Learning to Edit for Yourself by Elizabeth Bailey

We invited author Elizabeth Bailey this week and she's talking about how to learn to edit yourself. She says...


My editing website is www.helpingwritersgetitright.co.uk

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[Elizabeth Bailey discusses what she’s learned about editing]

While editing for others, I’ve learned a great deal about editing for myself. At one point I realised how easy it was to use clichés instead of trying for a different way to say things. I found out how I drop out of POV without noticing; how I’ve allowed the momentum to drop by getting self-indulgent or chucking in unnecessary paragraphs of introspection which are holding up the story.

I have always been conscious of overkill with emphases and deplore my early texts spattered with italics and exclamation marks. Thank goodness I got the rights back to them and was able to edit all that out before self-publishing anew. I remember being told by my editor that a heroine was two-dimensional. I didn’t know what it meant at the time, but now I do. The character wasn’t fully rounded. I’ve been able to sort her out as well.

Having begun in theatre, I’ve never had trouble creating dialogue. But I have to watch to make sure it serves a purpose in the story and isn’t just an exercise in impressive stage fluency. Oh, and because I’m writing historically, often the characters tend to sound the same and I have to remember to inject speech differences.

It took me some time to learn how to refrain from intruding as the author. So tempting to tell the reader about the characters, instead of weaving characterisation into the narrative structure.

But I didn’t know all this when I started. I learned some of it just by writing. Having taught drama and learned a great deal about my own craft in so doing, I found exactly the same phenomenon popping up when I began to assess and critique. The learning curve became, in a way, my self-teaching curve. When I came to put it all together in a book about editing, I discovered exactly how much I had learned from helping other writers.

“What’s Wrong with your Novel? And How to Fix it” does not set out to be a writing manual. Rather it is based on what I found to be the most common problems arising to stop a novel from getting the attention it deserved from potential publishers. Mostly it’s got nothing to do with story. It’s almost always about how the story is knitted together.

PTQ – Page Turning Quality – is the name of the game these days. Ask an editor or agent what they are looking for and they will tell you they’ll know it when they see it. They may mention genres in particular, but really all they want is a story that grabs them from the first sentence and doesn’t let go. The books that set new genres are exactly that. Stories the editor just couldn’t put down.

And that’s really all this book is trying to help with. What’s getting in the way of the reader reading on? What’s stopping them becoming so involved they can’t help reading just one more chapter before they put the book down and go to sleep? Why are they tempted to give up and just flick through a few more pages to see if it pulls them in again? Why, in a word, has the story lost them?

Losing the reader is really easy. Holding them to the page is the skill. That, to my mind, is the where the writing craft comes into its own. I don’t care what genre it is, literary or commercial fiction. If the reader starts skipping paragraphs looking for the next interesting bit, you’ve had it.

Fortunately, one can learn what to do and what not to do. It comes with experience, and with being edited by others (also a helpful learning tool). But there are short cuts to learning the tricks of editing your own work, and that’s what I’ve tried to set out in the book.

The mantra my clients likely get tired of hearing is “cut to the chase”, but that’s the single most important skill to learn in my view. Knowing what works and what doesn’t work. What’s relevant and needed? What can be done without? Get that right and you’re pretty much there.


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13 comments:

  1. This sounds like a very helpful book.

    Thanks for featuring it, Nas. Going over to check it out now.

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    1. Glad you think so, Sandra. Hope you find it of interest and use if it appeals.

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  2. Great advice here. Keeping the audience turning those pages is the name of the game. Oops. Those dratted cliches won't ever stop, will they?

    E is for Experiment: Turning the USS Eldridge Invisible

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    1. Yes, they will creep in, won't they, Tamara?! There's always another way to say it though once you see you've come out with another one.

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  3. That is the trick, right? Cutting out all the unnecessary noise. Identifying it, however...

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    1. Absolutely, Liz. Hence the guidance as to what is noise and what is music. I love your metaphor.

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  4. Hi Nas and Elizabeth - such good sense here ... and using your skill, knowledge and passion for the theatre and all that entails - must hold you in good stead ... cheers to you both - Hilary

    http://positiveletters.blogspot.co.uk/2017/04/f-is-for-feral-goats.html

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    1. Thank you, Hilary. Yes, the theatre background does help a lot in many ways. I'm planning to write about that too in the future.

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  5. I can see how editing for others would help one with their own editing. It is harder to see errors in our own work. I continue to work on show don't tell, but I make progress all the time. :) Best of luck, Elizabeth!
    ~Jess

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    1. Thank you, Jess. It's quite amazing how seeing errors in other's work does in fact make you notice them in your own. Show don't tell is easier than you think. Stay in the character's head and it pans out from there.

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  6. Fantastic advice. Personally, I've learned through just letting editors rip me apart. I will occasionally help with little editing projects, but I just don't have the patience to do big editing projects if I'm not getting paid for it. :P

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    1. Thank you, Robert. It can be painful, though, having your baby trashed. Personally I feel it's essential for an editor to guide without jumping all over a writer's creativity. It's your story, after all. It does take time out of one's life, it's true, but I have found it useful.

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  7. I find that critiquing my writing friends' work helps me to avoid making some of the mistakes I pick ip on in their stories.

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