I went to a conference session once on the unsung joys of the micro-edit. Amazingly, the instructor did manage to make micro-editing fun. However we were working as a group editing a passage from a well-known novel to which the instructor had added words. The fun was in seeing if we could accurately identify the words in the original text. Labouring line by line through my own work has not proven nearly as enjoyable.
Nevertheless, it is a necessary task that all writers must master. The micro-edit, also called the line edit, typically occurs at the end of the writing process after one has completed macro-edits to the story and characters. In micro-editing, you must examine every line, and every word in your manuscript to ensure that every word is the right one, the meaning is the one you intended and there is nothing superfluous. It is important that every word in your manuscript has meaning and value. Often micro-editing, particularly if you write like me, is a process of cutting – eliminating flabby adjectives and adverbs, getting rid of unnecessary clauses. Longer sentences are often weaker ones.
It is perhaps less painful to view micro-editing as a process of tightening. Elmore Leonard said, "... leave out the parts that people skip." It should be a judicious tightening process though. You do not want to take the life out of your writing. As John Gardner observed, “adverbs are either the dullest tools or the sharpest in the novelist’s toolbox.”
Some approaches to micro-editing that I have found useful:
1) Read your work aloud. This is an arduous process, but so effective. I read the first chapter of my children’s novel to my boys and unnecessary sentences, even whole passages, on a page that I considered edited jumped out at me. They were the parts that I stumbled over, or automatically wanted to skip.
2) Make a game of it. Challenge yourself to cut one word from every sentence, or one sentence from every paragraph, or on page from every chapter (or two!). This sounds ridiculous and artificial, but it works.
3) Change the entire verb tense of your novel. This is when you are really desperate (as I was). I could not bring myself to do the deep edit that my novel required. I read over passage after passage and thought – seems fine. But I was not really reading it. Changing the tense of the entire novel from past to present forced me to go through each and every line.
4) Develop a checklist of what you are looking for. Your checklist should reflect your own writing habits and the particular issues that you are prone to. This could include superfluous words, clauses or sentences, adverbs and adjectives, passive verbs, unclear pronouns, particular words you overuse (you probably know what they are, and if you don’t, you should), sentences that don’t make sense, sentences that are too long, and sentences that don’t say what you want them to.
In the end, the micro-edit is an essential step. But it can be enjoyable(ish), and at the very least if you do it, you will never have to cringe at rereading some particular piece of flaccid prose that you wrote. Or at least not as often.
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