Sunday, 15 May 2011

All the advice you have so far read is wrong: the importance of editing

Advice on writing can be irritatingly contradictory. As if being consistently ignored, being paid below the minimum wage, and trying to train your partner to be quiet when you're trying to work wasn't punishment enough, writers also have to contend with a welter of opposing opinions on the web. You try browsing the internet for support and advice! You'll find yourself bombarded with ridiculous suggestions ranging from "make sure your work has commercial potential", to "make sure you disable your internet connection so your writing sessions can be more productive".

Well, luckily for you, I have read everything the internet has to offer the writer, and I have condensed it down into two points of advice, with two sub-sets of advice on editing underneath. It is yours, to use, for nothing.

1. Keep working. When you feel demoralised by rejection, by the feeling that you are writing into a void, that nobody cares about what you do, that nobody will ever be interested in your work, keep writing.

2. Be your own horse-whip. Every writer needs to learn to look at their own work with a critical eye; not to say that we disparage all of our own efforts, but that we learn to edit objectively our own work. We mercilessly excise that which does not belong, and we don't allow ourselves to get away with sub-standard work.

The importance of editing, for the writer, really can't be overestimated. More than half of the work of writing lays in the rewriting and editing. A writer doesn't only write: she rewrites, she edits, she corrects; she gets pernickity about sentence construction, about making subject and object agree, the consistent use of tense, the considered usage of active or passive verbs; she doesn't let herself run riot with the overuse of adverbs, or words repeated too closely together; she varies the way sentences start, the lengths that they go to, and the way they are punctuated.

Most of all, the skill of editing can come in useful when writing to word limits. Short story competitions and first chapter competitions are important for writers. Chances to get published are rare, and it can be hard to attract the attentions of an agent or publisher when you're not yet out of the starting blocks. Reputable competitions can be a worthwhile avenue for writers to pursue, as they give us chance to get our work recognition.

Many come with a word limit, and with good reason: editors and judges don't have time to read through thousands of words, from thousands of entrants. This fact can pose a dilemma for the wordier among you. When your work naturally runs lengthy, how are you to expunge all those words to get your work within the competition's parameters? Thankfully, I have a couple of suggestions for you wrestling with this very difficulty.

suggestion one: you do the math. If your story is 4822 words long, and the word limit 2,000, simply select the last 2822 words of your story, and hit 'delete'. Hey presto! Within less than one second, you've ensured that your work meets the criteria for the competition. Don't worry too much that the structure is now strangely-lopsided, or that the ending is missing. The sense of intrigue that the judge feels from only reading half the story will compel him to want to read more. Especially if it suddenly cuts off in the middle of a sentence.

suggestion two: remove all of the prepositions eh, who likes a preposition anyway? All they do is go around clogging up your sentences, throwing their weight around and making everything 'too obvious'. This is slightly more labour intensive than your first option, as it means going through every single sentence and removing the words one by one. The results will leave you with a distinct, and rare, 'voice', likely to leave your entry standing head and shoulders above those from the other contestants. If Leo Tolstoy had used this technique for War and Peace, the opening would read "Well, Prince, Genoa, Lucca are family estates Buonapartes. I warn you, you don't tell me means war, still try defend infamie, horrors perpetrated Antichrist- I believe he is Antichrist- I will have nothing more you, you no longer my friend, longer my 'faithful slave,' you call yourself!" The book would have been much shorter and less heavy to carry around; people would take it on holiday and read it on the bus. It would have increased 'readability' and sold a lot more copies in the long run.

I hope you find these advices useful. They're the result of many hard hours' labour and research on my part. Followed carefully, they should stand you in good stead for many successful and happy years' writing!

You're welcome.

Currently reading

Ngugi wa Thiong'o A Grain of Wheat

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