Thursday 22 September 2011


This is adapted from a much earlier post, but that one has been lost in the tangle of brambles and ivy, and I thought it could do with an airing. Especially since I'm in the middle of a novel revision and editing is uppermost in my mind.

I guess that the possible methods for self-editing are similar to the possible methods for weeding your garden.
  1. Go from one end to the other, picking out all the weeds carefully.
  2. Wander about, picking out weeds as you see them.
  3. Decide that weeds are just plants with more determination and that, since everything is equal in God's eyes, they should be allowed to remain. (Please don't take this view of the weeds in your book. Not if you want to be published and read.)
Then I decided that this analogy is rubbish and that, as with all analogies, it is aesthetically pleasing and yet practically pointless.

There are, in fact, only three things you need to think about when weeding your garden:
  1. You need to know the difference between a weed and a plant.
  2. And you just have to get rid of the damned weeds. Doesn't matter how - just do it.
  3. No matter how carefully you do it, you'll find more weeds at the end, because the removal of one weed often reveals another lurking beneath.
I decided that this is not complete rubbish after all and is a pretty good analogy for editing your own work, because:
  1. You need to know what possible errors you're looking for - the difference between a good sentence / plot structure and a crappy one, just as you need to know what's a weed and what's not.
  2. And you just need to get rid of the errors.
  3. And when you've got rid of one lot, another lot is revealed.
  4. So you get rid of them.
  5. And so on.
  6. Until your piece of work is weed-free.
Would you like any help with the identification of weeds? I am here for you, as ever. There are two categories of weeds in your literary garden.

CATEGORY ONE WEEDS are the choking bindweedy ones, which threaten to take over your roses and throttle the life-blood from them. (There are actually many of these in my real garden and at least one in my WIP.) These must be removed early on, by the roots, otherwise your roses cannot grow and your garden, frankly, is fit only for slugs and other vermin. It is, in the words of Rab C Nesbit, pish. Examples are:
  • Poor characterisation - either in your MCs or your supporting acts. Do your characters always behave as they should? Does the reader like / respect/ identify with / feel for the MC? (We don't need to do all those things, but we have to care.)
  • Pace problems - I wrote about that here.
  • Tension issues - where is the tension? Is it in the right place? Is it satisfied at the right time?
  • Voice slippages - see here.
  • Major POV slippages - here you are.
  • Story structure / shape / arc problems - over here.
  • Saggy middle - hmm. I went searching for posts about saggy middles but kept finding myself mentioning them but never tackling them. This is rather the case in real life, too. I will have to tackle the saggy middle. Soon.
  • Crappy ending - here.
  • Story starting in the wrong place - gosh, I'm good to you.
  • And a lot more - which is not very helpful of me but I have a book to write.
To be honest, you really shouldn't have let most of these anywhere near your garden in the first place. If you are a beginner writer, your book may be littered with these horrors, but a more experienced writer will avoid almost all of them before they appear.

CATEGORY TWO WEEDS are smaller things, which all writers will find in their first drafts and which we will apply the weeding gloves to with a commendable ruthlessness. Our editors and copy-editors and proof-readers will pick up any that we didn't spot but we want to leave as little as possible for these people. It's our book, not theirs. (Also, publishers nowadays don't like to use editors etc more than they need to. Grrr.) Category Two weeds are like those dainty things that try to pretend they're real flowers. Sometimes my husband thinks they are and he leaves them. Sometimes he takes out the pretty flowers instead. He is like a novice writer when it comes to weeding, which in his case it usually doesn't, actually. Examples are:
  • Places where tweaks should be made to clarify characterisation / motivation / credibility.
  • Clunky sentences - sentences where you have clustered a collection of clauses in an ugly order, for example, making it hard for the reader to read.
  • Minor POV or voice slippage.
  • Places where thre's too much telling when showing would have been better. Extraneous adverbs.
  • Continuity issues - eg saying that the MC leapt onto the horse's bare back and then later mentioning the stirrups. I have done this. Oh and then there was the one [which made it through all the copy-editors and all the way into the printed book] where a girl flings open the door of a room which ten minutes before I'd said was locked on the other side...
  • Typos, spelling errors, punctuation etc etc. And yes, there will be some in this post. I'll find them eventually. But probably not all of them, because this is a blog post and I can change it later. So shut up, please.
  • Anything that doesn't sound absofrigginglutely perfect when you read it aloud, imagining that your audience consists of fidgety people who are assuming you've got nothing interesting to tell them and they're desperate to leave.
When you've done all that, there's only one more thing to do. Do it again. And possibly again. 

