Let’s start by taking a quick tour through two editorial worlds.
We begin with a rule used to edit newswriting. Maybe you’ve heard of the ABC rule, as it applies to what is commonly known as news reporting. If you were an Associated Press reporter back in the heyday of newspapers, your AP editor would have measured every one of your news stories against three criteria. He would have asked is your story accurate, is it as brief as it can be, and is it clear?
Straightforward rules, right? Well, at first glance, you might agree. But if you were a reporter writing those news stories, you would soon find out that keeping your reports completely factual and free of opinion would not be easy. Since your stories were news, not opinion, every sentence, and especially every conclusion you arrived at would have to be accurate and backed up by on-the-record sources of the information that you would cite in your story.
Moreover, you would have to craft your report free of excess verbiage. Your writing style would have to be tight. Every sentence would have to add something to the story—no fluffy adjectives and adverbs. Finally, your writing would have to be clear as crystal with seamless point-to-point transitions and sparkling prose.
But I’m not a news reporter, you say. So why would I have to write with this ABC rule in mind? We’ll, you don’t. However, if you keep this rule in mind as you write, you will begin to notice when your writing falls short in these areas and edit accordingly. Yes, you will have to work on your editing skills, but these are skills that can be learned. Nobody is born a good editor. So be accurate, be brief (meaning concise), and be clear when you write.
Now let’s change gears and take a look at how fiction editors apply their craft.
If you’ve ever read the acknowledgements in a best-selling novel, you know that such books require a complete editorial team. What those acknowledgements don’t list, however, are the numerous edits books go through to ready them for publication. Most likely, these happen in three steps. The first are developmental edits dealing with plot, structure, character arcs, voice, dialogue, figurative language, and more. The second round is a line edit at the sentence and paragraph level. Finally, there is a copy edit that fixes spelling, grammar, punctuation, and a lot more.
Whew, you may exclaim. What does all that have to do with me writing an announcement for my teaching center or our group’s monthly outreach email? You are correct to wonder about this, because these types of edits don’t specifically relate to your writing. But bear with us here because there is a point to mentioning them.
Think of the art of sculpting, which is a great metaphor for editing. (As a reminder, a metaphor is a thing symbolic of or representing something else.) So let’s say sculpting represents editing because sculptors chip away at stone to create beautiful art and editors chip away at writing to polish it into shiny prose. Now, as you may imagine there is a vast spectrum of sculpting expertise, from Michelangelo down to a humble stone carver. The same holds true with editing everything from full-length books to simple emails. The range is huge, from professional editors to humble self-editors.
Yes, self-editors—because every writer worthy of the name also must be a self-editor. We may not be able to edit as well as Michelangelo would sculpt, but we can learn to self-edit as well as any tradesman learns his craft.
Here are a few self-editing tips:
Maintain a non-attached attitude toward your writing. As writers it’s easy to fall in love with our sentences and phrases. We’ve worked hard on them, so we’d love to keep them—all of them. But remember that we are writing for our readers, not ourselves. So, be fearless and Buddhic as you trim the fat from your writing. Know that you are performing a kindness for your readers. And you can always save your original draft to resurrect any of your cherished original lines if you trimmed too much fat!
The second tip is simple but it’s tough to execute, especially when you are in a hurry. Try this: Read and reread (and edit) your piece until you cannot find a single additional edit to make to it. Not a one. First try this with the emails you write. This drill is like doing pushups. If you make it a habit, you will find your editing “muscles” growing stronger.
Your word processing program, whether it is Microsoft Word or another tool, highlights editorial suggestions. Right click on each word that has such a highlight, drill down into the issue that is being called out, then investigate and fix as needed. Even if no fix is required, you will gain an understanding of what the editing issue is and why it is being called out.
So the moral of the story is this: If you are truly interested in sharpening your writing skills, edit and re-edit your writing until you get it to where it needs to be.
And yes, contracting with trained editors to edit your writing is a very good thing, when possible. But that is a topic for a future Writers’ Guild Tips and Techniques.
So, until next month, may the fiat of God Mercury be with you.