Thursday, 8 April 2010

Theoretical and Critical Reflection. Or in other words, editing.

Get out that red pen!

Editing, like writing, sounds easy, but it’s not. Writing is one thing, but the real hard work starts with editing your masterpiece. That doesn’t just mean checking for grammar and spelling. There’s a lot more to look out for, because, like writing, editing is an acquired skill - the more you do, the more efficient you become.

Of course, stepping back from your work and reading it objectively isn’t that easy. To edit you will need an editor’s eye to spot those errors – and there will be errors. Nothing you produce will be perfect first time.

The best way to edit your work is to leave it for a while, a week or two, or a month, whatever feels best, and then come back to it with fresh eyes and a fresh perspective. There are several strategies that can help with editing and rewriting. Most writers tend to silently read what they've written, but reading it aloud is a useful way in which to ‘hear’ your story, and a good way to spot any glitches with the overall flow of the story.

Errors come in all forms, and not just the usual ones like spelling and grammar. You need to consider structure, continuity, plot flaws and accuracy (especially if your story is filled with facts and figures).

Let’s look as these more closely:

Spelling - Spellcheck tools are okay to a point, but don’t rely too much on them because US and UK variant spellings of some words may confuse, plus they don’t always give accurate types of possessive pronouns like its and it’s. Spellcheckers also have a tendency to confuse they’re with their. Invest in a dictionary/thesaurus. The best way to check words...look them up.

Grammar - Not everyone knows about nouns, verbs, adverbs or adjectives and so on, so if in doubt, use a dictionary to help you understand them better. I’ll break them down as follows:-

Passive/Active verbs.

On the whole, you need to avoid passive verbs and use active verbs instead. The active verb means the subject is doing something, e.g., ‘Mike watered the flowers.’ The passive verb happens when something is being done to the subject, like ‘the flowers were watered by Mike.’

Adverbs

Invariably this means turning a noun into an adverb. These are words that describe how something was done. For instance, the word desperately. ‘He shouted desperately.’ If the writing is skilful and realistic enough, the reader will know the character is desperate, without needing the adverb as a surplus endorsement.

It’s important to observe the same rule for dialogue:-

“Go away!’ she shouted aggressively.
“That’s beautiful,’ he said, lovingly.

Too many adverbs will clutter the writing and will end up irritating the reader, so avoid them in dialogue. It’s impossible to avoid them altogether in your narrative,sometimes they are needed, so if you do, make sure they're relevant, and use them sparingly, and never drop them into dialogue.

Adjectives

These words modify a noun or pronoun to give more depth to description, but too many adjectives will kill any description. Many new writers use double adjectives to pepper their narrative and plump up descriptions. Using a second adjective will almost always weaken the first one, so the advice here is keep it simple. See the following examples. The adjectives are in bold.

Mike fell against the brown muddy ground, his long grey shirt sinking into the dangerous, deep dirt.

By removing some adjectives, the sentence reads better:-

Mike fell against the muddy ground, his long shirt sinking into the deep dirt.

It would be better still to let nouns and adverbs do the work:-

As he fell against the muddy ground, his shirt sank into the dirt.

Don’t pay too much attention to the old rules of grammar taught to you at school either, since they don’t apply to general fiction. Why? Because it’s okay to start a sentence with the word ‘Because’, or ‘But’ or ‘And’.

If in doubt about the technicalities of grammar, consult a grammar book or suitable online references. Most of all, if it feels right, it generally is.


Overall Structure - when reading your story, does it all make sense; does it flow smoothly from scene to scene? You may find there are elements within the narrative that don’t belong there or don’t make sense. Are your descriptive passages too long or too short? Remember sentence and word structure, too– is there a balance within the narrative, and do the sentences have rhythm? Can you improve the sentence by a change of word order?

Every word is as important as every sentence and every paragraph.

Continuity – This is one of the easiest errors to make in any story/novel. This means knowing where the characters are, what they were doing from the last scene, and making sure they’re wearing the correct clothes/hairstyle/glasses etc. For instance, did the hero have a shirt and tie on in the previous scene, but in a new scene, he has jeans and T-shirt? The same principle applies to locations. Was the dining table a pine table on page 7 and then mahogany on page 12?


