Editing, at its essence, has a very simple goal.
“Leave out the parts that people don’t read,” is how crime writer Elmore Leonard described it. Ernest Hemingway agreed, saying, “Less is more.”
Editing is hard work, especially when taking on your own work. There’s a tendency among writers, after agonizing over every word of every sentence in their work, to fall in love with their final product. Every word is precious, every carefully crafted sentence saying exactly what it should say. No more, no less.
But every writer needs an editor. Every writer. Once your work is done to your satisfaction, turn it over to someone you trust. Someone who will view the work with a constructive, but critical, eye. Someone who will point out which areas of your work need shoring up and which areas should be eliminated. Hire a professional, like me, or find a friend or relative who will perform this crucial final step in preparing your manuscript. Make certain that your editor understands your project’s intent.
Before you turn it over, however, do a strong self-edit yourself. This does not mean merely shuffling material around. Moving text on a computer screen is not editing. You should be looking for clarity and conciseness. Some editors try to trim as much as 10 percent of the text on the first pass. This is a reasonable goal. But don’t stop there. Cut once, cut twice, cut again.
Don’t fall into the trap of telling yourself that “It’s all in there.” That may be true, but it’s disrespectful of your readers’ time to make them wade through sloppy prose and disjointed narratives to get to the essence of your stories. That’s your job. Being selective in what you include gives your writing more clout.
Here are some things to look for as you edit your work:
• Eliminate unnecessary adjectives and adverbs. You’ll find them.
• Word choice. Is this the best word for this situation?
• Eliminate jargon, stereotypes, acronyms and weasel words, words which have no real value.
• Simple language. Don’t use dollar words when penny words will do.
• Eliminate any redundancies and unnecessary words, sentences or paragraphs. Does the story work without them?
• Look for short, punchy sentences and paragraphs.
• Look for strong verbs and the active voice.
Tomorrow: How to present your work
This is Lesson No. 22 of a mini-course on how to write a personal history. The course will continue throughout May, which is Personal History Month. To get future lessons delivered to you, you may subscribe to our RSS feed or get e-mail delivery to your inbox. It’s easy. Details can be found in the column to the left of this post.