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