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The Red Pen: Easy Edits

We're delighted to have Publishing Director and author Moira Forsyth on the blog today with the first of a series of blog posts featuring advice for writers. We are not currently open to unsolicited submissions, but the tips in The Red Pen blog series will help you ensure that when we do reopen in June, your book will be in the best possible shape. Find out more about our submissions window on our submissions page.

Before you submit your work for publication it’s vital to edit it thoroughly yourself. Most authors test out what they’ve written with friends or their writing group. At the back of our minds is the (usually vain) hope that other people will tell us how brilliant it is or be speechless with admiration.

No first draft is perfect. You think so, in that moment of triumph as you finish it, but soon, reading it over, you realise sadly that it’s not. So what can you do about it?

I don’t have rules for writing, or none I’d impose on other people, but about twenty-five years of editing other people’s stories, novels and non-fiction, and many more of attempting my own, have taught me a lot about editing.

So, while Sandstone Press is closed to submissions from authors, I’ll put together a series of short pieces on self-editing. We’ll come to the hard stuff later: dialogue; bringing a character to life; the structural edit, where you might be faced with deleting whole sections (or characters!), changing the order of events, writing in new material and so on; beginnings; endings.

Let’s start with some easy edits. First – pruning.

This is something you should be doing automatically as you read over your work. Inevitably, you’ll spot errors: mistakes in punctuation, verb agreements and so on. You’ll also find better ways to say something, a neater, more suitable or more accurate word or phrase. In addition, here are some common first draft faults to look out for.

Modifiers and Intensifiers: we all use them, and they are usually redundant. Or to put it without the modifiers: we use them but they are redundant.

In other words…

Modifiers and intensifiers: these are redundant. I should probably add ‘mostly’, but am resisting for the moment.

How often have you used really; very; actually; quite; so; rather; mostly; just; only. Also their near relative: now. I go through whatever I’ve written and knock out the alarming frequency of the word ‘now’. Every time. I don’t seem to have learned not to use it, but at least I’ve learned it is very rarely needed. Aha! Very rarely needed.

Adjectives and Adverbs: these may be unnecessary. I use ‘may’ advisedly, because it can be a thin kind of prose that does without them altogether. That or you’re trying to be Hemingway. When I was beginning to write seriously, I realised I had written a short story in which EVERY NOUN had two adjectives. Yes, every one. Be wary of overuse, and of relying on them. We’ll come back to this when we tackle dialogue, but meantime, be ruthless and make sure every adjective or adverb is doing some work and isn’t lazily lying about cluttering up your prose. Lazily lying about. They’re also sociable and like to be together: She had blue eyes. She had startlingly blue eyes. She had penetrating blue eyes. She had long-lashed blue eyes. She had lovely blue eyes. He had a faintly sarcastic smile on his face. He was a hugely well-regarded scientist.

Anyone who has a garden knows that terrible moment when you’ve been slashing away, pruning with vigour, then you realise the poor shrub has lost not just its shape but its potential to recover. It now looks worse than when you started. With shrubs, you can only wait and see. With writing, you can put things back if taking them out was the wrong thing to do. Meantime, however, try it.

Take these words out. Read that passage again. Better? Tighter, at any rate.

Conjunctions: how often have your begun a sentence with And or But? Worse, a paragraph? Strike them out! Did you need them? Writers sometimes claim beginning a sentence with And helps the ‘flow’ of the narrative; on the contrary, overused they can instead become irritating and make for a choppy, halting prose. They’re not called conjunctions for nothing – their purpose is to join up phrases/clauses/ideas etc. They are sociable creatures too, and often find themselves paired: and then; but then; and so etc. You almost certainly need only one of these.

Saying something twice: as we write our first draft, we’re finding out how to do it as we go, how to tell the story, create atmosphere, describe a place, event, person or process – and to make it as vivid and clear for the reader as it is for you. Inevitably, we try out slightly different ways of saying something, and often, more than one way remains in the text. So keep your mind on that when you re-read what you’ve written, and knock out the weaker phrase or sentence, leaving you with something that is stronger for being on its own.

Behind this is a more important point about your relationship with your readers. Are you telling them what to think? Are you steering them too firmly in one direction? Are you underrating their intelligence by spelling out what you mean in too heavy-handed and pointed a manner? In fiction it’s important to let the prose breathe and allow the reader to fill in the spaces. It’s the spaces they will discuss with their friends and in their book group.

-Moira Forsyth

Moira Forsyth

Moira Forsyth