Stephen King’s tribute to his ‘divine’ editor – from his book On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft – is a creed all writers should live by. Yet when I recently turned my red pen on my own writing on a City short course, I was reminded that even professional editors need to keep their words in check.
Words are seductive. You select one ‘perfect’ adjective, add it to your carefully constructed sentence and put down your pen, satisfied. But then another flutters its eyelashes at you from over by the thesaurus.
You know you shouldn’t, but the temptation is too strong. So you add another. And another… Before you know it, you’re drowning in description and your word count is out of control.
Over the course of my 15-year career as a book editor, I’ve seen this problem rear its loquacious head time and time again. And on City’s excellent Introduction to Copywriting course, I came to the uncomfortable conclusion that even I’m not immune to the come-hither allure of an extra adjective.
My name is Hannah and I’m addicted to words.
The novelist Ernest Hemingway – renowned for his spare, efficient prose – offered this typically pithy advice to writers: ‘Use short sentences.’ He understood that every word must earn its place. Dense, over-elaborate text risks becoming tedious and impenetrable, but when writing is precise and simple, each word shines with a clarity of meaning.
If you suspect your writing might be overcrowded, the answer – always – is to edit. In her memoir Stet: An Editor’s Life, Diana Athill described editing as ‘removing layers of crumpled brown paper from an awkwardly shaped parcel and revealing the attractive present it contained’.
When editing, I do so with Athill on my shoulder. My pen is used to gently clear away anything that might obscure the author’s intended meaning.
But when I’m writing? Sometimes the joy of being creative on my own terms is so intoxicating that I’m prone to forget the editorial truths I hold sacred. One such truth is that a writer should always thoroughly edit their own work. This requires bravery, but you’ll become a better writer if you persevere.
Five steps to self-editing success
- Take a break before you begin. Even an hour will provide a fresh perspective.
- Edit on paper – you’ll notice things you overlooked on screen.
- Change the font to trick your eyes into thinking they’re reading something new.
- Read the text aloud – especially dialogue. It encourages weaknesses to reveal themselves.
- Cut as rigorously as you dare, but save previous versions. Just in case.
‘Kill your darlings’… with kindness
I’ve found that the practice of self-editing is both sharpening my writing and making me a more compassionate editor.
When a draft has been loved and laboured over, every cut can sting – whether the edits are made by a professional or with your own red pen. Deleting my own precious words, I’m constantly reminded of the courage and vulnerability that’s required any time a writer puts pen to paper. It is a privilege to be entrusted with another writer’s work.
I’m not sure if I’ll overcome my addiction to words, but they say that admitting you have a problem is the first step. In the meantime, I’ll continue to pack my first drafts full of delightful, dazzling, delicious words – and seek divine inspiration as I edit them.