Line editing and polish is an interesting part of the process of professional writing. It bears a lot of similarities to optimizing code as a programmer, but more fun. One of the weird things is that no mater how many times one has read a chunk of prose, there’s always room for improvement. In code optimization, one is usually trying to make the code either smaller, or use less memory, and there’s a clear logarithmic curve, where for ever increasing energy one can achieve ever shrinking gains. Plus, in order to make it faster or smaller one often has to make the code messier or more complicated. Caching is a frequent speed optimization and this always leads to extra complexity and bugs.
Not so with prose. Optimizing prose should always make it better.
With prose, shorter is usually better — not always, but usually. You want your story to move. Scenes serve a number of purposes. They must entertain, and be cool. They must characterize, and essentially, they must move the plot forward. Each scene therefore has a set of things it accomplishes, changes in the state of the characters, their knowledge, their situation. I have scenes that have dropped from 2600 to 1100 words and yet still accomplish all the same plot and character transformations. Oftentimes even more has been thrown in during the process. If every line, ever word matters, then the scene races along.
At first my editing was a mater of reading the prose over and tweaking the sentences using my inner ear. I have a pretty decent one due to lifelong obsessive reading (5000+ books at least — 150 novels this year alone). If you want to write, you must read. There’s no other way. You have to fill your head with sentences so that when you see an awkward one, it rings wrong. Plus, reading is also the key to vocabulary. Still, you can manually build vocabulary, but it’s tough to build inner ear quickly. My early editing passes were like what I’m going to do with this blog post. I wrote it, then I read through and neatened up the bad sentences — very casual.
But there’s a much deeper level of craft possible.
Here is a paragraph from my novel’s first draft:The newly exposed body was that of a young boy, perhaps fourteen years of age. He lay naked on his bake in the dirt, covered now only by a few random sticks and leaves. He had light mouse brown hair, and his pale eyes were wide open leaving him frozen with a startled expression. His skin was very pale all over, and one arm was bent savagely behind his back, the shoulder bulging in an odd way as if it had been ripped halfway out of its socket. This was on the opposite side of the mangled leg, lending him a kind of grim diagonal symmetry. He had gashes on the wrists, ankles, and a deep gouge on the side of his torso. There was surprisingly little blood. Numerous flies however had discovered what little there was, they buzzed happily about the wounds, and crawled in and out of his nostrils and mouth.
Then again as it was a couple weeks ago, after probably 15 or so light self-editing sweeps:Revealed was the body of a boy, naked in the dirt, belly up, covered only by stray sticks and leaves. His eyes stared at the sky, a startled expression frozen on his face. His skin was bluish white. One arm was twisted behind his back, the shoulder bulging halfway out of its socket in response. On the opposite side, his knee was mangled, lending him a ghastly diagonal symmetry. Cruel gashes scarred his wrists and ankles, and a deep gouge split the side of his torso. There was surprisingly little blood, though innumerable flies buzzed about the wounds, crawling in and out of his nostrils and mouth.
Then two weeks ago, I did a serious self edit pass. The heavy use of passive voice makes me cringe now, even though I had a deliberate intent in using it (to have the effect of someone looking, and then surprised to see this shocking sight). After that my editor got to it, then I cleaned that up yet another time. Notice how the final result is 40% shorter than the original, but isn’t really missing anything. There was too much prose the first time. There’s still a lot, as this is a purposeful attempt to kick the sentences into slow gear for horrific effect.The body of a boy lay naked in the dirt, belly up, covered only by a few remaining sticks and leaves. His eyes stared at the sky, his face frozen in bewilderment. His skin was bluish-white. One arm was twisted behind his back, the shoulder bulging unnaturally. On the opposite side his mangled knee was twisted, lending him a ghastly diagonal symmetry. Gashes scarred his wrists and ankles, and a deep gouge split the side of his torso. There was surprisingly little blood, though flies buzzed about the wounds, crawled in and out of his nostrils and mouth.
Or take this example of some dialog from my first draft. The first speaker is the sister of the second (Sam).“Hi Sarah,” she began, but quickly turned to her brother, “Sam get that pack on the horses and lets get going. Nothing fun is going to happen here right in front of Sarah’s house.” Sam snapped to mocking attention at his sister’s order, “yes ma’am!” However, he quickly packed Sarah’s stuff into the saddle bags and then put his hands together allowing Sarah to step up and swing onto the small horse.
Then the current edited version.“Sam, get that pack on the horses. Nothing fun’s going to happen here on the street five minutes from our house.” Sam snapped to attention, “Yes, ma’am!”
The sentiment is the same, but it’s a third the words, and vastly snappier. A frequent culprit is first pass dialog. In the first line, the same thing is said twice, both indicate the desire to hurry (which is the only real point). Cut one, or merge. The beat about turning isn’t important. The “snapped to mocking attention” is a TELL. We can tell from the action and his dialog that he’s mocking her (it might not be obvious from the isolated lines, but it is knowing they are siblings of the same age). The final bit about mounting the horse isn’t really needed. In the next scene they’re ON the horses, so we don’t have to show them mounting, it’s assumed in the dead zone of the scene break.
In essence, even after one has worked out much of the plot and character quirks, each scene, each paragraph, each sentence can be polished. Lately for example I’ve been trying to make description more lively. A chunk from my first draft:The Palaogos house was a large home that had been built approximately fifty years earlier, in the residential adaption of the gothic revival style. It was all wood, and had a haphazard and eclectic appearance not unlike a giant gingerbread cake. Frilly little wood details abounded, and it was even replete with a turret like tower. Inside the atmosphere was generally dark (Palaogos men were not often bothered to draw curtains or open windows), and had lots of odd shaped rooms decorated with a very peculiar mix of period furniture. The floors were draped in heavy carpets, mostly Turkish, covered with dizzying non-figural designs. The furniture itself was all very large and heavy, a mixture of things like medieval trunks and benches, juxtaposed with Viennese, Bohemian, and Venetian baroque cabinets and consoles (the later adding a touch of gilt to offset the dark woods of the former).
The description is just description. There are a few amusing comments mixed in, but awkwardly with the parenthetical forms. Below is my current version.He wound through the maze of staircases and twisty corridors that honeycombed his new house. Built by some baker-turned-architect maddened by the American Civil War, its gothic revival style lent it a haphazard appearance not unlike a giant gingerbread cake. Frilly wooden details included a turret-like tower and odd-shaped rooms carpeted with dizzying non-figural patterns. To this Grandfather had added his own taste for the baroque, all grand and substantial, a hodgepodge of medieval trunks and benches, juxtaposed with Viennese and Venetian cabinets. Dark portraits of dour old men and dying saints scowled down from gold-framed canvas perches.
I’ve converted it from passive to active. He actually travels through the space. Attributing the construction to the “baker-turned-architect” livens things up, and instead of just saying there is baroque furniture, it’s attributed to Grandfather such that we get just a smidgen of characterization.
As you can see this is a highly iterative process. If you are curious to learn more — and there is like 10,000 times more to learn — my freelance editor has a great book on the subject (click the picture to the right).