Last updated on January 22, 2018
A targeted editing approach to your writing may be your best route to achieving your end goal of making someone want to buy it.
At some point, you’re going to get to the end of whatever you’re writing and will need to edit. If you believe that everything that comes out of your head is amazing and awesome on the first draft, I hate to burst your bubble. It’s not.
Even Shakespeare wasn’t that good, dude.
Editing is work, sometimes even a lot, but it’s worthwhile work. Human beings make mistakes and that’s a fact, so if writing truly is your life’s work, you’ll edit to make your writing not only error-free, but as dynamic and engaging as it can be. You want to make a living off it, right?
Targeted Editing – General Advice
During my own editing, it’s not uncommon for me to go back over a piece of work multiple times. I still follow some editing advice I picked up a long time ago and find I get the most bang for my buck when I use targeted editing, focussing on specific elements during each pass-through. It allows me to zero in and “see” the errors. This is a good approach for editing something really long, though for something short like a content article, you can get away with editing multiple elements at once. Since it’s only possible for your brain to notice a finite number of things at once, if you’re going over something longer, I suggest the targeted editing approach.
Before anything else, hear this: None of the grammar rules, writing ideas, and theories expounded on by published writers and professional editors are arbitrary. There are good reasons for them all. At the same time, these aren’t written in stone and most successful writers have broken them at some point. If you want to get your stuff out of the slush pile and published, though, you’ll learn the rules, all of them, and learn them well. Master the basics before you go off on an adventure in experimentation. You need to know the rules before you can know when it’s the right situation to break them for effect.
Depending on what you’ve written, you may choose to use some combination of this list in varying orders to suit your purpose, but do hit them all in your editing. I’ve chunked them together by association for ease in targeted editing and will cover the sections beyond the first one in further articles in this series.
Ares of Focus for Your Targeted Editing
Rehash of the same old-same old
Poor/wrong choice of tense and person
Time control errors
Point of view (POV) errors and poor point of view selection
Passive voice – While I’ve already written one short article on passive voice with examples of active vs passive, I’m touching on it again, because it’s the single most common error and something to keep an eye out for during your targeted editing.
Again, it looks like this:
(active) Manfred drove the wagon.
(passive) The wagon was driven [by him].
Look at this example and think of this: In the passive voice, nothing is ever anyone’s fault. None of the people do the actions and the object and the action become more important than the person who does them. If you’re writing a character-driven novel, don’t write in passive voice and steal their power.
Sometimes, I see this happen when a writer doesn’t want their character to do something bad, so they sneak up on the character’s performance of the action and couch it in passive voice. Be bold – make them do it. There are times when passive voice does work, so it doesn’t always need to be eliminated, but if you’re just starting out, I would err on the side of using active voice until you know the difference. And remember, you can always fix a mistake later in another pass of targeted editing. Anything can be changed – it’s your story.
Summary narration – Summary narration is related to passive voice and you sometimes see them overlap each other. What is “summary narration”? It’s when you sum up events, provide a narrative on what happened, rather than let the action explain the events. It’s the opposite of “show don’t tell”.
Summary narration vs direct narration looks like this:
(summary narration) Markus went out to the barn. Then he went to the blacksmith’s.
(direct narration) Markus tripped out the door of the castle and hurried across the square. He kept an eye on the lighted towers from where he was sure he could feel the archers’ hands twitching on their nocked arrows, but forced his focus forward. When he stepped inside the barn, he found it empty, Odd. Where is that old goat? His charger stood in its stall nearby and he favoured it with a healthy thumping to its flank. Ah! He must have gone off to the blacksmith, Turning back toward the doorway, he made a beeline for the blacksmith…. (etc)
How to tell which one is right is based on what you want to accomplish. The summary narration version is appropriate if the details of his movements and even his character are of secondary importance in that moment. In this case, useful if you wanted to move Markus out of the castle, because armed guards were about to burst through the door of his chambers and you needed him to stay alive just then. The second version, the direct narration version, is appropriate if you want to report all of Markus’s actions and especially if those actions will have an impact on the story.
I think of it this way… If I’m going to the trouble to note events in explicit detail, then they’re important and I’m doing it with purpose. If they’re not important to moving my plot forward, then summary narration can create forward movement and prevents the story from getting bogged down.
Unnamed characters – Novice writers do use this one often. When you’re not practiced at building suspense and drama, it could seem an easy way to do it. Here’s a tip – don’t. Better to use your time practicing the craft of building suspense.
The unnamed character scenario goes like this:
A story follows a nameless protagonist for pages and pages and for most of those pages building up to, at long last, a moment of high drama when their name is revealed as… John. Oh, the horror! Seriously, though, that much build-up to a name that has zero significance and where there is no value-add to the story in doing the reveal this way is useless. Everyone has a name, all your characters will. Hate to break it to you, but your readers get that part, too, so it’s not a surprise.
The unnamed character scenario means the writer needs to do some fancy footwork to avoid revealing the name, too. Coming up with a hundred other ways to refer to them, by title, by some obvious descriptive, etc, sustained over a long time becomes super awkward. If that eventual reveal of their name or gender doesn’t add to your story and serves no dramatic purpose, then why do it? I also believe doing this sort of thing can break the connection you may have made with the reader, where you entered into the bargain with them where they trusted you enough to suspend belief. Making this kind of false build-up to nothing can erode that trust and you may not be able to get it back.
Rehash of the same old-same old – There are no new stories left in the world, so let’s get that out of the way. I don’t care how creative you are, they’ve all already been done. So, knowing that, what you want to aim for will be a new take on an old idea that’s imaginative, fresh and unique enough to get away with it. In every genre there’s the ragged, old chestnuts that have been done to death and that should never be done again, so avoid them and look for signs of it in your own writing. You may want to take a step back and do an overhaul.
I know you may think you’ve probably cornered the market on the next big post-apocalyptic speculative where the last two people left alive are coincidentally named Adam and Eve or the murder-mystery where the detective happens to be the (gasp!) serial killer, but you haven’t, so save yourself some time and don’t go there. And by the gods, avoid writing about a writer writing stories about writing stories while he’s having a breakdown bla… bla… bla… Just don’t.
Checking for a rehash is a tough one, because there’s really no clear line between a hack rewrite and a fresh twist on an old idea. I would say, if it seems familiar, if you can name other stories with the plot line, rewrite. You’ll have to feel your way on this one, so the best thing you can do is be honest with yourself. Look at it from the publisher’s point of view – if it’s too similar to something they could pick up on, why would they buy yours?
See the related articles in this series: