Trick from the Editor's Hat

Trick from the Editor’s Hat: The Backwards Edit

You’re staring at a manuscript that you have spent countless hours, days, weeks, preparing for publication or submission. It’s as stellar as you can make it. Or is it?

Here is just one of the tricks that I occasionally pull out of my hat when editing. It can be slow going, but it can help you isolate those awkward, sticky sentences and eliminate those beasts.

The Backwards Edit

During a backwards edit, you read a manuscript from the last sentence backwards to the first. When you do this, you’re unable to focus on the story; sentences lose their contextual meaning. As a consequence you focus entirely on the words.

Is that word really needed? Can that sentence be restructured to say the same thing, but in a tighter way? Is that sentence active or passive? Is that sentence even needed?

A backwards edit can be incredibly slow going, and is not something that I utilise very often. One has to be disciplined to the extreme to persevere with a backwards edit through a 100,000 word manuscript. It’s far to tempting to read forward. There will be sentences that make no sense, whatsoever, without the forward contextual information, but that’s the point. You’re editing without context.

The biggest failing with editing a manuscript in the forward fashion (from the first sentence to the last) is that the beginning of a story becomes so well edited that the editor/writer gets sucked in and fails to see the flaws in the later half of the manuscript. And sometimes, the story itself can be so gripping that one can forget that they were meant to be editing. By removing the context, reading backwards, you remove that threat.

However, backwards editing has one major downfall: you’re editing without context. Sometimes, that sentence or word is necessary for the context to happen. You remove the word/sentence and suddenly the whole scene falls apart. This is why backwards editing takes so long. Not only are you scanning back up through a passage, searching for where the sentence starts, but you’re also taking a brief moment to read the passage forward a sentence or two, to ensure that your edits still makes sense.

Backwards edits are NOT for everyone. Those working on early drafts should always edit in the forward. Early drafts often have developmental issues that need contextual reading to isolate and fix. No, use backwards editing with final drafts only, ensuring that a manuscript is ready for publication or submission.

And if you’re one of those writers that needs context for everything, the odds are you’ll quickly get frustrated with backwards editing and will give up only part way through. Reserve backwards editing for those passages that you feel need that something special, only a page or two. You’ll be surprised what a difference it can make.

View other Tips and Tricks from the Editor.

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