My Sample Edit from Writershelper.com results

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OK, let me say up front, this is going to be a long post. Much longer than usual. I’m sorry, but I’m going to be including several versions of a short excerpt (the opening paragraphs of my next novel, Decontamination, due out in August to be precise) before and after self editing, and then after editing by Audrey Owen of Writershelper.com, complete with Audrey’s comments. I’m hoping other Indie Authors will gain some value from this, and see the difference good editing can make.

OK, first things first. Decontamination began life as a NaNoWriMo project. The first draft of the opening chapters (as posted on writing.com) looked like this:

Villa Gardens was the type of quiet cul-de-sac where nothing ever happens of any interest to anyone other than the residents. Since the dwellings were all bungalows inhabited by variously aged and ancient pensioners, few of whom owned cars or received more than a weekly visit from the odd dutiful relative, few vehicles ever bothered the peace there. Although it was located close to the junction of two busy roads, it snaked out from one in such a way as to nestle in behind the other, shielded from the noise of the day by the houses backing onto it, so that even on the busiest days, the chirping of birds visiting the gardens easily masked the sounds of traffic. At 4 a. m. on Wednesday 7th April the street had a photographic quality, with not so much as a breeze to disturb the early spring growth on the scattered shrubs, bushes and small trees adorning the immaculately tended front gardens.
The young man who tumbled around the corner, breaking the silence with ragged breaths, was intent on movement, despite the wincing pain it caused. His slight frame was clad in a waterproof jacket over woolen jumper, jeans and walking boots. The boots and jeans from the knees down were covered in mud, which at first glance seemed to extend beyond the knee to mid thigh on his right leg. Closer inspection, though, and observation of his movement as he set of down the road in an uneven limping gait, would show a wound to that leg, bleeding freely and leaving a steady trail behind him.
The buildings were all in darkness, with not even a porch light offering any sign of life. No dog walkers, no late night revellers, and no early workers. Only the pool of light spilling from the single street lamp near the end of the cul-de-sac gave any illumination.
“Shit!”
The young man swore, realising his error. Turning on his good leg, he winced as he took a hasty step on his bleeding one, and started to head back. The streets were unfamiliar to him, and he would have to find another way back to the busier road. After only two or three steps, he froze, his already wide eyes bulging as the second man stepped calmly round the corner.
This man was older, taller and broader than the first. He was dressed casually in dark jeans and a dark jacket over a lightweight pullover. He wore soft soled black shoes, and black leather gloves. If not for the knife he held point down in his right hand, he would have been a most unremarkable sight. The knife, though, had a short, brutal serrated edge which had already ripped a gouge in the younger man’s leg, and now caught the light in a winking fashion which suggested it was thirsty for more.
The older man stepped forward, swinging the blade slightly as he did, and the younger turned and resumed his painful retreat. He half dragged, half hopped down the cul-de-sac, his eyes whipping from side to side in a desperate search for an escape route. His pursuer picked up his pace, but failed to break into a run, as the younger man opened the gap between them, then lurched to one side suddenly and hurled himself over a waist high wall.  He fell through a lavender bush onto a short wide lawn, then scrambled to his feet and staggered across the grass. He had only taken a few stumbling steps towards the ginnel at the side of the bungalow when the older man vaulted over the wall behind him, using his free hand as unneeded support.

After several rounds of self-editing, I’d got this 611 words down to the 501 I sent to Audrey for a sample edit. As you can see, the first paragraph came in for some pretty vicious editing. I worked on getting rid of the passive voice that always creeps into my first drafts, and cutting out unnecessary verbiage.

