Contents


Revision and editing

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Revision and editing

Revision and editing - Man in thought sitting at desk

In this chapter we’ll look at:

Hemingway on manure
Dead wood
Effective detail
Cause and effect
Resisting the urge to explain
Separating subject and verb
The active tense
Strong verbs
Specific nouns
If in doubt, cut it out
Eliminating cliches
Ejecting twee phrases
Exterminating tautologies

Hemingway on manure

The following quotes on revision are by Ernest Hemingway.

“The first draft of anything is manure.”

“I write one page of masterpiece to ninety-one pages of manure. I try to put the manure in the wastebasket.”

“The most essential gift for a good writer is a built-in, shock-proof, manure detector.”

He didn’t say ‘manure’…

Dead wood

Some people think that writing is all about churning out reams of detailed description and long passages of dialogue. They’re wrong. Readers don’t judge a writer by how much they’ve written (this would be like valuing a statue by how much it weighed) they judge them by their ideas and how effectively they express them. Bad writing tends to be over-long and rambling; good writing is short and to the point.

When you’ve finished a piece look at every word and sentence you’ve written and ask yourself if it’s absolutely necessary. You’d be surprised how much of your writing is dead wood that can be cut out. Let’s say you’ve written the following:

“Michael walked down the corridor got into the lift and went down to the ground floor. He left by the main doors. Outside the chilly air of the evening made him shiver.”

The above is okay, but it would be better to write something like this:

“Michael left the building. Outside the chill evening air made him shiver.”

Or even this:

“Michael left the building and shivered in the chill evening air.”

By removing much of the background information (assuming these details are of no importance to the story) we’ve turned a long, stodgy, convoluted paragraph into a single short, crisp sentence.

Effective detail

Little things mean a lot. It’s the small details in writing that bring a character to life and add realism to a situation, but too much unnecessary detail gets in the way. Let’s say your protagonist enters the living room of a suburban house…

“She opened the door and looked inside. The lights were on and the pale green curtains were drawn. Inside the room were three armchairs, a sofa and a beanbag. Next to the sofa was a Japanese television set. The wooden flooring was partially covered by a rug on top of which was a glass-topped coffee table. Sitting on the tabletop was a pile of magazines and a copy of yesterday’s newspaper. Above the fireplace a portrait of Great Uncle Jasper faced the door…”

Is all this necessary? Does it matter that the television is Japanese or the coffee table is standing on a rug? It might do if you’re writing a detective story and inviting the reader to look for clues, but in most cases it won’t matter at all. Everyone has a mental image of a living room and everyone’s picture will be much the same. Most people would expect a living-room to have curtains, somewhere to sit, a television etc so unless this room is radically different from the average there’s no need to describe it in detail.

Unnecessary details breaks up the flow of the story and causes confusion. If you highlight a detail the reader will expect it to be important and mean something. Unless you’re describing surroundings that will be unfamiliar to the reader (such as the inside of a Roman temple) the only things you should describe are the features important to the story.

Going back to our example, it might be important for the reader to know that a copy of yesterday’s newspaper is in the room. Perhaps the occupant of the house had denied knowledge of a news event — in which case the paper might show they were lying. In the same way, if the house is being haunted by Great Uncle Jasper it’s worth mentioning that his portrait is hanging above the fireplace — especially if it’s revolving on the wall.

Other details to include are those that help define character. If you want to present the person living in the house as a slob you’ll want to alter the room’s description to reflect this: mention that the coffee table is covered in sticky rings, the rug has food trodden into it and the windows are dirty. And don’t forget your other senses — describe the buzzing flies tapping at the window; the sour smell of unwashed clothes, the rank taste of the pizza slice that turns out to be two weeks old.

The following much-admired snippet is an example of detail used well. 

“Wilson sat on the balcony of the Bedford Hotel with his bald pink knees thrust against the ironwork.”

The above is the first sentence of Graham Greene’s novel The Heart of the Matter. It might not seem like much at first glance, but think about how much is revealed by those 18 words. From these few details we can conjure up an image of Wilson (unappealing and middle-aged; probably paunchy and balding) the hotel (old fashioned and colonial) and — because he must be wearing short trousers — the location (somewhere hot and tropical). From the fact that Wilson is pressed against the ironwork we can even guess that he’s at the edge of the balcony looking out at something. It’s a piece of great writing because it reveals so much with great economy.

The same principal applies to visual media where a few well-placed actions can deliver reams of information. At the start of the movie The Treasure of the Sierra Madre there’s a sequence where we watch Humphrey Bogart’s character leap on a cigarette butt that someone discards in the street. It’s a simple and effective way of showing us just how down-at-heel and desperate he is; someone who’s lost all sense of dignity and will probably risk anything to better himself.

Detail checklist

Does you reader have enough detail to picture the scene in the way you intend?

Does any of your detail get in the way? The author Roger Zelazny recommended limiting a character’s description to three traits to avoid overloading the reader.

