13 February 2016

Please... Learn How To #Edit

Far too many writers rely on their generation-ago education for their sense of written English, forgetting that bad habits can creep in over the years. Worse, they abrogate responsibility in their own work: but the publisher’s editor will sort that. Only to a certain degree. If it’s too much of a dog’s breakfast, the work will gain a rejection slip. Editing is time consuming, and therefore expensive. The better self-edited a final copy the more likely an acceptance.

Reading aloud is the No 1 editing tool. Speak your own punctuation. If you are fighting for breath add in commas where needed. Could a long sentence be spoken more easily if split into two? Can’t get your tongue round the words, or the context sounds confusing? Check the sentence structure and rewrite to enhance fluidity.

Really look at what you’ve written and don’t read what you think you’ve written.

How many exclamation marks are used? When I was a reader for a literary consultancy I received a script littered with them. Picking a single page, I ringed each in red ink. There were 33. The writer emailed back full of apologies and thanks – the epidemic had not been noticed.

Software such as Grammarly or Pro Writing Aid will pick up such blindness, but so will Word via a global search.

This blogpost came about because I was handed a paperback novel. As many do, in the Acknowledgements the author had showered praise on the book’s editor. Was it justified?

Second page in (narrative only) – 5 adverbs: highly, cruelly, bravely, remorselessly, inexorably.
Two-thirds in (dialogue exchange) – 10 adverbs: curiously, anxiously, reassuringly, awkwardly, thoughtfully, embarrassedly, softly, numbly, eagerly, lovingly
Each list is from a single page, and all the pages I flicked through were the same.

Had it been me, I wouldn’t have showered praise; I would have complained – bitterly. There again, it’s the author’s own fault. If the author had undertaken a global search for ly[space] and highlighted in yellow each instance, the problem would have been more than obvious.

Study a couple of pages of your work, identify possible oversights, and undertake a global search to see how many times each is repeated. It could save blushes later.


  1. Years ago, well decades really, I handed a piece of writing to a neighbour to check for me. He wasn't just any old guy, but a well-educated and well-read Swiss gentleman who had been living in England for many years. His English was impeccable. This was in the days before PCs were common, and the script I handed to him consisted of over 100 sheets of single-spaced typing.
    He came back to me with many words of praise, for the story, the characterisation, the structure and the atmosphere. One short piece of criticism, couched in kind words. He told me he had been through the entire MS and counted the number of 'ly' words. The total astounded me (I can't now recall the actual figure). That MS, once freed of the majority of those sneaky adverbs, turned into the first draft of my first published novel, Breaking Faith. I have a lot to thank Dominic for: an unnoticed fascination with adverbs. These days I'm a little more careful in my choice of verbs, reducing the need for qualification.
    An interesting piece, Linda. Thank you.

    1. It's interesting how we come upon such self-learning. Back in the days of Methuselah, I cut my writing teeth on women's magazines. A part of me gleamed at seeing my name in print. Another knew the story wasn't entirely mine and I'd sit with my carbon-copy and a red Biro until the two matched. My ambition was to check line by line, word by word, comma by comma, and put down the red pen unused. It was the biggest delight of my writing life when that occurred. I believe one might call it an apprenticeship.

      Thanks for calling by to tell of your own.

  2. Replies
    1. Thanks for that accolade - for the pair of us! Writers can more easily buy in editing services now, but I'd still use more than one, and on short pieces, to see with their eyes rather than rely on a single unknown "skill".