Self Editing

Editing a story, or even worse, completely rewriting one, is something a lot of writers are scared of. There really is no need to be though. We all need to edit. No first draft is ever perfect, or even readable. They tend to ramble, get too wordy, lose their way in a tangle of sub plots and generally get messy. At the very least they need a good run through the spelling and grammar checker.

This is because, when we’re tapping out that first draft, we are being creative, letting the words flow out and the story tell itself. It feels great, especially when you hit that last word and sit back, blow out a satisfied breath and think “Woah, did I really just write all that?”

Well, yes you did, but now it’s time for your creative side to move over and make room for the inner editor, the part of you who spots the typos, the loose threads and the characters who just stand there looking pretty. He (or she) will find all those bits that don’t make sense and all the other things that will get your story thrown into the reject pile.

Sometimes though, it’s hard to see where you went wrong until it’s pointed out to you. This is one of the benefits of having other people to bounce your work off and one of the disadvantages of having PTSD. I find it difficult to commit to regular rounds of critiquing with other people like I used to years ago (back in the days when I frequented Forward Motion and Hatrack, both unfortunately gone), but back then my head wasn’t such a mess . Some days my head is just off on its own and nothing gets done. I easily slip into “can’t be bothered, eat junk instead” mode. Thankfully, sometimes, advice just comes along.

Back in October 2020 I submitted a story to Writers of the Future. I can’t remember which volume or quarter it was but it did get an Honourable Mention which, at the end of the day, is a rejection with glitter on. Anyway I submitted it to a couple of other places and had it bounced back. I couldn’t figure out what was wrong with it, it had got an HM from WotF after all. Eventually I got some feedback from Cosmic Roots and Eldritch Shores (I know, I’ve mentioned them before, but these people are great) and reread it, again, then dumped it on the back burner while I got on with other things.

I took it off the back burner the other day and read it again. Immediately, the feedback having finally filtered through my brain, I saw the problems. It was too wordy. The plot, while good, didn’t really develop the main character and there were parts that weren’t totally clear to the reader. It did have good points, the setting was great, the overall story idea was sound, with caveats. All these things had been pointed out by CRaES, but I just couldn’t see them at first. I also decided I had a couple of superfluous characters in there as well and the main characters needed a different kind of relationship.

I’m not adverse to revising, in fact I’ve actually started enjoying editing after reading Ken Rand’s 10% Solution. I like the way I can trim my stories and reshape them to make them flow better and lose some wordage, thus giving them a wider audience to submit to. It’s much like going out into the garden for the afternoon and pruning fruit bushes. It can be a chore, but somedays the sun is out and it’s a pleasure to be snipping away and, when the job is done, I know I’ll have healthier plants and more fruit come autumn (or summer depending on what I’ve been snipping).

With all this in mind and the problems highlighted (literally, in pink and blue), I set to. The story, which will remain unnamed as some places like to read blind and I intend to send it back out again, weighed in at 12,800 words and I really wanted to get it under 8k. Drastic I know, but 8k would give me more places to submit to.

I’ll go through the process, partly to help anyone else wanting to do the same and also to act as a reminder for me. I’ll also note how long it took.

It needed several passes so firstly I searched for all the places those two characters were mentioned. This enabled me to change scenes to not involve them or actually put their actions and dialogue onto a different character. In most cases I just cut them out altogether. This initial pruning cut 1500 words, though the editor side of my brain had to plug its ears and ignore the writer half screaming. This took an afternoon.

The plot changes were a much more involved task. Firstly I took a printed copy and went through it with a couple of highlighters, found all the places the plot changes needed to be made, where mention was made of things that would no longer exist or be relevant. I marked where loose ends were flapping about and things weren’t quite clear or didn’t match with the new vision I had in my head. Then I went through it all again and made notes on what each required change involved. This process took a day, perhaps a little more, but was done in dribs and drabs between other things (yeah I have a life too).

Next came the actual revision, which took in the region of just over four hours, spread over the week. I chopped out scenes, cut a lot of superfluous bits and trimmed it back to just over 7800 words by the time I’d finished.

It was still looking a bit stale though to be honest. I needed to go back through and chop out any wordiness, repetition, check to make sure it still all made sense and to add a bit more suspense. This took another couple of hours. By this point the word count had been cut to a tad over 7300 words, or by nearly 43%. I must admit I didn’t think I would be able to trim that much off without losing the essence of the idea behind the story, but it really was that wordy.

At this point it was more like a rough draft again so I read it all through to make sure it all still made sense and check I hadn’t made any stupid mistakes. Then I double checked the spelling and grammar and prepared to lunge on into Ken Rand’s 10% Solution. That lasted almost five hours, spread over a couple of days. I can’t recommend this book enough, go get a copy, it’s the best writing book you’ll ever buy.

I then read it out loud to myself (actually part of the 10% solution). It sounds odd, but you really do find a lot of problems that way. What the eye misses the tongue trips over. Another quick edit to smooth out the tongue twisters and the story finally came out at 6900 words.

It’s still the same basic story, just shorter and, I hope, better. Now I’ll let it sit for a few days before reading it through again. Then it can go back out into the big mean world of submissions.

In the meanwhile, I have a story to plot.

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