One of the problems is that the weed you removed may have hidden roots. You will have noticed the same in books: if you change one thing, you'll find you have created knock-on effects which now have to be dealt with. So, you do have to remove weeds and plot problems by the root and make sure you've not forgotten any tendrils. I suggest keeping a notebook as you revise and jotting down things you've changed, so that you can check that you've found all the consequences. However, this is a bit methody for me and I prefer the madness approach and the constant re-reading.

And when you're quite sure that no weed is peeping up between the soil of your well-raked flower-border, then you can let an agent or publisher see it. By which time, a previously invisible seed will have begun to sprout, and what you thought was perfection won't be. That's because perfection is unattainable in writing as in gardening, and you have to get over it.

Have I answered your questions? Probably not. See, I don't really have a method. I just do it. And do it again. I honestly think once you can identify the weeds, pulling them out is not that difficult. You can choose whatever weeding method works for you: just get rid of the little buggers.

Oh, and by the way, spell-check and grammar-check are the equivalent of weed-killer: they don't let anything grow. They kill indiscriminately and remove control from the gardener. They may have their place for some people but they are not enough for anyone. Real writers use their hands.

Here's one I made earlier, with not a weed in sight. (Obviously a lot earlier, since this is September and those are not Septemberish seedlings.)


M Louise Kelly said...

Oh, this is so apposite I could almost kiss you (though i'm sure you're far too well dressed today to deal with such droolings!)

I am in a mire of editing and was getting despondent at the way removing one set of weeds shows up others and there you are telling me that that's how it is, and just get on with it, and get my hands dirty! It's what we all need to hear - or at least I do!

I *think* i can identify category 1 weeds but occasionally still get seduced into putting them in. Category 2 ones are driving me mad... but now i'm going to face the day relishing the notion of rooting them out, rather than with the heavy heart i had half an hour ago. So cheers Nicola.

Anonymous said...

My current draft is many tens of thousands of words away from a full end-to-end revision (and grew out of the last one) but "Places where tweaks should be made to clarify characterisation / motivation / credibility" are something I'm doing every 10,000 words in an iterative sort of way. I suppose there's weeding you can do as you go along and then there's the weeding you can't do until you can step back and take a view of the whole garden...

Fabulously useful checklist as well, by the way!

Elen C said...

"a more experienced writer will avoid almost all of them before they appear."

I agreed with everything you say, except this. I think it depends on your writing method. If you are a planner, then, yes, you'd expect your characters etc to be well-formed in your first draft. However, if you are a 'pantser' then chapters 1-5 of your first draft might have to be binned because you ended up writing a different story. So, I think people shouldn't feel bad about having weed-infested words, as long as they anticipate it given their writing method.

JoMacdonald said...

I'm currently editing too so this is a massively helpful and timely post for me. Thanks.

kirstyriddiford said...

I'm going to print out your article and tape it to the wall next to my PC! Sometimes you need someone to spell out to you things you already know - and I love the weed analogy.

Karen Baldwin said...

Ha! LOve your weed analogy. And speaking of current novel is about a woman who's cultivating a native prairie and all it's wildflowers, a.k.a. weeds!

Dorte H said...

Very sound advice.

Will just add one piece: when you have weeded for so long you are getting crosseyed and have begun to think the wild oats are as pretty as the roses, it may be time to call in help from other gardeners.

Some weeds are very easy for me to find, but as I know exactly what I meant by every bit and piece, there may be scenes that do not make sense for the readers. Or occasionally I add too many clues, annoying my clever beta-readers.

pisithphal said...

can you help me edit my story please?

Kath McGurl said...

This is all great advice and very useful as I am currently in weed-removing mode in my WIP. Blimming hard work it is too. I'd rather be digging over the veg plot and planting some spuds.

Wendy Lyth said...

That wonderful post just about sums up my recent frustration: every time I re-read, I revise. It's never ending. I was screaming to myself: Just stop! Leave it alone! And you have put an end to my misery, for which I thank you. That would be the bit about perfection. It's similar to art - when do you stop adding to a picture?