Two months immobility, following my bicycle-mud related ankle-break, has given me lots of time to write, edit and reflect upon the mechanics of both, so here are a few thoughts from the sofa:
1. Don’t edit while your write. You could get stuck endlessly refining the first sentence, which will probably change anyway.
2. Don’t edit immediately after writing, but do edit for spelling, grammar and style at your next session; this gets you in the mental zone and develops good habits. Save major edits for the first draft stage when you have an overview. Put your work to bed and sleep on it, to mix some metaphors.
3. Edit for structure and story once you have a whole draft and refine your style, tone and narrative voice. On subsequent drafts, identify and enhance themes; for example, one of your emerging themes is attitudes to money and materialism, so perhaps grandpapa should give your main protagonist a piggy bank when he’s seven not a train set.
4. Check your facts and do your research. Fact checking has never been easier so don’t let yourself down with anachronisms and errors. One factual error can undermine your credibility with the reader. However, don’t let Google lead you astray so your precious writing time gets eaten up reading about creole English among the Gullah people of the Mississippi Delta when all you wanted to know was the capital of Louisiana.
5. Look out for things that draw attention to the writing, by which I mean the fancy flourishes and clever contrivances beloved by new writers. Remember what Elmore Leonard said, ’If it sounds like writing rewrite it’.
6. Check continuity. Document search is useful on longer projects to see when you first called a character by name or what car you gave your villain to drive. You can search too for repetition of phrases or unusual words – how many times did your heroine ‘give a wry smile’? How many times should ‘palpable’ appear in one novel?
7. Check the transitions between scenes. Have you given your reader the right clues to help them grasp where they are and what the timeframe is? Have you used the ‘jump cut’ to gloss over mundane stuff and get your reader to the next interesting event?
8. Check for consistency in characters and motivation. Nothing makes a reader more disgruntled than a protagonist acting out of character, especially if it’s just to create a plot twist. You can achieve real dramatic tension if the reader is rooting for the heroine to do X, yet knows deep down that her beliefs and personality dictate that she can only do Y.
9. Read aloud; print and read. Reading your work aloud flags up clunky phrasing, especially in dialogue. You will pick up typos more easily on a hard copy than on the screen. Use a grammar and spelling check too, but don’t rely on it with blind faith and check which dictionary you are using; Word for Mac seems to insist on American spelling so be vigilant.
10. When you think you’ve finished, leave it a few weeks, then read and edit all over again, take a deep breath, send and submit.
You can join our monthly Saturday afternoon Writers’ Room workshop or our Novelists’ Survival group on our Dates & Rates page