The Forensic Edit

10 Apr

Once I’d finished the third draft of my book-in-progress my tutor told me I was ready for a forensic edit. No white coats or upbeat theme tunes were required, only the removal of every unnecessary word.

Now was the time to cut away as many ‘and’s as possible, delete any syllable of dialogue that wasn’t vital to plot or character development, and stamp out my tendency to over-tell. My book is aimed at 8 to 12 year olds, confident readers with a sophisticated understanding of narrative who can easily pick up on cues provided in the text. They do not need what my third draft still contained: the literary equivalent of a flashing neon arrow attached to a loudhailer pointing out the aforementioned cues. (“Tears flowed down his face. He’d never been more miserable. HE WAS EXTREMELY SAD, GOT IT?”)

Taking out every non-essential word would force me to remove these giant flashing arrows, making my writing subtler and therefore more appropriate for my intended audience. It would also make the text flow more smoothly, eradicating clunky or repetitive passages. That was the hope anyway.

I knew that, after its trim, the writing should still be clear and still convey the same information, sense of character and emotional impact. If I started loosing any of that, I would have gone too far.

So I began. It was surprisingly easy to chop down descriptive passages and shed sections of dialogue, as well as getting rid of unnecessary dialogue lead ins. (She flicked her hair. “I don’t think so.”) I cut so much that it made me a little giddy but after a while the editing slowed. I’d find myself reading the same paragraph fifty times, trying to decide whether to delete ‘that’. Sometimes I’d take words out one day only to add them back in the next, which was a sign I was pretty much finished.

All that remained was for me to hunt down the repeated words and phrases that I’d noticed during the edit. I spent a lot of time with my thesaurus trying to find alternative ways to describe the crackle of a walkie-talkie or the vastness of a secret underground cave.

Eventually the fourth draft was finished and the writing was much leaner. Draft three had reduced the book from 56,000 words to 48,600. Draft four simmered it down to only 42,000. As a result, the text seemed to leap from the page in a sprightly fashion rather than dragging itself between plot points. Everything still made sense and I didn’t seem to have lost anything in terms of my characters.

Now, with 24 days to go until the hand-in date, my plan is to put the book to one side for a week or two, then do a final paper read through. I feel more confident about the state of the work after this forensic edit, so I’d definitely recommend it to anyone in the final stages of writing. You can pretend you’re on CSI if you want to.

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