Friday, July 16, 2010

One Useful Editing Technique

By Scott Rhoades

I do most of my writing and editing on my computers. I use the computer when I'm planning, and stay on the computer clear to the submission process, which is also mostly done on the computer these days.

But at some point, usually as I near completion, I print out the entire manuscript. The text looks and feels different on a printed page than it does on the screen, and I can use a little technique that I have found works well for me.

Here's what I do. I get some markers, at least three different colors. You might want more, if you need to look for more things. Then, with the manuscript printed out, I choose one marker and start skimming the manuscript, looking for one thing, and only one thing. For example, on the first pass I might look for either adjectives or adverbs (but not both). If I have noticed another frequent flaw, such as a word I use too often, like maybe a character's name, or dialogue tags, or filters like "felt," "thought," "saw," "heard," and so on. (I'll blog more about those some other time. Maybe I'll look for typographical errors, but I've probably found most of those with spellcheck. The key is, I only look for one of those problems in a single pass, and use one color to mark every place where one of those words appears.

It's important that I don't actually read, or I'll get caught up in the story. For this edit, the writing doesn't matter. I'm looking for a single thing. If I find myself wanting to read, I'll skim the page from bottom to top, right to left.

I take a separate pass over the manuscript for each thing I want to look for. For example, I'll make one pass, marking adjectives in yellow, then a second pass, marking adverbs in blue, and so on.

Focus is the key. I avoid reading, and if I see something other than what I'm looking for, I ignore it. If I'm making an adjectives pass, nothing else on the page matters but adjectives. After that pass, I have a bunch of yellow marks that clearly show me whether I used too many.

But I don't fix them yet, or even go back and try to figure out whether they even need to be fixed. It's not time for that. It's time to skim through the whole piece again, looking for the next thing I want to identify, such as adverbs.

Sure, I could do this on the screen, using my word processor's marker tool. However, because I usually work on the screen, I'll see the same words and sentences I always see. Printing it out forces me to look at each page a different way than I usually do, so I'll find things I might skip over on the screen. If you use the familiar view, you'll see what you think is there, or what you meant to say, rather than what's really there. And, you'll be tempted to read because you haven't changed your process.

I can't say this too often: it's critical that I don't read, and that I look for only one thing. If I lose focus, I can guarantee that I'll miss stuff. I'll probably miss a few anyway, but if I stay focused, I'll catch nearly all of the instances of whatever I'm marking this pass. It sounds time consuming to make so many passes, but it's really not that bad. Because you're not reading, you'll find that you spot whatever you're looking for pretty quickly and it won't take long to finish a pass.

When you've finished all of your passes and your manuscript is loaded with colors, you'll be able to quickly identify anything that's a problem for you. If you're anything like me, you'll think you used a few well-placed adjectives, but when you've marked them all, you'll see that the story is drowning in them. There's nothing wrong with an adjective, but if you've used a lot of them, and especially if you've stacked them two or three deep on a single noun, it's an indication that your nouns might not be as strong as they can be.

Next, you go back to the 'puter to make your changes. Again, change only one thing at a time and avoid reading. Look at each adverb carefully and decide whether it can be eliminated by using a stronger verb. Can "Jack said softly" be replaced by "Jack whispered" or "Jack mumbled"? Can you replace "the green grass" with "the grass" or "the lawn"? After all, "grass" usually is green, so the color is only important if it's not green. Can you say "the well-manicured, soft green grass" another way that shows it better than any chain of adjectives can?

You don't have to change everything you've marked. There's nothing wrong with adjectives is they are the best way to show what you want to show. But you should consider each one and decide what to keep and what to change, and stay aware of how many you use.

This is my technique. Try it. It might work for you, or you might discover something better for the way you work. But if you look at the pages a different way than you usually do, and if you mark potential problem items in a way that they jump off the page and flick you on the tip of your nose, you're much more likely to find problems you might otherwise miss. Or, you might happily discover that you really don't have any problem with adjectives. Either way, you win and you can feel more confident in your work.


Julie Daines said...

Good idea. I usually print out the manuscript and read it marking different problems, but this is a good way to distance yourself from the story and really focus on the words. I'll give it a try!

Anji Sandage said...

I like this idea :) thanks!