Not everyone who reads here is a writer, but many of you are, so I thought you might be interested in further thoughts about editing your own work or other people's.
Here are some things I look out for.
Word count is a big issue — many are the novelists who turn in a 100K manuscript when their contract says 65K. It comes back to them to be cut drastically, and this is hard work. If it's a magazine article you're writing, and they asked you for 400 words and you sent them 496, the editor will have to shorten it — and who's to say if the 96 words taken out are the ones you would have chosen to lose? If you're basically lazy like me, get it right the first time; if the content matters to you, see to it that you won't imperil it by sending in excessive word length.
If you follow the system I described in the previous post, problems of word count will simply go away.
De-coking the prose is an inevitable task. Let me give you some examples.
Suppose you get a passage like this:
Whether editing someone else's work or my own, here's how I'd tackle that section:
First I'd look for, and eliminate, flocks of thats (given in red).
Every writer overdoes the thats, even skilled and famous ones. Look, for instance, at this famous prayer by Thomas Merton:
Beautiful, isn't it? I love it. But it does have a flock of thats. Had I the privilege of editing it for him, here's what I would do:
You may need to click on it to see properly, because all the thats are identified in red, but I've left some in and taken the extraneous ones out. I think the rest is fine.
So get rid of the flocks of thats.
Back to our passage again:
In green I've shown small and weak words. Some may be essential, but — like the weak cross-shoots in an apple tree — they'll need pruning.
The purple word — 'has' — is a repetition. Repeating boring little words slows down your prose.
In blue, I've identified instances of the verb "to be". Limit it.
In pink, are the qualifications hesitant people insert into what they say. Mine usually diminish: I'll say, "It's a little bit chilly today," or, "I'm rather hungry." I find it hard to convince myself that the "little bit" and the "rather" can just go.
By contrast, some writers/conversationalists pump up their content — everyone they meet is EXTRAORDINARY or AMAZING. So, "Simon has done the most EXTRAORDINARY work in the AMAZING orphanage he's started."
Irritatingly, you learn nothing there about the orphanage (except that it exists), and not much about Simon (except that he started it). Instead, you are fed your own response. This is mere marketing.
So, I might reduce our passage to this:
But then I see I've lost something (literally). Look at the original:
The first three black words are "Something . . . important . . . me".
The writer is telling us about herself, not about architecture. How I rendered the passage —
— puts the house first and the person second, which is wrong for the feeling the writer intends.
So I might try this:
That's better. The prose is crisper than the original, given interest by breaking it up into question and answer, starts with the person and lets the house follow, and includes the important addition of why the windows are important — not for the look of the building but for the light they let in.
Three other essential considerations: repetition in its various forms, clichés and Unmentionables. I think I'll come back to those tomorrow, though, or this post will become a little bit indigestible.