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Write, Rewrite, Edit, Proofread, Repeat

December 14, 2009

Rewriting, Editing, and Proofreading are sort of like the red-headed step-siblings of writing.  Or perhaps like Cinderella’s step sisters.  It’s something writers don’t want to have anything to do with, but without them the story isn’t complete.

In preparing to edit and proofread the story I have decided to try to prepare to send off to a publisher during my break from class, I thought I’d look up some editing and proofreading techniques.  There are some very good guides out on the web.  Much of this good advice (though not all), however, is geared toward students preparing term papers.  Of course, everything I learned in school about editing and proofreading my written work is still largely valid, even now that I’m focusing on fiction over academic papers.

One commonly offered piece of advice, and I can vouch for this, is to put a little time and space between you and the work you are editing and proofreading.  In my experience, for the first week or two after I have finished a story, or a chapter in a novel, I find that I’m so enamored of my work that it’s very difficult to find the errors and problems in my writing.  Given a few months, I’ll be able to approach the story with fresh eyes, and will be a little more objective.  For some people, this may only take  a week or so to get to an appropriate level of objectivity, for others, I imagine, it may be somewhat longer.

The story I am working on now I first wrote in March of 2007.  Yeah, there’s a bit of time and space between us now.  And looking at it now, I’m learning a thing or two, not only about revising and rewriting and editing, but about writing good stories in the first place.

The story was based on this “good idea” I had.  It was  neat twist, something a little unexpected.  And I still think the basic idea behind the story is a good idea.  When I tell people about the premise of the story, I usually get a positive reaction.  And yet… the story lacks something.

You see, a good story needs more than a good idea.   The problem is, when I wrote it – when I write short stories in general – I am usually high on this good idea I have and how it will make for such a great story.  But I miss out on the two really important elements that are the foundations of a good story: interesting characters and interesting conflicts.  A good idea is something that hooks your readers and gets them in the door.   But you need interesting characters with interesting conflicts to keep them in your story until the very end.

That said, I have a lot of work ahead of me.  The opening paragraph is relatively weak – it quickly lays out my “clever” premise and sets the tone for the story, but it lacks dramatic impact, and the story quickly gets lost with a lack of interesting conflicts and motivating impetus.   The main character is essentially the only character for most of the first half of the story. 

Without other characters to interact with early and frequently, the reader doesn’t develop any connection to the main character.  And without other characters, the conceptual conflict set up by the opening premise starts to stretch thin and fall flat.  Good conflict generally flows from interesting characters with opposing goals.

So, before editing and proofreading are even relevant, I need to spend a little time diving in deeper, peppering my story with a cast of interesting characters, some of whom are saddled with mutually exclusive goals.  That’s enough work that at this stage, I can hardly call what I’m doing editing or proofreading.  Instead, I’m rewriting for now, though I should  hopefully be able to keep some decent chunks of my original work.

My writing lessons for today, then: first, make sure you set your story aside for long enough, before editing, that when you pick it up again you can do so with fresh and objective eyes.  Second, for your story to have dramatic punch, you need to make sure it’s filled with interesting and compelling characters and an exciting conflict that forces your characters to make difficult choices.  And, wherever possible, hit the readers hard and fast with both characters and conflicts to keep the reader hooked and invested in the story.

Happy writing, and good luck with your own stories.

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