Just about anything can cause continuity errors, so I would advise making simple notes to accompany the story/novel as you go along, so you can refer back any time you have a query about the colour of John’s jeans or the date of the victim’s murder, etc.


Plot flaws/plot holes – You need to be able to spot inconsistencies within your story, illogical or unbelievable events, things that happen in your narrative for no apparent reason, or events that conflict with or contradict earlier events in the story. Sometimes you may find gaping holes in your plot, other times it may be just a small inconsistency like one of your characters dying early in the story and later popping up to chat to your main character. Close those plot flaws satisfactorily and logically without resorting to deux ex machina.


A little side note - beware Deux Ex Machina (Complete Cop Out)

This Latin word literally means ‘god from the machine’ and originated in Greek theatre. It means that a problem/gaping plot flaw/inconsistency is suddenly and miraculously solved by often contrived, outlandish means. For instance, the heroine’s house will be demolished unless she can find funding to keep it, but she’s unable. The bulldozers move in, all is lost...until at the last minute a bloke turns up and advises her she’s inherited £50 million. Ta da. Complete cop out.

Avoid relying on this kind of plot device in your writing, because it nearly always means lazy writing!



Accuracy – Are the facts correct? Are your dates, places and names accurate? How relevant is the information? If you have an historical story, have you checked all the relevant data for that period? Research, research, research. Always check your facts.

Editing is a key factor in recognising strengths and weaknesses in your creative writing, and the resulting rewrite is just as important as the creative element of your first draft. There are no set limits, so edit and rewrite until it is as good as you can make it.


Common grammatical errors to avoid:

•Possessive pronouns, such as It’s confused with Its. They’re called
that to denotes possession. It’s is a possessive pronoun and is a contraction of IT IS. Its, as in ‘In its heyday...’ is not a possessive pronoun.

• Noun and verb confusion – Things like advice and advise, effect and affect.
• Plural of collective nouns – Children’s, People’s, Company’s, Companies’.


Summary - Important points when editing your work

1. Cut your draft to size - cut any superfluous dialogue.
2. Structure – Does the story flow and make sense?
3. Check your facts.
4. Read the story silently.
5. Read the story aloud.
6. Check your grammar and spelling.
7. Timing/Continuity – Have you talked about character picking up a child from school, when the next day is Sunday?
8. Eliminate plot flaws.
9. Be objective.
10. Aim to be different


Next time: Flash Fiction

6 comments:

  1. Great advice again, thanks. I'm putting a link on my blog to yours if that's ok. Great post.

    Regards, David.

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  2. You're certainly living up to the title of the blog, AJ. Great stuff this.

    HOWEVER... what, no mention of the split infinitive? That little bugger always gets me!
    And tenses... when you're in the midst of things sometimes these can screw you too!

    (Tongue in cheek, but I'd certainly be interested in your take on these two blighters.)

    And thanks for giving so much thought and energy to this post.

    Regards,
    Col

    Ps. Linked both your sites on me blog.

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  3. Hi David - Appreciate the link to yours, thanks!

    ReplyDelete
  4. Col, cheers for the feedback, and the links.

    I think I might put a common list together of those pesky little blighters in a upcoming post. Lots of writers do struggle with split infinitives, tenses, double negatives, POV's and so on, so thanks for the heads up, I'll put something together.

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  5. Such great advice! I have to say, this is one of the best blogs I've come across when it comes to writing advice. I do have a question, though; when editing a piece, I've always been told it's best to get outside opinions and possible edits from other people, rather than to just go over it yourself. Would you recommend this, or would it just be a case of too many cooks spoiling the meal?

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    Replies
    1. Hi Aleisha,

      Glad you enjoy the blog.

      In response to your question, it is recommended that you get feedback and opinions from others, especially fellow writers or teachers or peers from writing groups etc. (Don't get feedback from friends or family because it will never be balanced - they will love it, regardless!). The idea of opinions from feedback or critique is that you can get a good idea whether your story works, or whether is needs improvement. They can spot errors that you may not see.

      In truth, no writer is perfect. We all need a fresh pair of eyes to go over our work, until you get to the stage where you have gained a vast amount of experience and knowledge that you can make edits yourself and feel confident that EVERYTHING is covered. Until that time, always seek feedback.

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