Every writer (should) edit her/his story. Errors clutter first drafts—but I’m not just referring to typos. Those are, generally speaking, the last thing you need to check for when editing. Editing needs to be done a deeper level first.
So, how do you edit on a deeper level?
I’m going to show you. I could tell you, but that work as well as an example. So. I’m going to take one paragraph from one of my stories and edit it while explaining what I’m doing.
My goal for this edit is:
- Develop the character and tone/setting
- To reduce the word count by at least 15% but preferably 20%
The following is the first paragraph to a story I haven’t looked at in least three years (and wrote at least four years ago. My writing has improved, or so I hope). The first book in a series of four or five, I never got around to writing the second book–though I still have it plotted–because other ideas got in the way (which is a bad writing practice, by the way). Anyways, I won’t tell you the genre in the hopes the writing itself will tell you (though, it is just one paragraph, so).
The air was thick and fat, but the rain was heavier still. It beat on Lee’s skin as if torture were its purpose. He was starting to believe heaven had decided to play a cruel joke, and he was its fool. He shook his head to trying to dislodge the wet hair plastered to his skin. He stomped his foot on the ground and water welled around his shoes. He had never wished for boots more than in that moment.
Not too great, eh?
Okay, lets edit this sentence by sentence. Remember, this is first edit. It will still have problems (mainly grammar) after we’re done. Also, the current word count is 80. We’re going cut this paragraph down to at least 68, preferably 60, words. Note: I usually do this by page, not paragraph.
The air was thick and fat, but the rain was heavier still. It beat on Lee’s skin as if torture were its purpose.
Ah, no. This “lofty” writing is a classic case of trying too hard. It sets up an awkward image at best. What does “thick” or “fat” (which, if you hadn’t noticed, mean the exact same thing) air mean anyways? Also, the first sentence is in passive voice.
Nevertheless, the next sentence is probably worse than the first. “Torture were its purpose” sounds terrible and suggests that Lee often contemplates torture, which isn’t true and misleads the reader about the character. However, the world is a rough one, so is his. I understand, at least, what I was trying to do with this.
He was starting to believe heaven had decided to play a cruel joke, and he was its fool.
This line is one where a writer must make a conscious choice to leave something somewhat vague. This line is meant to expand past Lee’s current situation and into his past (and a bit of foreshadowing too). But it get lost in the middle and just seems random and a tad over-dramatic, especially because he is whining about rain. While Lee is a tad overdramatic and fatalistic, the main point of this sentence isn’t coming through. It’s also passive.
He shook his head to trying to dislodge the wet hair plastered to his skin. He stomped his foot on the ground and water welled around his shoes.
Both of these describe an action meant to indicate how heavy the rain is, which we already have a sentence doing. So, is this needed? No, but it’s nice to provide a visual for your readers. From this, we learn that Lee is wearing shoes and that his hair is longer. However, the word “stomped” indicates that he is angry or frustrated, which isn’t true. Therefore, it needs to be reworded. It should also take place before the “fool line” because it helps set the scene and gives the reader a mental picture. The psychological stuff can come later.
He had never wished for boots more than in that moment.
Again, this line gives us a bit of his personality. We see that he tends to be dramatic and wishful. It also highlights how miserable the rain is and how much Lee doesn’t want to be there. So, why is he there? The reader has to keep going for that. However, I feel like the sentiment is misplaced. It is not the most important piece of this paragraph and, therefore, shouldn’t go last. It also seems like he wishes for boots a lot, which isn’t true.
Now, to clarify, I keep harping about putting more psychological stuff at the end of the sentence. There’s a reason for this: writers believe that, generally speaking, it is wise to set a concrete surrounding and move up towards the more vague descriptions as the paragraph continues. So, create images that will be generally seen the same way by all readers. For example; “The cream colored poodle cocked its head, one long ear dangling.” Most readers will have a similar picture in their heads for that. Compare it with; “The dog cocked its head.” Here, readers could have have hundreds of different images in their heads. See the difference? The first is concrete writing. The latter is more abstract.
So, let’s fix the paragraph.
The air humid and rain heavy, Lee had never wished so dearly for boots. He shifted his weight and his shoes squished. Sighing, he shook his head to keep his brown hair from dripping rain into his hazel eyes. Maybe heaven decided to play another joke on him. At least this one wasn’t cruel, just bothersome.
What changed? Almost everything. I’m not saying your edits need to be this radical (remember, I wrote this a long time ago). But, can you read the difference?
The air humid and rain heavy, Lee had never wished so dearly for boots.
Sets the scene in a few words. Gives you incite to Lee’s personality.
He shifted his weight and his shoes squished. Sighing, he shook his head to keep his brown hair from dripping rain into his hazel eyes.
Two visuals the readers can relate to and picture. It lets them know how heavy the rain is while telling them a bit about Lee (wears shoes, long(er) brown hair, green eyes) and is more concrete.
Maybe heaven decided to play another joke on him. At least this one wasn’t cruel, just bothersome
Now the reader really knows that Lee has some drama issues. He views the world in a pessimistic light and likes to think of things on a grand level. It also hints that something bad has happened to him. This isn’t the first time heaven has played with Lee (according to Lee). Now, the reader needs to decide if Lee always thinks so fatalistically, or if something happened to him, which is why he thinks so pessimistically.
“The fool” seemed a little too overdramatic, so I cut it out.
Did you count? Total words: 56.
We know Lee is dramatic, fatalistic, and pessimistic. We don’t know why. Some may not take him seriously, but, with the gloomy and rainy tone, one can assume he is not a goofy character. If the reader guessed that, then they can also suppose that the joke heaven played on him was bad, not that he considers everything like a curse but that one curse seems to follow him everywhere.
That is the impression it is supposed to give. You may not read it that way, which is fine. This is only a first edit. The purpose of this was to see how I edit.
What did you think? Helpful? What impression did the paragraph give you? Any questions?