Writing Advice: Editing Fiction Tips
By Emma Evans
Once upon a time, there was a writer who had to edit a piece of work and had no idea where to start…
Ever finished writing, delighted to have written a variation of ‘The End’, and gone back to the piece a few days later to begin editing and have absolutely no idea where to start? Me too. As a writer myself, I struggle with having to edit a piece of work and I have sometimes spent ages wondering which bits to cut and change or where to even start in the process in the first place. Using what I have learnt as a writer, and now a fiction sub-editor for HCE, I have put together some tips for what you could focus your editing upon before submitting to a publication.
Check Story Tense – Have you started your story in the past or present tense? You should’ve and probably did already have your tense choice in mind, but make sure that throughout your story the tense remains the same – unless, of course, you are including a flashforward or flashback!
For example, take a look at the sentence below, the first written in past tense and the second written in present:
Sam walked out of his house. OR Sam walks out of his house.
It is fairly easy to slip out of one tense and into the other, sometimes without even realising you have done, so don’t worry if you notice a change in tense while you edit. When you do notice it, decide on one tense (as mentioned, you probably already know which you want to be writing in) and continue writing in that tense!
Check For Any Surplus Words/Phrases – From experience, my early drafts tend to ‘overexplain’ in places; describing things that the reader would understand without me having to sound it out to them. Taking the surplus words or phrases out should be considered.
Take a look at this example below:
The man, frightened and alone, crept along the dark, dusty passageway on his tiptoes, so as not to make a noise and be heard by the people in the many rooms he needed to pass.
Now take a look at the edited version:
The frightened man crept along the dark passageway, so as not to be heard by the people he needed to pass.
As we can see, taking out some of the surplus description – rather than ‘doubling up’ on it – allows the reader to assume things for themselves and doesn’t overexplain things.
Check Story Flow – Does your story make sense? An obvious question with an obvious answer – but it does need to be thought about when editing. For example, if your main character fears snakes as a pivotal character point and, at the end of your story, holds a snake happily with no time/explanation given to how the fear of snakes has been resolved. Your story may not make sense and your readers (and editor!) will pick up on this – and the story will feel disjointed.
As an aside, check for repetition in your story. Repeating exact phrases so close to one another can disjoint the flow of your story, so ensure exact phrases aren’t too close together.
Word Count – Think about the publication you are hoping to submit to and if any word count guidelines are in place. If the publication asks for 2000 words for a fiction piece, and your piece is finished in 2025, think about what you could cut/rephrase in order to hit the word count. For 25 words over the word count, it may only be small things such as repetitive phrasing or surplus words and phrases but is something you’d need to do to meet the word count requirement. Meeting the word count is worth doing, as it shows you have read the guidelines and editors will not discard your submission for not meeting the criteria set out. Furthermore, there may be a reason for that limit being in place, such as restricted page space.
Story Elements – Every story, obviously, needs a beginning, middle, and end. Make sure your story has each of these arguably basic elements. Loosely, introduce your characters early, have them encounter a problem, and have them resolve the problem they have encountered/leave the audience on a cliff-hanger and with questions.
Proof-read – An essential part of editing. Usually, the last thing to do before you submit, but can also prove helpful throughout your writing process. Proof-reading will help to make sure that the edits you have made make sense and also helps you pick up parts to edit/look at as you go along. Checking punctuation and grammar is important here too. Have you used a comma rather than a full stop? Have you used the correct there/their/they’re? If you can, ask a friend or family member to read the piece also – they can pick up things you won’t be able to see after working on something for a while.
The tips above – if followed in a loose ‘order’ can give a process to your editing but there isn’t a need to follow these tips in any order at all. Don’t worry if you have to edit more than once – that’s okay too! Furthermore, as you look to edit, you may find that one of the tips above isn’t applicable to your editing and that it’s not a ‘problem’ – this is great! Don’t feel you need to check off everything in this list, it is just giving you some pointers of things you can look at.
Also remember, editors – to varying degrees, depending on which publication you’ve submitted to – will also edit your work and may create a dialogue with you about that but it is helpful that you also look over it yourself too.
All writers – including myself – have probably been in the hating-editing mood at some point. So don’t worry if you don’t like doing it, many most likely feel the same. Just also remember, it is important to do….no matter how much you don’t like it! By doing it, your piece becomes well-crafted and improves your chances of getting accepted for publication.
Good luck with your submissions!