Editing techniques: How to streamline your writing

Writing “in the moment” without pausing to review is a perfect way to create, because you don’t want the critical half of your brain self-consciously poking at the less-inhibited, imaginative half while it’s doing its thing. However, a side effect of completely freewheeling story-creation is that your imagination will zoom in and out on the details so fast your hands can barely keep up. As a result, the story pouring forth  may seem disjointed with illogical actions/reactions or a muddled chronology.

To prepare this raw text for reader consumption, first you need to edit it, but this can be tricky. Now that you have “seen” the story playing out in your mind, you know what happens, so you aren’t experiencing it as a first-time reader would. This is why so many writing experts recommend putting your manuscript aside for as long as possible (a month or more) — so you can forget some of the details. It’s also why a content edit from a professional is so worthwhile. Not only do you get a break from your manuscript, someone adept at identifying story inconsistencies and problem areas can flag these for you and show you your own story through a stranger’s eyes.

Here is an example paragraph based on a manuscript I edited recently:

She saw the malfunctioning android too late – its eye sensors flashed recognition. Before she could turn to run back down the corridor, the android caught her arm. It lunged at her, its cold metal pincers locking tight around her forearm. She felt her legs buckle in fear. It had released an electrical screech of victory the moment it caught her.

It’s pretty clear what the author was going for here: a moment of capture and fear – a human trapped by a “crazy,” malfunctioning machine. However, there are several places here where readers could be jarred out of the story experience. This is essentially a snapshot of the author’s creative process – not a finished product. You can see how the scene unfolded in the author’s mind and came into sharper focus as they wrote, but the result is that the first and second sentences describe the very same moment in two different ways.

In my experience, whenever information is repeated, the second version is almost always the more vivid and detailed version, because the author saw the big picture first and then the details started popping into view. In this case, the second sentence includes more descriptive active verbs (“lunged”) and more specific detail (“cold metal,” “flashing eye sensors,” and her “forearm”). The terrifying electrical screech that adds so much atmosphere to the scene is currently placed where the author thought of it, but it’s not in the best place for the audience, because they have to add it in retroactively.

The edited version below shows how this paragraph can be tweaked to eliminate the repetition and wordiness (e.g. the excess “had” and the unnecessary “felt”). The action has been streamlined, the tension is still high, and the most vivid details are there but there’s less repetition. The word count has been reduced by twelve unnecessary words. As George Orwell said, “If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.”

Edited version, ready for author’s approval and final adjustments

She saw the malfunctioning android too late – its eye sensors flashed recognition. Before she could turn to run back down the corridor, the android caught her arm. It lunged at her. Its, its cold metal pincers locking locked tight around her forearm. It released an electrical screech of victory, She felt her and her legs buckled in fear. It had released an electrical screech of victory the moment it caught her.

Final version, without tracking marks

She saw the malfunctioning android too late – its eye sensors flashed recognition. Before she could turn to run back down the corridor, the android lunged at her. Its cold metal pincers locked tight around her forearm. It released an electrical screech of victory, and her legs buckled in fear. 

 

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