Editing Your Work
OK, so now that you’ve accepted that you need space and time to properly view your work and critique it, it’s important to talk about how to edit.
What We Talk About When We Talk About Editing
It’s a matter of evaluating each sentence and asking yourself if it fits into one of two categories. It must either:
- advance the plot,
- or reveal something about a character.
If it doesn’t do one of these two things, cut it. One of the most basic and powerful rules I can offer is for you to be critical of every line you’ve written.
A few simple tips
To pare down your story, here are a few things to consider.
1. Snip clarifying details. Your reader is not a moron. In the twenty minutes or less that it takes for a reader to move through your short story, they remember quite clearly that Jenny is Jimmy’s girlfriend. Each time you mention her name, you don’t need to remind us that Jenny is Jimmy’s girlfriend. You said it once, and that was enough.
2. Learn to recognize repetition. Analyze the message of each sentence. What is it conveying? If two sentences in a row are using different words to convey the same information, this is repetitive, and one needs to be cut. Hint: keep the simpler one. When your language gets too flowery or stressed, it becomes inauthentic, and you’re probably veering off the road of your narrative tone.
3. Show, don’t tell. The old rule applies! Don’t tell us that the character is sneering, giving a look, contemplating, guffawing, bellowing, or scrutinizing. These are empty words and lazy narrative. Instead, talk about the lines on a character’s face; describe the way their eyebrows twitch; how the mouth hangs, the eyes narrow, or the way all their features move toward the center of their face as if by some unimaginable force.
4. Keep it simple. Pick one descriptive element for characterization, not four. When describing a character as nervous, why say "she was tapping her foot, her eyes were constantly darting around the room, she kept pulling at the hem of her dress, and every so often her body stiffened as she sucked back a deep, quick breath" when just the last example will do?
5. Don’t make your dialog tags do the work. Replace anything more complicated than “he/she said/says.”
In the next lesson, we’ll talk about the second round of editing — the one that is crucial to the success of your short story and your writing career.
- What Writers Really Do When They Write (article)
- Elmore Leonard’s Rules for Writers (article)
- 12 Common Writing Errors Even Bestselling Authors Make (blog)