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A Common Mistake In Editing Is Only Thinking About What You Take Out

May 23, 2008
The best advice you'll get about editing is that you need to reduce the word count. Eliminating unnecessary dialogue or description is vital in keeping your novel punchy and maintaining the reader's interest.

So it comes as no surprise that many writers end up taking so many words out, they forget that editing can also be about putting words in.

As the author, you know the story backwards. You know what's happened, what's going on now and what's about to transpire. Your reader, hopefully, does not.

So when you edit, you are at risk of taking out some essential data that you don't see as necessary - but the reader absolutely needs to be able to link the story together. You remember the full plot, even when the passage that describes a key event is removed. Your reader does not have that luxury.

Removing plot elements is a basic editing mistake, and with a little effort, you can spot these mistakes quite easily.

A harder mistake to spot during editing is the lack of transition.

In the real world, we leap from subject to subject during a conversation. A pause here or a gesture there and the listener knows instinctively that we've changed track. Even simple body language can indicate that one topic is now closed and a new one is about to start.

In a similar way, a book has to jump from scene to scene but does not have the luxury of a few sentences in between, to set up the new passage.

Transition is about smoothly linking one scene to another. Sometimes, in editing, this means adding words, not simply taking them away.

An ideal transition would be one word - if it conveys the change. As with the rest of editing, the trick is to add as few words as possible that allow the reader to quickly see what's happened.

No transition means that it can take a reader quite a few lines to realize that the characters are no longer in the jungle but on an ocean liner. The reader will assume that whatever is happening, is happening in the jungle - and it will really confuse when the cry of a seagull is heard halfway through a conversation.

TV and film have such an advantage here. They can fade to black and show a new scene for a few seconds before the action restarts. The fade to black is easy to show in print - a chapter or scene break can be easily read. It's that opening shot that is so difficult to get right.

Too many words and you can lose the reader. If someone confronts the hero with a gun as an opener to the new scene, the reader will not expect a few paragraphs about the scenery to follow before we find out about the shooter.

Similarly, if we spend half a page talking about the landscape and then mention that someone has the hero at gunpoint; it won't sit right with the reader.

So please, when you're wielding the red pen in an effort to cut out unnecessary words, remember there are two common definitions of edit:

1. To eliminate; delete

2. To prepare (written material) for publication or presentation, as by correcting, revising, or adapting

Please keep in mind that in preparing a manuscript for submission, the process is best reflected by the second description. The first is simply a part of that wider definition. If you can remember that editing is as much about what you add as take away, then your final manuscript will benefit greatly.
About the Author
Mark Walton is the author of 19 Ways to Dramatically Improve Your Manuscript Editing, a self-help guide for writers. If you want to improve your chances of getting a story published then visit http://www.betternovelwriting.com/Editing.htm and see how quickly and easily your writing can advance.
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