Nothing of any interest had ever happened in Villa Gardens. Made up of bungalows inhabited by aged and ancient pensioners, few vehicles ever bothered the peace there. Situated close to the junction of two busy roads, it snaked out from one and nestled in behind the other, shielded from the noise of the day by the houses backing onto it. Even on the busiest days, the chirping of birds visiting the gardens easily masked the sounds of traffic.
At 4am on Wednesday 11th April, the street had a photographic quality. Not even a breeze disturbed the early spring growth on the scattered shrubs and bushes adorning the immaculately tended front gardens.
The young man, who tumbled around the corner violating the silence with ragged breaths, was intent on movement, despite the wincing pain it caused. A waterproof jacket over woollen jumper, jeans and walking boots concealed a slight frame. Mud covered his boots and jeans from the knees down. At first glance, the mud seemed to extend beyond the knee to mid-thigh on his right leg. He set off into Villa Gardens in an uneven limping gait, leaving a trail behind him, a wound to that leg bleeding freely.
The buildings sat in darkness, not even a porch light offering any sign of life. No dog walkers, no late night revellers and no early workers. Only the pool of light spilling from the single street lamp near the end of the cul-de-sac gave any illumination.
“Shit!”
The young man realized his error. Twisting on his good leg, he winced, took a hasty step, heading back. The streets were unfamiliar; he would have to find another way back to the busier road. After only two or three steps he froze. His already wide eyes bulged as the second man stepped calmly round the corner.
This man was older, taller and broader than the first, dressed casually in dark jeans and a dark jacket. He wore soft-soled black shoes and black leather gloves.
If not for the knife he held point down in his right hand, he would have been an unremarkable sight. The knife, though, had a brutal serrated edge, covered in blood. It had already ripped a gouge in the younger man’s leg, and now caught the light, thirsty for more.
The older man stepped forward, swinging the blade slightly. The younger one turned and resumed his painful retreat. He half staggered/half hopped, down the cul-de-sac, his eyes whipping from side to side in a desperate search for an escape route. His pursuer picked up the pace, but failed to break into a run. The younger man opened the gap between them, lurched to one side suddenly, hurled himself over a waist high wall. He fell through a lavender bush onto a short wide lawn, scrambled to his feet and staggered across the grass. He had only taken a few stumbling steps, towards a ginnel at the side of the bungalow, when the older man vaulted over the wall behind him.

Following is Audrey’s edit, complete with notes. As you can see, she picked up on some of the problems my editing actually created, and some things I had missed.

Nothing of any interest had ever happened in Villa Gardens, repository [AO1] of bungalows inhabited by aged and ancient [AO2] pensioners. Few vehicles ever bothered the peace there. Situated close to the junction of two busy roads, it snaked out from one and nestled in behind the other, shielded from the noise of the day by the houses backing onto it. Even on the busiest days, the chirping of birds visiting the gardens easily masked the sounds of traffic. [AO3]
At 4 a.m. on Wednesday, 11 [AO4] April, the street had a photographic quality. Not even a breeze disturbed the early spring growth on the scattered shrubs and bushes adorning [AO5] the immaculately tended front gardens.
The young man, who tumbled around the corner violating the silence with ragged breaths, was intent on movement, despite the wincing pain it caused. A waterproof jacket over a woollen jumper, jeans and walking boots concealed a slight frame. Mud covered his boots and jeans from the knees down. At first glance, the mud seemed to extend beyond the knee to mid-thigh on his right leg.[AO6]  He set off into Villa Gardens in an uneven limping gait, leaving a trail behind him, a wound to that leg bleeding freely.
The buildings sat in darkness, not even a porch light offering any sign of life. No dog walkers, no late night revellers and no early workers. Only the pool of light spilling from the single street lamp near the end of the cul-de-sac gave any illumination.
“Shit!”
The young man realized his error. Twisting on his good leg, he winced and took a hasty step, heading back.[AO7]  The streets were unfamiliar; he would have to find another way back to the busier road. After only two or three steps, he froze. His already wide eyes bulged as a [AO8] second man stepped calmly round the corner.
This man was older, taller and broader than the first, dressed casually in dark jeans and a dark jacket. He wore soft-soled black shoes and black leather gloves.
If not for the knife he held point down in his right hand, he would have been an unremarkable sight. The knife, though, had a brutal serrated edge, covered in blood. It had already ripped a gouge in the younger man‚s leg, and now caught the light, thirsty for more.[AO9]
The older man stepped forward, swinging the blade slightly. The younger one turned and resumed his painful retreat. He half staggered, half hopped down the cul-de-sac, his eyes whipping[AO10]  from side to side in a desperate search for an escape route. His pursuer picked up the pace, but failed to break into a run. The younger man opened the gap between them, lurched to one side suddenly, and hurled [AO11] himself over a waist high wall. He fell through a lavender bush onto a short wide lawn, scrambled to his feet and staggered across the grass. He had taken only [AO12] a few stumbling steps towards a ginnel at the side of the bungalow when the older man vaulted over the wall behind him.

