On editing

As usual, the full and very heartfelt caveat: I have only written one book, ‘The Dating Detox’. My second book is out in December this year. I am a literary neophyte. So when I say things like ‘editing is as important as writing, maybe more so’, you have to remember that I am, well, me.

Editing is as important as writing, maybe more so.

It’s no surprise I think that. I used to be an advertising copywriter. Good copywriters make words work harder. After all, if your customer has a three-second attention span (and all customers do, and for ‘customer’, see: ‘reader’), then your copy must make its point in a fresh, charming and deeply compelling way. Fast.

Here’s an example: in an earlier draft of this post, I wrote:

Good copywriters will edit every line of copy to make it work as hard as possible.

That’s not bad copy, right? Then I changed it to:

Good copywriters make words work harder.

See? Easier to read. Punchier. And – I think, anyway – better. Not all lines should be short, of course, and not all lines needs brevity for impact. But a lot of them do.

Here’s why I think editing is so important: I wouldn’t bother to keep reading a book that was boring me. I want it to delight me, to make me stagger on, eyes devouring the pages, brain racing effortlessly, completely absorbed, barking surprised laughter now and again and grinning and scowling along with the characters. (The plot, obviously, is crucial too, but that’s a different subject altogether. And the best plot in the world won’t shine through sloppy copy.)

That’s why I’m editing my second book right now. I want to cut 5,000 words, hopefully 10,000, without, like, deleting a story arc. The end result will be tighter, faster and – hopefully – better.

And here’s how I’m doing it.

(Now, all authors edit their work, obviously, and all of them have different approaches, so this is just mine.)

Step 1: I read the manuscript backwards. Otherwise I’ll automatically pretend I’m the reader, and analyse character introduction and plot progression. So I read two chapters at a sitting, from the back.

Step 2: I read each paragraph or line twice: once for meaning, and once for sentence structure. And then I whip the words into shape. I shorten or delete sentences, useless clauses, predictable expressions, flubby paragraphs. If I have to choose between charm and clarity, then clarity wins. (I can always be charming somewhere else.) If a sentence just isn’t working but I can’t delete it because it’s important, I try reversing the syntax (I reverse the syntax if the sentence isn’t working). (Ha! Ah, copy jokes. Good times.) If there’s a lot of copy you think might be pointless, but you’re not sure, take it out and put it in a new doc titled ‘copy dump’. That way it’s there if you decide that you need it after all.

Step 3: Repeat Step 2, again and again. And again.

Now, I can’t word-whip more than two chapters at a time. It’s not difficult, but it’s mentally exhausting. My tired brain pretends a paragraph is trim (“Move along! Nothing to see here!”) when it’s actually a big fat mess. So I do something else for an hour or so. Then I go back to it.

I don’t know if The Dating Detox was word-whipped that well. The (very) few times I’ve opened it, I see something I don’t like. I have particular copyfaults – some I’ve mentioned in earlier posts – and I used ellipses (…) far too much. The ellipses were meant to show real conversations, and the narrator’s thoughts meandering. But now I find the ellipses sloppy.

But as mentioned, I’m never that happy with my copy. Ever. I probably sound like I’m being mean to myself, but I’m not, just honest. If I was to give myself a report card, I would write ‘Could do better’. And I like that. Writing is a joy, and the best thing about it is that I’m constantly striving to improve.

And word-whipping is part of the job. It’s gruelling, but it shouldn’t be upsetting.

I wasn’t always so dispassionate about word-whipping.

When I very first began copywriting, I couldn’t bear to delete anything I wrote. Why destroy perfectly good copy? The fact that the line was tedious and/or pointless didn’t occur to me. ‘Perfectly good’ copy isn’t good enough. The moment your reader stops halfway through a sentence and thinks ‘I’m bored of this, I might make some toast’, you’ve lost them.

I don’t get upset about deleting copy anymore because, well, it’s just copy. It’s there because I told it to be there and it’ll move where I tell it to move. And there’s always more of it, from the never-ending word machine called My Brain. Hopefully, I’m getting better at this writing thang. In the meantime, I’m having a very good time trying. Which is, after all, the point.

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