that).  The first edit is used to iron out easy-to-see deficiencies that as we are writing sound good, but until we actually read them, may not stand out. 

Once this task is completed, a second, more thorough edit must take place.  Where the first edit was simple and very little in way of changing the novel took place, this second edit could potentially fracture your sense of the novel's scenes, characters, structure, and even themes.  It is where many an author will pull out their whiskers (or yank out their scrunchies) in frustration.  The second round of editing will find the author looking for ELEMENTS OF STORY that may hinder the narrative or be off-putting to the audience.  Now, this sounds vague and that is because, well, it is.  Elements of story could be characterization, plot, scenery, time, dialogue, and more.  It could be something specific like comedic timing, a scene out of place, a character left hanging,  or a subplot that does not forward the story and needs lopped off.  It could be something as esoteric as an improper tone or a out of place mood.  As the author and his or her collaborators search the novel the second time (or a third and fourth), they will focus on the application of the story.  The focus will be more on analyzing of the art, but it will take craft to fix these deficiencies.  And sometimes that scalpel will have to be wielded by an unsteady hand.  This is the HARD edit.  This is also potentially the edit that skyrockets your novel or story.  And, sadly, this edit may actually be two to three physical edits.  That means, you may have to do it more than once to get it right.

Once you have pored over your work these three or four times already, you are about to pass out with boredom.  Surely, no one will want to read this.  Well, you have--several times, in fact.  And if you still like it, you will now go through and spit polish it one last time.  This time, you are going to fix all those nagging dangling participles, missing antecedents, run-on sentences and the invariable millions of comma splices that you have left behind in the wake of your previous edits.  This is the GRAMMAR & PUNCTUATION edit that so many dread, but is actually the easiest and quickest edit you will do.  It requires more than a word processor tool kit.  To extract cliches, poor apostrophe usage, and confusing sentence structure, you must manually read each line. But have heart, it can be done.

And now, after baking this potato more than twice, the author is ready to serve up his or her delicacy to an agent or publisher whose mouth is watering for a good yarn.  A story that will capture their imagination, a tale that will be spun that will tickle thier fancy, an outpouring of someone's Muse that will grab their attention.  And, with a little providence, a lotta hard work, and some structured editing, this story is ready to whet the appetite of even the pickiest diner.