Good writing includes editing. Just look back at an email you dashed off in haste, and you will likely wince at something. Editing encompasses many levels of intensity from basic proofreading to substantial reworking and rewriting. To produce professional and effective fiction, the manuscript editing will go far beyond merely proofreading.
Whether a short story or novel is being submitted to a publisher or headed for self publishing, it needs to be thoroughly edited and assessed from many angles. Editing strives to create flow with smooth transitions, maintain clarity, cut out unnecessary repetition, and includes a variety of tiny to huge adjustments that make the difference between a block of stone and (hopefully) Michelangelo's David.
Editing is commonly believed to best be done by a competent person other than the writer. Although the critical eye of another is great, any writer should also assess his or her work by switching gears and looking at the work from the editing perspective instead of the writing perspective. However, a writer is often emotionally attached to a work and reluctant to approach the creation with the attitude of an over demanding, never-satisfied father. Overcoming the protective impulse to cling to an original draft as divinely-driven art will serve any writer well.
Editing also takes much effort. A writer might thankfully turn over a manuscript to an editor like after laboring to plant a garden and then assigning someone else to weed and harvest it. However, many writers do not have the luxury of an available competent person who can polish work for an audience.
All writers want to be considered a good writer, and this requires editing. You may be trying to break into fiction markets with short stories and you need to submit your very best to get noticed. To do this you should approach editing as another and enjoyable part of writing. You will enjoy making your work better, sometimes much better. While editing, you will learn about how you write and you will see what you are good at and what you need to fix.
For example, I often find when editing my initial drafts that I flopped through three sentences to say one thing. Usually I can harvest the good bits from each sentence and then combine them into one strong sentence. To do this, I weigh the nuances of each sentence and judge whether I am actually giving out good details or repeating myself needlessly.
Having spent many years writing fiction, which includes editing and rewriting, I have developed a checklist that keeps me on track when editing fiction. I apply most or all of the questions on this checklist to every chapter during the editing process. Remember, the goal is for you to be your toughest critic and for all other critics to love you.
Fiction Editing Checklist
- Is it bad? Be honest. Do you like what you wrote? Can you imagine others liking it? You really must be able to say yes to this fundamental question before being satisfied.
- What is the lead like? Good, bad, indifferent? By lead, I mean how does the chapter or short story start? Is it compelling? Does it arouse interest or excitement? Don't let an otherwise great story start like assembly instructions for an entertainment center.
- What is the action like? With this question, I analyze what is happening in the story. First of all, is anything happening? Do not let the narrative feel like being stuck in a traffic jam (unless the action is being stuck in a traffic jam). This is a very subjective question for the writer/editor. Basically, you need to decide if events are moving the story and thereby maintaining the interest of the reader.
- Are you having a good mix of dialogue, narrative, and action? I use this question to avoid stringing together 80 lines of dialogue. Too much he said and she said in a row does not suit narrative fiction. Non-dialogue elements about the characters, setting, and action need to be mixed with dialogue in order to build the word pictures necessary for fiction.
- Are you moving the plot along or are you fooling around? It's easy as a writer to start enjoying your characters and exploring tangents or minute details of their lives. Some of this might be essential to story and character development, but let it go too far, and the reader could become bored. Do not let narrative wanderings dilute a story until it is about as interesting as waiting for your number at the DMV.
- Do the actions of the characters make sense? Readers need to understand or at least have some clues as to why a character does or says something. If a character does something completely out of character, does the story explain why? Characters are often like chess pieces. They can only move in certain ways. Essentially, I am cautioning against making a character do something just because the writer needs that thing done. It must come down to would the character do that and, if so, under what circumstances?
- Do you think the plot twists and turns are acceptable? Do they appear contrived? You want a natural flow.
- Are you appealing to the senses? Does imagery occur often enough to build a setting? Are you doing it too much?
- Are you watching for places in the story that drag? Can you think of a way to pick it up? Does the dragging portion need to be cut? Or is a pause from the action necessary?
- Is the dialogue necessary or should it be replaced with narrative? Sometimes you don't need to write out mundane conversation with quoted character dialogue. Sometimes it's much better and efficient to simply writing narrative such as: Becky asked her dad when her mom would be home. He said he didn't know.
- Does the dialogue match the character for language skills, vocabulary, intelligence, emotion and knowledge?
- Can the reader identify with the characters in any way? Does anything ring true?
After analyzing and editing your work with the above questions, you have surely improved your writing. The last thing on my checklist is to tell yourself that you did a good job.