I am about to embark on a project I have never attempted before: line-editing a piece of my own fiction.
I don’t mean to imply that I have never edited my fiction before, but I have not tried to trim and tighten it in a systematic way. My storytelling process was write, read back, change words and sentences that stood out as awkward or unclear, repeat until I no longer found words I wanted to change. That kind of approach renders prose that is good enough–good enough not to catch the eye of my internal critic, that is…but is it really the best my writing could be?
I know from experience that it’s not.
In college, I never took any creative writing courses; the syllabi never interested me. What I took instead were rhetoric & composition courses, with curriculums aimed at the nuts and bolts of prose and grammar and style. In those peer-edit seminars I learned the value of a true line edit–that is, going line by line, sentence by sentence, word by word, and grinding away every last rough spot. The differences between the original draft and the line-edited draft might be as small as 3%, but it’s an exponential increment, and the full sum of the difference is greater than the number of changes added to the original.
When I speak of line editing, I don’t mean the copy-edit or the proofread; those are both separate passes to catch typographical errors, grammatical misakes, and inconsistencies in the narrative, and to ascertain that all punctuation and stylings conform to the chosen style sheet. No, what I mean is simply an evaluation of each line: is this the best way to say what I mean?
I have a hit-list of issues I know my rough-draft writing has, compiled from classmates in those seminars and reader feedback. I also include some fairly standard editing appraisals that are not problems unique to me.
- passive construction and forms of be – in fiction there will naturally be a lot of “he was” sentences, and that is okay, but sometimes there are better ways to say something.
- adverbs – I don’t discount them out of hand, because sometimes they are qualifying a verb in a way the verb itself does not imply. But as I was told, “Generally an adverb either means you picked the wrong verb, or you’re not letting the verb say what it needs to say,” and more often than not I find I don’t
reallyneed that qualifier.
- weak or general verbs – sprinted > ran.
- overlong sentences with too many clauses – my besetting vice. It’s not that long sentences aren’t acceptable, or correct, or even readable, but I do tend to pile them on top of one another, and that makes reading very dense. I try to break up the sentences containing multiple actions or ideas, as clarity might be advanced by separating them, as well as readability enhanced by it. Those sentences best left unbroken must be vetted for clarity and grammatical righteousness.
- semi-colons – (1) are those two sentences really closely enough connected to be joined that way, and (2) how many other semi-colons have you used on that page? It is a punctuation mark that I personally love, but some people read them as pedantic and stiff, so I try to make sure that my usage is confined to the places where any other construction would be diminishment.
- pronoun antecedents and uses of “it” – are all of them clear, not merely in the way that we know people are able to extrapolate when reading in context, but also grammatically?
- cliches – just don’t use them.
- over-use of “that” – this was an argument where the professor took my side against my classmates (they thought I overused “that” to connect clauses), but which I try to be senstive to. Do I really need to use “that” or is the causation/connection clear (e.g., “the one that I want” vs. “the one I want”)? If I need it, is “that” the best word or should it be where/who/which?
- who versus whom – I pretty much have to evaluate every use of either. I generally get it right the first time, but every now and then one of my extra-clause-heavy sentences will confuse me.
The reason I have compiled a list like this is to remove subjectivity from the editing process as much as possible. I don’t have the tendency to regard my writing as sacrosanct, so my issue when editing my own work is not resisting changes but knowing what I meant and therby being blind to what others would see. There is a divorce that must happen mentally between my experience of writing the words and my experience of reading them; I have to be able to step out of the logic of my mind and examine the words without the supporting framework of life as I know it and language as I use it. Specific questions like these help break the chains of what I know I was trying to say and help me see what I really said.
I confess to finding a certain sadistic pleasure in deconstructing prose–be it my own or someone else’s–and making that white paper bleed with the ink of a thousand cuts. Line editing is not revising in the sense of re-envisioning. It is not a creative act. It is a logical, methodical, and ruthless evaluation of merit. Time to strap on my leather boots and robot-eye. I hear adverbs taunting me, and I must make them scream….
This blog is cross-posted here in its entirety from the #amwriting group blog. Here’s a link to the post there if you want to see it in context.