There is true magic to be found in good editing. If you are a writer hesitating in the least about spending money on an editor, I say this to you: Do what you can, and spend what you can afford, for the best possible one. It’s the single greatest thing you can do for your work.
In order to get my manuscript in as tip top shape as possible, I conducted some extensive research and found a gifted editor who also turns out to be a gem of a human being. His name is Steven Bauer, and you can find him here. I may have worked and reworked my manuscript for years, all the while receiving valuable feedback from critique partners and writing teachers and agents, but nothing has come close to the depth and breadth of the insight I received from this editor. And now that I am going through the line edits, I see unfolding before me pure wizardry.
In the interest of full disclosure, I’ll admit I’ve always been a sucker for playing with words. In eighth grade, our English teacher gave us “précis” exercises, paragraphs we’d have to whittle down to a set number of words without losing any of the meaning. I reveled in this challenge, and in the satisfaction of coming in just under the word limit. Perhaps this is why, just a few weeks into joining Twitter, I’ve come to enjoy the 140 character limit so much. The challenge is all the greater for the purist (stick in the mud?) in me who shies away from the usual text speak abbreviations, of the “R u going 2 go thru b4” ilk, although I greatly enjoy and admire folks who have found their own, creative ways to put colloquialisms into short form, à la @djolder.
Anyhow, I’ve spent the last few days going over every single edit that the above-mentioned fabulous editor marked up. This was his second reading; the first resulted in a 20 page developmental report which, in thoughtful and articulate prose, summarized the plot, themes and characters of my novel with breathtaking clarity, and highlighted a few very important issues which were holding the manuscript back from being the best I could make it. Best of all, it contained concrete suggestions for how to fix the problems, thus leaving me encouraged and chomping at the bit to get down to work, rather than despondent at the massive morass of undefined work ahead.
This current round of edits constituted the line edit of the revised manuscript. Some pages were chock full of tiny suggested changes, and I accepted every single one. When three pages went by without any edits, my heart leapt. Either the writing was tighter, or it was just strong enough to lose the editor in the “continuous dream” of which John Gardner writes, and make him forget his red pen. Here’s an example of a paragraph that stands much improved after his touch:
My heart jumped at this, for I wanted nothing more than to greet the morning alone in the quiet of the temple, without his shadow over me. I skipped out of the room, then tiptoed past Ma in the kitchen. Something gnawed at me inside, the way it did when Bapu did, or made me do, something of which I knew Ma did not approve. But this time I pushed that feeling aside. I parted the bead curtain at the front door as quietly as possible, but not quietly enough to escape Ma’s hearing.
My heart jumped, for I wanted nothing more than to greet the morning alone in the quiet of the temple, without his shadow over me. I skipped out of the room, then tiptoed past Ma in the kitchen. Guilt gnawed at me, as when Bapu did, or made me do, something I knew Ma did not approve of. But I pushed the feeling aside and parted the bead curtain at the front door as quietly as I could. Ma heard me anyway.
See how those slight changes make the paragraph so much stronger? And here are a few specific ways in which to get rid of extraneous words:
Things swirl together, they don’t need to swirl around together.
You don’t have to feel your way around the room, you can just feel your way around.
A single bell on a piece of string is also a single bell on string.
Don’t focus your mind on something, just focus on it.
Don’t listen to the sound of bangles, listen to the bangles.
Sit on the ground, don’t sit down on the ground.
It seems obvious to me now, as I read these examples, but when you are immersed in 98,000 of your own words for the umpteenth time, trying to make sure the story arc is complete, the main characters have changed, the dialogue is smooth, the tension is high, there’s very little of you left to pay attention to the extra words. But that’s what an editor is for.