National Novel Writing Month came to a close yesterday, and now that you have your 175-page near-masterpiece on paper, it's time to get to the process of editing. We've tallied up a few of our favourite tips from writers and some great apps for editing to help you along your way.
Photo remixed from Joanna Penn.
First You Proofread
You just ploughed through writing an entire novel in a month, so proofreading is a good place to start so you can not only familiarise yourself with your text again but also catch simple mistakes you might have made along the way. Mark Twain has a well-known observation on proofing:
The difference between the almost-right word and the right word is really a large matter. It's the difference between the lightning-bug and the lightning.
The easiest way to quickly proofread a massive tomb of a text is to read it out loud. This helps you catch unnecessary and repeated words and gets you comfortable with how the text might sound to someone else reading it. It's easy to go down the rabbit-hole of editing from here, but on your first glance, it might be best to clean up the language and problems first before you start making drastic changes. You'll be doing this throughout the process, so it's not a big deal if you miss anything at first.
When you're proofreading, keep a list of your most common mistakes on a separate sheet. As you finish, go back into your word processors "find and replace" function and search for those terms and words again. This initial pass will make the editing process easier, because you're less likely to rework a sentence. Keying off Twain again, two words to look for are "very" and "that", as both can often be removed without changing the meaning of a sentence. Also check our list of five repeated words to hunt down.
Photo by Quinn Dombrowski.
Then You Edit And Revise
Editing is the most engaging part if you're willing to make some sacrifices. It can also be the most terrifying, so make sure you save a pre-edited copy before you go in with the knife and start cutting and moving things around. We'll take a look at some editing programs in the next section, but for now, let's look at a few tips to getting the process started.
One of the most comprehensive lists for editing I've heard was from novelist and professor Rick Moody during a lecture in Boulder, Colorado. He outlines his 14 tips for editing a story, which seems to encompass many of the individual tips other authors have shared:
- Omit all unnecessary words.
- Sacrifice modifiers.
- Consider the rhythm.
- Replace "to be" and "to have".
- Simplify tenses
- Spill your parenthetical.
- Avoid alliteration.
- Rethink abstraction.
- Use figurative language sparingly.
- Engage all senses.
- Cut the last sentence.
- Read the passage aloud.
- Put it away.
They're not hard-and-fast rules, but working through this list is a good place to start. When you're editing, you also want to keep track of a things like internal consistency for the larger story. This is especially the case in genre fiction, where you need to watch your timeline and your history. Writers use different techniques for this, but if you have a complex plot, you might consider a simple solution like highlighting difficult sections and making sure they stay consistent with outcomes or other norms. Kurt Vonnegut, for instance, used grids to track progress, and writer and artist Svenja created a series of spreadsheets to track your characters and locations. Which brings us to some of the ways you can use programs to help you edit.
Photo by John Keane.
Apps And Programs To Help You Along The Way
OpenOffice: As mentioned yesterday in our look at protecting yourself from yourself online, After the Deadline is a tool you can add to OpenOffice to keep your grammar, spelling and general language use in check. You'll also want to grab Writer's Tools so you can lookup words in different dictionaries, email backup copies, keep track of your time and more. It's a lot of the functionality you find in Word or one of the fancier manuscript editors, but for free.
Google Docs: The above-mentioned After the Deadline also comes with Chrome and Firefox extensions if you want to get the same features in your Google Docs writing. What makes Google Docs interesting for editing isn't the extensions though; it's the service itself. Unlike Microsoft Word, where you can track changes but not easily revert to an old version, Google Docs saves an extensive revision history accessible under File > See revision history. On the surface, it works like Word's feature, but with the added bonus of not bogging up your display with colours and underlines. If you're editing, this is one of the best ways to compare new and old versions of a text. If you don't fancy Google Docs, Writeboard is another free web app and lets you save multiple versions and revise, compare, and share.
Web apps: If you want another view, you can run your manuscript through a grammar engine to catch the mistakes word processors miss. SpellCheckPlus can detect a number of grammar errors, including hyphenation and tense. Unfortunately, the free version is limited to 2000 words, with the pro version coming in at $US15/year. PaperRater is a similar tool with a word limit, but does a good job of catching clichés and tense changes. AutoCrit Editing Wizard offers one of the most comprehensive checks, but costs $US77-$US117 for a year's access.
Other Hacks: If you're serious about the deletion process, you might consider creating a one-key keyboard with only a delete functionality, so you can concentrate on cutting down your story. You can also rig up your OS's text-to-speech program to read your story to you in a disjointed, robotic tone, which might help you pick up on awkward sentences or verb uses.
Some Advice From The Pros
Everyone has to edit, and authors have certainly weighed in on how they do it. Here are a few tips from the top.
From Stephen King's book On Writing:
In the spring of my senior year at Lisbon High-1966, this would've been-I got a scribbled comment that changed the way I rewrote my fiction once and forever. Jotted below the machine-generated signature of the editor was this mot: ‘Not bad, but PUFFY. You need to revise for length. Formula: 2nd Draft = 1st Draft — 10%. Good luck.
Nick Hornby disagrees with the cutting process a bit in Polysyllabic Spree:
And there's some stuff about the whole winnowing process I just don't get. Why does it always stop when the work in question has been reduced to 60 or 70 thousand words — entirely coincidentally, I'm sure, the minimum length for a publishable novel? I'm sure you could get it down to 20 or 30 if you tried hard enough. In fact, why stop at 20 or thirty? Why write at all? Why not just jot the plot and a couple of themes down on the back of an envelope and leave it at that? The truth is, there's nothing very utilitarian about fiction or its creation, and I suspect that people are desperate to make it sound manly, backbreaking labour because it's such a wussy thing to do in the first place. The obsession with austerity is an attempt to compensate, to make writing resemble a real job, like farming, or logging. (It's also why people who work in advertising put in twenty-hour days.) Go on, young writers — treat yourself to a joke, or an adverb! Spoil yourself! Readers won't mind!"
Of course, you can always wait for National Novel Editing Month if you need another push or you want to give it a little time. Did you make the goal? Will you be editing soon? Share your stories and tips in the comments.