Friday, December 17, 2010

Editing Techniques for our Manuscripts

The worst part of writing is, when we start doing the edits, before we query or submit our books for publication. I received two pieces of  editing advice. I ignored the first one “Edit every second  word in your manuscript.” This advice would  actually work well for me, because my editor’s constant grouse against me is that my stories and books  are too long.

The second piece of advice I was given is “Edit like a step mother. Be cruel.” This advice was one I detested. I have a  soft  heart. I  prefer  not to kill my words. But, eventually I end up killing them. For the greater good.

 I feel like crying when I have to edit my stories and books. Many of the scenes I had lovingly created and painstakingly described in detail  in the initial drafts are  deleted by the final draft  because I realize  that they are weighing the story down. Editing is one place where we have to be cruel  towards our words to be kind to our  readers. It’s our cruelty that does justice to our stories.

        The technique  I follow  while going over every scene is:

  1. I mull over the fact  whether  a scene is crucial to the story or not. I have realized that I have a tendency to add scenes that do not add momentum to the story.

  1. Whether it pushes the story forward. Some scenes are what we call plain explanation. A reader really doesn’t care whether a character  is wearing  a black or a red tee shirt with lace or border. But if the tee shirt will end up doing something extraordinary; like saving the character, then by all means we can add the tiny details.

  1. Does a particular scene give some information about a character, or his/her motive? If a scene is a harbinger of what the character will undergo at a later stage, then its worth retaining.

  1. Does it   give  a little twist to the  story? Something that makes the reader sit up is worth holding on to.

  1. Does it explain something important? If the layout of the house is explained in detail, then it better be important; it can be the escape route the character takes.

  1. Does a scene I am describing now, come into  centre stage at a later point in the book. Is it tied up in some way to the crucial climax?

  1. Does a scene weigh the story down? This is very important as we tend to go overboard  on some scenes; describing in detail the bit of spinach/lettuce  stuck to the character’s teeth is a waste of time. Will the spinach/lettuce save the character’s life or  assist him in some way? If its going to make him a butt of jokes, then we can keep the scene. 

  1. Does the reader need to know this? Is this information something the reader can do without? If the reader can bypass this chunk of information, then its time to axe it. 

  1. As a reader would I like to read this paragraph? Will this paragraph/description bore or interest me? Depending on the answer I retain the scene or description. 
These are crucial questions to ask ourselves when we edit. Over time we instinctively know what to delete and what to retain. Editing skills develop slowly and only if we become objective towards our own work can we do justice to it.  We can develop and polish our editing skills by  going through books by our favourite authors and bestsellers. We can study the editing techniques in those books. 

Nowadays whenever I read a book, I not just look for plot twists, and sub-plots, character arcs and conflicts, I also see the way the book has been edited. Of how the scenes flow one into another.

What kind of attitude do you adopt when you start editing? Are you harsh and cruel?  Or are you soft and kind? What makes you decide whether to retain a particular scene or to chop it? Any editing  secrets that  you would like to share with us? 



  1. Loved the editing tips, Rachna. You explain so beautifully! Are your Creative Writing Classes open for others, or are they restricted to just the college students? Would love to join them. :)

  2. Brilliant. I'm going to bookmark this for my editing in January. Thanks Rachna, you are a gem.

  3. What a great list for edits! This should be required reading for all writers. Well done.

  4. I hate the whole revision and editing process too. It's the worst part of the whole thing. But I wouldn't call myself cruel when I revise. More like ruthless. I question myself over every word, considering if it needs to be there or not and if the story would be better if it wasn't there.


  5. Rachna,
    You have listed some excellent questions for us to ask during the revisions. As I read through them, I can see many scenes I need to cut already and my book isn't even done. THank you for sharing your wisdome!

  6. Very good points, and they work well for fiction and non fiction. Have a good weekend!

  7. Sameer..thanks. Right now my classes are only for college students.

    Lydia....I am glad this post is useful. I am the type who adds too many unnecessary details. So I have to keep these points in mind while editing.

    Anne....thanks. I have really been working hard on my edits. This list came to my rescue and I decided to share it.

    Jai... I too am getting ruthless; trust me its not easy. It hurts to delete chunks that I had worked hard on.

    Terri....Its good that you can see the scenes you need to cut, your manuscript will sparkle. Its a pleasure to share. I learnt all this the hard way, while teaching my students, this bit of wisdom came to me. Earlier I was an editing novice.

    Karen....yes, these points work well for both fiction and non-fiction. The key to good editing lies in getting objective.

  8. I'm revising right now, so this post is really helpful. You've made such great points, and clarified for me whether or not to keep this one scene I've been wavering on. I should have listened to my gut and cut it! Thanks

  9. Nice useful tips. Thank you for sharing.

  10. Cutting our beautiful words is a NECESSARY evil that all writers must face. I remember the first time I began cutting in SEVENTY-TWO HOURS. I literally chopped out entire chapters. It was hard, but the rewrites were so much better.

    I'm taking a blog break until January. See you then, Rachna. :)

  11. These are fabulous tips for editing. I'm in the midst of edits now, so this is very helpful. Thanks!

    Also, I left you an award on my blog! :)

  12. Lovely tips, Rachna. I hope everyone reads this; it simplifies the editing process for all of us.

  13. I remember being given advice to 'kill my babies' when editing! I hate the description, but understand the context. Your advice here is spot on. My editing was rather ruthless with current novel, and I still rue cutting a really lovely scene - but ultimately I feel it didn't add anything further to the story. Oh but I miss it!

  14. Great post, Rachna. I always wonder, though, if the same "editing" rules apply to literary, character-driven fiction. It seems to me that literary novelists have more leeway in creating sensory-filled scenes with lots of description - especially when setting is critical to a story's development. While I am a huge fan of description in a story, I HAVE read plenty a literary novel where I find myself actually skimming over passages to get back to the "story." In the case of literary fiction, perhaps there is a happy-medium regarding how much sensory detail to retain and how much to edit out. PS - thanks for great comments on my recent post!

  15. I will need to prepare for flying rotten tomatoes now, but I prefer editing over the writing process. The first draft for me is murder. I feel like I'm extruding the worst possible crap imaginable. I question why on earth I do this to myself and it's only when I return after a six month absence from a large work that I find enjoyment in the process and can see where I went wrong and how I can fix it. I don't have the same problem with short stories. Go figure. Maybe I work this way because I tend to reverse-engineer stuff. I don't know, but this is how I work. At least for now. ;D

  16. I'm a softy so I try not to write a polished first draft. It's easier to get rid of excess scenes that way ;)
    I love your list of questions to ask white editing though. Great tips!

    have a very merry Christmas!