I remember finding the copy editing course I took at Towson University grueling. It was a required course during my first master’s program in professional writing. It was tedious and tiring. My eyes grew weary, and eliminating words became a game to me. When the professor told us to get a piece down from 500 to 300 words, we had to do it, and the result had to be better than what we started with that day. Editing is not easy, my friends. It requires us step away a bit and consider the reader more than we consider ourselves and the prose we have written. In fact, it requires us to be the reader and examine our work. It also requires us to become a bit detached.
As an example, my editing skills were put to the test when I edited the book we put together during my time at the Orioles for Cal Ripken’s consecutive games streak. We created a special book when he broke the great Lou Gehrig’s record. For that commemorative book, I asked a writer to produce a story for me. I gave her a word count of 2,000 and received a story that was 6,000 words. Never before as an editor did I have to become so detached as when I edited that particular piece on deadline. Things had to go, and what I kept was vital to the story.
My favorite rule from Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style has always been this one:
Rule #13 – Omit needless words.
Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.
As I’m now on the third round of editing the novel I’ve completed, I’m working through it again to find the pockets for improvement. We want to put forth our best work, though it’s a tireless job combing through draft after draft. Overall, however, we edit to sharpen the prose, improve the story, and clear out any grammatical or punctuation errors.
I’ve heard other writers say they could edit their stories forever, and it’s true. We could keep working on that same piece, but at some point, it has to go out for public consumption.
I’ve got a few more rounds to go, but just as the creation of the story was important, equally, if not more important, are the edits we make to improve the content, flow, characters, plot, and language.
There is an art to editing, and it’s called taking time with it. Sift through the work page by page. Have others you trust with your writing evaluate it and offer comments. Get feedback on story and writing.
It’s the only way independent authors can truly take a run at the publishing game, and I, for one, am about to give it another try.
So the writer who breeds more words than he needs, is making a chore for the reader who reads.
~ Dr. Seuss