Are your details ‘telling’ ie do they reveal information beyond the obvious. A striped shirt is a striped shirt; but a frayed collar on an expensive shirt suggests someone who’s fallen on hard times.

How is detail described? Do you use all a character’s senses?

Are the details you reveal the ones your character would notice or be aware of?

How do your characters react to the information revealed by detail? If they don’t react, why mention it?

Cause and effect

Make sure that each action (effect) has a cause. Take the following:

“Gerald got up from his leather armchair and stepped to the window. Looking out, his face was briefly illuminated by the headlights of a silver Aston Martin as it glided into the courtyard.”

The problem with the above is that Gerald seems to have extra-sensory perception. How does he know there’s anything outside to look at? A better way of writing this passage would be:

“Seated in his leather armchair Gerald heard a car approaching the front of the house. Stepping to the window his face was briefly illuminated by the lights of an Aston Martin as it glided into the courtyard.

Here cause and effect are clearly stated: Gerald hears a car so he gets up to investigate. Reversing cause and effect is confusing to the reader and while occasional incidents might not ruin a story too many will spoil the flow. Think of your story as a path the reader is cycling down and these inconsistencies as bumps. No-one minds an occasional rattle but string too many together and it’s like cycling down a cobbled road — an exhausting pain in the backside.

In the same way that each effect (action) should have a cause, make sure that each cause results in an effect. If Gerald hears a car coming towards the house and doesn’t react in some way (even if it’s only wondering who it might be) what’s the point of mentioning it?

An exception to the proper ordering of cause and effect is the almost instantaneous reaction we have to startling events. Let’s say Gerald’s wife Jenny creeps up behind Gerald’s chair and explodes a fire cracker (she’s fun like that). Here you’d be justified in describing Gerald’s reaction before showing the cause because this is what happens in real life.

Resist the urge to explain

Sometimes abbreviated as RUE, the urge to explain is a trap many writers fall into. It’s tempting to pepper text with additional information to ensure the reader ‘gets’ the point, but in most cases it’s overkill. If the writer shows the way from A to C, then the reader can probably figure out B for themselves. Over-explanation is often just another variety of dead wood (see above). For example:

“The traffic crawled along. George checked his watch. He was going to be late again; the third time this week. His boss, Beryl, had bawled him out last month about his near constant tardiness and she’d made it plain that he was now under her eagle eye. The company was cracking down on late starters and today might be his last working for Fishwick Accounting.”

Is all the above relevant to the story? Do we need so much explanation? Some of the information is repetitive (he’s late — we get it) perhaps the following would be sufficient?

“The traffic crawled along. George checked his watch. He was going to be late; the third time this week. After his last angry encounter with his boss she’d made it clear that poor time-keeping would cost him his job.”

This sets up George’s problem nicely and if it’s important that we get to know about the fearsome Beryl and the goings-on at Fishwick Accounting these story elements can be introduced in later scenes.

Separate subject and verb

Additional information crammed between a subject and its verb gets in the way. For example:

“The chicken, clucking happily at the thought of the grain spill on the other side, crossed the road.”

Would read better as: 

“The chicken crossed the road, clucking happily at the thought of the grain spill on the other side.”

In the same way:

“The zombie with arms outstretched and a gleam of madness in its dead eyes, stomped towards him.”

Is better as:

“The zombie stomped towards him, arms outstretched, a gleam of madness in its dead eyes.”

Use the active tense

Rephrase sentences so they’re active. For example:

Passive: The ball is chased by the dog.
Active: The dog chases the ball.

Passive: A meeting will be held by teachers next week.
Active: Teachers will meet next week.

Passive: The town was struck by a tornado.
Active: A tornado struck the town.

Active phrases are more economical and more direct and punchy as a result. Changing passive phrases to active ones makes your writing fresher and more powerful.

Use strong verbs

When thinking up verbs don’t settle for the obvious choice. We could write ‘The cat sat on the mat’, but the word ‘sat’ is a tad boring. We want to do something stronger and more interesting. How about:

the cat sprawled on the mat;

the cat crouched on the mat, or 

the cat lounged on the mat?

Sprawled, crouched and lounged are more descriptive than sat and paint a more dynamic, vivid mental image for the reader.

Use specific nouns

As with verbs don’t always settle for the obvious noun. We could write ‘The dog chased the ball’, but it will help to set the scene if we’re more specific. How about:

the mongrel chased the ball;

the Bulldog chased the ball, or

the drooling mutt chased the ball?

Avoid general non-specific nouns such as man, dog, car, woman, bird etc. Describing a scene using non-specific nouns is like taking a picture using a camera with a faulty focus, we can see what’s there, but not very clearly; using specific nouns makes the picture clear and sharp.

If in doubt, cut it out

If you have doubts about something — consider getting rid of it. If you have strong doubts — cut without delay. The same applies to ‘gems, jokes and brilliant strokes’ your favourite turns of phrase that you know, deep down, don’t make the grade.

The Victorian author Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch was saying the same when he advised writers to “Murder your darlings”.

