‘What a horrid, powerful, clever raw book it is! What admirable narrative and ludicrously bad dialogue! What forcible language, and creaky grammar.’
Such are the thoughts an editor may hope — yes, hope — to think when reading a new manuscript they want to acquire or are about to start work on. For few books arrive on the editor’s desktop fully formed and perfect. In this case, the book referred to was For the Term of His Natural Life by Marcus Clarke, and the editor, in 1876, was Mrs Frances Cashel Hoey. She could see that what matters at that point aren’t the horrid, raw, ludicrous, and creaky elements, but those that are powerful, clever, admirable, and forcible. Nevertheless, it helps to have fewer of the former and more of the latter. So it helps to revise.
The following is all advice that I have given to authors at one time or another. It’s also advice that I’ve seen give to authors by other authors. It’s applicable to editing, revision, or even writing the first draft. It’s not the last word in revision tips, nor will it be applicable to every manuscript in every situation, but perhaps it will at least inspire useful thoughts.
1. Get some distance
If you’re not ready to find any horrid or creaky parts in your manuscript, you may be too close to it. Put it away and come back later. Or find a trusted reader to take the first step. Another technique may be to try reading your work aloud.
2. Replace or remove received language
Cliches, commonplaces, scaffolding, tautologies, and waffle — the placeholders that give us as writers time to think, but rarely elicit any thoughts in readers. Ask yourself what work a word or phrase is performing, and if it offers the best possible performance.
3. Thicken your description
Visualise the events in your mind (or conceptualise them, if you aren’t a visual thinker). Are there pieces missing from your description? Are there better words or smarter sentences or more-salient details you could have used?
4. Look out for repetition
This may be a favourite word, or a word that seemed appropriate often in a particular section. It may be a particular tic that your characters (fictional or non) find themselves performing. Or it may be a certain sentence structure or rhythm that you always fall into. Repetition isn’t always bad, but it is always worth being aware of.
5. Review what you are trying to achieve
Who is the audience? How would you describe the story in a blurb? Compare the expectations a reader might have with what is currently being delivered by the manuscript.
Remember that even the best authors revised. Some would say, especially the best authors. And if you’re ever stuck, try suggestion 1. Look at your writing again after a walk, or maybe after a year. Maybe use the time to write something else.
David Golding is a senior editor at Scribe, working across the list on narrative nonfiction, novels, practical guides, and comics.