Most writers tend to fall into one of two categories: the under-writer and the over-writer. Let’s call these the starveling and the bloater. The starveling produces bare, stark first drafts; there might only be slashes of dialogue without any ‘stage directions’ to show what the characters are doing, or hardly any description, or scant exposition. Some starvelings I know write first drafts that read like synopses. Their subsequent drafts involve adding all the extras – the ornaments, if you like – to the basic story. But this piece isn’t about starvelings. Their problems will be discussed another time. No, this is for the bloaters among you.
Bloaters are greedy for words. Not for them the crisp-bread and Philadelphia Lite of first drafts. They often say the same thing over and over, but in slightly different ways. The trouble is, when the words are pouring out and some of those sentences are just so tasty, they seem too good to waste. Bloaters might go over the top with description. Disciplined descriptive detail makes for good story-telling, but too much of it gets in the way of the story. Readers get bored and lose interest.
Sometimes, when you’re writing, it’s easy to include dialogue and description – even whole scenes – that have little or no bearing on pushing the story forward. In later drafts, all that can go. But the problem is, when you’re so close to a piece of work, it’s often difficult to determine exactly what’s essential and what isn’t. After all, the story is a virtual living world in your imagination. You know everything about it and you want your readers to share that experience. Cutting too much might damage that vision. In a full length novel, it isn’t always necessary to junk all the sub-plots and ‘asides’. They can enrich the story rather than hamper it. The trick is to achieve a balance.
It’s important to remember that the short story and the novel are very different animals. You have to be much stricter with yourself about extraneous detail in a short story, which should be as polished and perfect as you can get it. Editing and writing are two distinct skills. But despite this, I believe that all writers can train themselves to edit their own work to some extent. So, how do you start learning the skill?
It helps to get other people to look at your work, especially if they read a lot themselves. Tell them what you want them to look for, stressing you want an honest response – you won’t bite their heads off if they come back with negative remarks. (That’s something I could write another whole article on – accepting helpful criticism gracefully!) The main things for them to search for are repeated and unnecessary information. Once your readers have come back with their opinions, take a look at the story again. On your computer, create a copy of the story, make those cuts, print the piece out, and read it once more. Does the story work better now? Has the narrative flow improved without losing any of the atmosphere you set up?
Another helpful practice is to read your story aloud – you can be sure that repetitions and tedious sections will make their presence known. If you can, read to an audience of one or more – their comments will be helpful too.
The object of the exercise is to remove all information from the story that waylays the reader unnecessarily, that does nothing to progress the plot or plump up characterisation. It’s often tempting to keep sections in, because you think they build a character up in the reader’s mind. Pages of personal history about your protagonists might be useful as a reference source for you – but how much does the reader need to know for the story to work for them? Be severe with yourself here. Don’t let your story get drowned by torrents of irrelevant personal detail.
It helps to try out different readers until you come across the one (or more) who seems to give the best advice. If you can join a writers’ workshop or creative writing class, even better. (If there isn’t one in your area, you could start one). This is because another good way to learn how to edit your own work is to edit other people’s. It’s surprising how much you can pick up from their mistakes!
Once you’ve found your unofficial editor, nine times out of ten their suggestions will bring unexpected new life to a story. I’m often amazed at how judicial cutting seems to electrify the prose, bringing everything into focus. Observing what other people regard as non-essential information helps train you to recognise it yourself.
Bloat notoriously shakes the meaning of a piece of text out of focus, such as when a writer says in twenty words what can easily be said in ten. I’m not talking about description here (although that can suffer from this fault), but simple narrative. Most commonly, the problem manifests as an army of words that colonise your sentences, thereby obscuring the meaning and creating an area of mud in which the reader loses their footing.
Here’s an example; a sentence from the original draft of a story, which once appeared in a magazine I edited. The protagonist is just taking a bite from a chicken leg. The original sentence read:
‘Her jaws moved, but as far as she was concerned it was nothing more than an inedible pulp’.
There is a grammatical problem with this sentence too, but after he reworked the story, the author’s final version read:
‘Her jaws moved with effort.’
The reworded sentence conveys all the meaning of the first – she didn’t really enjoy the meat – without all the padding. To keep more description, the sentence could also have been reworded as: ‘Her jaws moved, but the meat was an inedible pulp in her mouth.’ The wording is still more concise than in the original sentence and the meaning is clear.
A good exercise is to take a paragraph from one of your stories and chop it by half. Be harsh with yourself. This is just an exercise. Do it in three or four different ways. Cut different words. Reword sentences more concisely. But notice the effect on the whole.
An excess of unnecessary words might not be the problem. Perhaps you are one of those writers who has to say everything at least twice. You think of one metaphor to describe the moonlight, you think of another. They both make your skin tingle, so both have to go in. As they’re both so evocative and sensual, surely no-one will mind them being there? But there are hundreds of ways to describe something creatively – so why waste them all on one story? Again, learn to recognise when you’re repeating yourself, and keep the repetitions in a separate file or on paper. Use them somewhere else, on their own, where they can shine like gems.
It’s taken me over ten years of professional writing and fourteen novels to train myself to spot occasions of bloat. Even now, I don’t notice them all, especially when I’ve just finished writing a novel or story, and I’m still too close to it. It’s usually after a month or so, when the copy-edited manuscript comes back from the publishers, that the repetitions, over-long descriptions and unnecessary details, scenes and dialogue leap from the page at me. My writing now is a lot more concise than it was. But one thing I have learned over the years: I don’t expect my first, or even my second, drafts to be perfect. Criticising yourself too harshly at this early stage can lead to writer’s block. There’ll be plenty of time later to get out the polishing tools.
Writing can be a difficult process. The stories blossom in our minds, but when we sit down to commit them to screen or paper, the words often don’t come out as scintillating as we imagined them – or worse, they refuse to come out at all. We have the vision in our minds, the essential feeling, but sometimes despair of capturing that in the written word. It’s important to just write. Train yourself to think as you write rather than before you write. Editing a piece of work is the easy part, the enjoyable process of tinkering with the words. Most of us are either starvelings or bloaters. Sometimes I’m one or the other. The main thing is learning the techniques of your craft, so you can polish your stories yourself.