If you really can’t bear to lose your gems add them to your ideas notebook for a rainy day (see Tools of the trade).

Eliminate clichés

Clichés are phrases that have been over-used. Too many clichéd expressions in your writing will make it sound unimaginative and predictable. Examples are: 

safe and sound
acid test
crushing defeat
sweeping changes
bitterly disappointed
sickening thud
crystal clear
broad daylight
mounting pressures
root cause
well-earned break
far-famed

There’s nothing wrong with these expressions in themselves — some are very evocative — the trouble is they’re so good they’ve become a familiar fallback and are now rather stale. Your challenge is to think of something that’s equally good, but new and fresh. 

Eject twee phrases

Phrases that might be classed as twee are:

the long arm of the law
stranger things happen at sea
over-egging the pudding
the best thing since sliced bread
tip of the iceberg
sweep under the rug

These expressions might have been clever when they were first thought of, but like the clichés above they’ve grown tedious.

Exterminate tautologies

A tautology is a repetition. An obvious tautology would be ‘The thin man was very skinny’. Here we could get rid of thin or skinny and keep the same meaning. Other examples are:

They were a pair of twins (twins always come in pairs)
He brought out his new invention (all inventions are new)
He was the victim of a brutal murder (can you think of a murder that isn’t brutal?)
The true facts of the case (all facts are true)
The final outcome (outcomes usually are final)
She had a bad past history (the history is always past)
He was an invited guest (guests are always invited)
It rose up from the depths (if something rose it could only be going up).

Not all tautologies are obvious. The sentence ‘Take the ingredients and mix them together’ sounds okay, but if you think about it we don’t need ‘together’ at all. If ingredients are to be mixed they have to be together. A better way of writing this sentence would be: ‘Mix the ingredients.’

Read it out-loud

A good way to review your work is to read it out-loud. This often exposes poor grammar and spelling mistakes and is a good way of improving your style: putting a voice to your words makes you concentrate on the rhythm of your writing.

Reading like this can also help you detect false notes in your writing; little things (jarring details, convoluted dialogue, clumsy syntax) that remind your audience they’ve become engrossed in a fabrication.

Rewriting

Few writers are happy with the first draft of their work. They might like what they’ve done on the day they write it, but the next time they pick it up its many flaws leap off the page. This can be disheartening, but it’s a phenomenon almost every writer will recognise. Writing a bad first draft doesn’t mean you’re a bad writer, but to be a good writer you have to improve on that first draft to create a better second draft, and then improve on that to create a better third…

Once you’ve finished your first draft put it away for a time (a week or two at least) before reading it again. A long break gives you a new perceptive and allows you to look at something with fresh eyes. You might be surprised at the changes that suggest themselves to you.

If you’re using a word processor a quick and dirty way of gaining a new perspective is to change the font of the text. You get used to seeing the same words laid out in the same way and your mind tends to gloss over errors, seeing what ought to be there rather than what is there. Changing the format can help you break out of this mental rut.

Printing out a paper copy is another way to change format, but an alternative is to covert your text to PDF document and annotate it with any changes you want to make. The professionals use Adobe Acrobat to annotate PDFs but this is expensive. If you’re writing on a Macintosh your free Preview software can be used to mark up a PDF. For PCs two free applications are Foxit Reader and PDF-XChange Viewer.

Getting advice

Once you’ve re-drafted and corrected obvious flaws, start thinking about showing your work to other people. Approach anyone you think might be interested in reading your work (a friend, parent, teacher, co-worker) and ask them to look it over. Some people will try to be kind and automatically say your work is brilliant, but while this kind of response is encouraging, it’s not helpful. Choose people who’ll give you an honest response and be prepared to take some knocks.

Professional help

There are freelance editors who can help you draft your work. Some offer a critique service pointing out areas for improvements; while others provide a more intensive copy editing service (copy editors help redraft text; proof readers confine themselves to correcting errors in spelling, punctuation and style). However, these services are not cheap and costs on a large project are likely to mount up.

For more information on editing services try the following:

In the UK, the Society for Editors and Proofreaders (http://www.sfep.org.uk/).

In the USA, the Editorial Freelancers Association (http://www.the-efa.org/).

When am I finished?

Since everything can be improved upon it can be hard to decide when it’s time to stop redrafting. As a rule your manuscript should go through at least three rewrites: your first tackles major issues; your second fine tunes; and the third polishes. But at the end of the day you’re the only person who can say when your work is ready to be seen.

But don’t leave it too long. Some writers continually refine their work over many years. This often isn’t because they think they’re making dramatic improvements; it’s because they’re afraid of rejection. They’re afraid their work won’t be liked and all their effort will have been wasted. It’s a vicious circle — the longer they put off sending out their writing, the more effort they put into it, the greater their fear of rejection becomes, and the stronger the urge to hang on to it…

Don’t fall into this trap. You have to let it go eventually. And if someone doesn’t like it, it’s not the end of the world (see Rejection).


Main image: Everrett Collection c/o Shutterstock

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