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Sunday, 9 October 2011

The Proof Editor's Survival Checklist

Editing, schmediting, eh?

Yes, it can be a pain. But it's an essential one.

Let me start with my favourite author's quote, by Hemingway: "You never regret cutting anything out of a novel". And I never have, either – I probably have several novels' worth of excised material that wouldn't even make it into the most self-indulgent “director's cut”. Everyone edits a different way - I usually just bash down words first and then go back (repeatedly) and chip away, or add arms and legs, in what I call 'sculpturing' the writing.

Here's a few things I'd advise every writer to aim for in their editing:

i) keep it tight: don't waffle, stay on track. Don't do tangents. Consider 2 or 3 brief sentences over 1 long one. If you're stuck over a particular passage, try recording yourself reading it aloud, play it back, and see how it sounds then.
The ear (or indeed, the voice) often picks up on things that the eye doesn't.

ii) consider your vocabulary. Who's your audience? Are they likely to feel insulted, or intimidated, by your choice of words? That is, don't pepper your prose with Graeco/Latin highbrow terms if you're writing simple general fiction, or 'dumb down' either if you're aiming for a more sophisticated readership.

iii) avoid slang in the narrative voice - it's easy to slip it in, but it cheapens writing and makes it feel amateurish. Look out for it and kill it when you find it.

iV) cut down descriptive passages. Everyone writes them. But not everyone wants to read 'em. Readers need enough for the scene to be set, but not too much or they'll get bored and skim. Once they start that carry-on, you've lost them. On the other hand, don't skimp on setting - pick up on a few key points to suggest the mood, the surroundings, and how they relate to the characters. Be sure to consider all five senses - smells and sensations as well as sights and sounds.

v) Grammar, punctuation, spelling. Those three are so important, I'll repeat them: grammar, punctuation, spelling. Sounds picky, but it's not. Trust me, any serious pro editor/reviewer/book industry employee will bin anything that looks like it hasn't even been shown to a spell-checker. Ditto for paragraphing, layout, indents, etc. Reviewers will trash you for it - just check out some of the killer comments in the Self-Publishing Magazine (on serious, expensive ISBN'd books, not just typical Lulu fare). If you're aiming to be a pro, or stand alongside professionals, you have to look like you deserve to be there. Don't let down good writing and ideas by not tightening up the nuts and bolts.

vi) really READ what you've written. Don't skim passages, thinking “Oh, but I know this bit off by heart” - because you don't. If, like me, you tend to hammer out words fifty to the dozen to capture those valuable stream-of-consciousness seams of ideas, then chances are you'll miss out words, or even use the wrong word ('theres' and 'theirs' can often creep in unwittingly in a kind of subconscious word-association substitution type thang). Re-read such passages to death, to hone them and shape them to what they ought to be.

vii) dialogue. Less is more. Nothing reads more amateurish than two characters having a bitching argument for two pages which does nothing to either define character nor advance the plot. Yes, real people do talk like that, but as countless 'reality TV shows' over the years have shown, reality is actually incredibly boring. Drama, as Hitchcock said, is 'life with the dull bits cut out'. So identify all those dull bits, cut them out, and what's left ought to be a lot more interesting.
To see just how klunky and repetitive real dialogue can be, read the transcripts to JFK's tapes of the Cuban Missile Crisis meetings, or Nixon's Watergate tapes. Then watch one of the excellent movies based on those events, and see how completely different the dialogue runs.

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