Stage 2: edit your way to a smokin’ story

Creative Editing

Forget for the moment about rules governing spelling, grammar, punctuation and sentence structure, that’s editing too, but that kind of editing can interfere with the creative process, and as I’ve said before, some of our most admired authors have written brilliantly by breaking those rules.

So, to oversimplify, creative editing is a way of making sure that in telling your story, you have used no unnecessary words or phrases, and you can be universally understood.

 

Certainly this No Smoking sign conveys a clear message and is very economical with words. But, economy of words and universal understanding are not enough to make a story.

As writers we strive to deliver a message by turning it into an engaging story.

If we take the time to write a story it is because we want to communicate something to our readers, and we want to make our message as meaningful to them as it is to us. In the best case scenario, what we write will be uniquely ours, yet universally intelligible. The more powerful and universal our message the better – and we must rely on our ability to use words in innovative, unexpected ways to make our message unique, fresh, unexpected and engaging.

Creative editing can help to shape our message into story form, and it is every bit as creative and rewarding as generating material. Creative editing is the process by which we turn our messages into effective, engaging stories.

This message used 8 words more than the message above. Does it communicate the same basic idea? Yes. Is it more compelling than the above message? It depends upon what you want to communicate – certainly this message tells a kind of story by inviting the reader into a thought process, however brief, that engages them and makes the most of a no-smoking message.

Some tips for editing that will help you make the most of your message, get the most out of the words you use and engage your reader in some form of satisfying thought process:

After you have generated your material (see Stage One: write, write, write) ask yourself: is every word and phrase absolutely essential to the story?

Eliminate passive voice – underline all of the ‘was, were, had beens’ and ask yourself how you can translate them into action. Pay attention as you do this and you will find that your story develops a ‘pace’, feels more immediate, and becomes more engaging.

Eliminate adverbs – underline all of the ‘ly’ words – how many can you eliminate? Watch what happens when you force yourself to find other ways of expressing thoughts and feelings that don’t ‘tell’ your reader how to think or feel, because basically, that’s what adverbs do. When you eliminate adverbs you make room for your reader to enter your story and engage in their own thought processes and thus they are more likely to ‘feel’ the story than to simply read it.

Give yourself a word limit – watch what happens to the story when you are forced to make every word count. You may decide in the end to put some words and phrases back, but the process of elimination and then selective inclusion will help you to become more appreciative of the words and phrases that you choose.

Take a look at the following 99 word opening to a ‘Smokin’ Story’. I’ve underlined passive voice and adverbs:

Gloria was extremely tired and she walked lethargically from her car to the Quick Stop Convenience Market. The Market was brightly lit even at 2AM and Gloria was surprised at how many cars were parked in the lot, and how many people were in the store. She imagined for a moment that they had all watched the Oprah show about quitting smoking and, like her, were slavishly here to buy a pack of cigarettes after going enthusiastically cold turkey for three days. What else would bring so many people out at this ungodly hour? She was craving a smoke.

Now here is the 70 word edited version:

Craving a smoke, Gloria trudged from her car to the Quick Stop Convenience Market. The Market, lit like Christmas at 2AM, its parking lot full, and a line forming at the register, made her feel less forsaken. Had they all watched the Oprah show about smoking and, like her, after three days of cold turkey, buckled under the pressure? What else would bring so many people out at this hour?

Now, write your own Smokin’ Story opening.

First generate your material with a ‘free write’ and then go back and do some creative editing. Compare the two versions and ask yourself what you have lost or gained in the creative editing process? Maybe you like the newer version, but feel that there was something in the original that you don’t want to lose. Save every draft by copying and pasting so that you don’t lose anything as you edit.

If you like, post your story opening here.

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