[AO1]This change solves a dangling modifier problem. The original meant that the vehicles were made up of bungalows, clearly not your intent. You may choose a different word than repository if you prefer. It popped into my head and then seemed to me to be worth keeping because of the sort of area you describe.
[AO2]The assonance (aged and ancient) here is pleasing.
[AO3]Great image showing just how quiet this setting is.
[AO4]According to Oxford Style Manual.
[AO5]I wonder if you can find a better word here. See the Tip Sheet on adding layers to description.
[AO6]This description confuses the reader. First, there is mud from the knee down. Then one leg has more mud, or seems to. I suggest you start this description with At first glance…  After you have that, you may not need to describe the other leg. Try a couple of versions to see which paints the better picture. Just be sure you don’t ask the reader to erase something you’ve already created in his or her mind.
[AO7]These are not really three items in a list. Putting in and clarifies that fact.
[AO8]Since he is just now introduced, he is not yet the man about whom the reader already knows something.
[AO9]Great image! Good use of personification.
[AO10]Consider a new word here. Eyes can’t really whip. Whipping involves something with length. Even a neck can whip a head back and forth, but eyes, can’t whip. They are held in place in the head.
[AO11]This is a list of three things that follow one after the other: opened, lurched, and hurled.  The word and shows the end of the list.
[AO12]This is a misplaced modifier. Please see http://www.writershelper.com/writers-style-guide.html

Audrey also sent me a tip sheet on adding layers to descriptions, and the following fix notes.

1.  Be sure you have turned on View Comments in Word so you can read the comments I’ve put into the text. You can choose to see these either by using the viewing panel at the bottom of the page, or by viewing “bubbles” beside the text. Access the viewing panel through the Track Changes tool bar in the menu. Turn on the bubbles under Word>Preferences>Track Changes>Use bubbles to display changes.
2.  The odd characters are probably because you submitted formatted instead of unformatted text. I will not be editing the formatting. This would not be a problem going forward because we would be working with Word attachments. Word preserves the formatting.
3.  The readability score on this piece is 6.8. That means it would be easy for someone about twelve years old to read. I consider this a perfect score for a story like this one. For more on readability, see http://www.writershelper.com/readability.html
4.  You have set the scene very well. I have commented on some aspects of this within the text.
5. You have painted characters the reader can see.
6. You write with excellent pacing, weaving description and action into a seamless piece.
7. You have given the reader a reason to keep turning pages right at the beginning. Well done!
8. In one place, I have suggested a word choice change that would help you to add layers to your description.  I am attaching a Tip Sheet to further explain what I mean.
9. Other comments are within the text.

Finally, here is my final draft of the excerpt, after taking Audrey’s comments into consideration:

Nothing of any interest had ever happened in Villa Gardens, a repository of bungalows inhabited by aged and ancient  pensioners. Few vehicles ever bothered the peace there. Situated close to the junction of two busy roads, it snaked out from one and nestled in behind the other, shielded from the noise of the day by the houses backing onto it. Even on the busiest days, the chirping of birds visiting the gardens easily masked the sounds of traffic.
At 4 a.m. on Wednesday, 11 April, the street had a photographic quality. Not even a breeze disturbed the early spring growth on the scattered shrubs and bushes ornamenting the immaculately tended front gardens.
The young man, who tumbled around the corner violating the silence with ragged breaths, was intent on movement, despite the wincing pain it caused. A waterproof jacket over a woollen jumper, jeans and walking boots concealed a slight frame. At first glance, he seemed to be covered in mud from the mid-thigh down on his right leg, and from the knee down on his left. He set off into Villa Gardens in an uneven limping gait, leaving a trail behind him, a wound to his right thigh bleeding freely.
The buildings sat in darkness, not even a porch light offering any sign of life. No dog walkers, no late night revellers and no early workers. Only the pool of light spilling from the single street lamp near the end of the cul-de-sac gave any illumination.
“Shit!”
The young man realized his error. Twisting on his good leg, he winced and took a hasty step, heading back.  The streets were unfamiliar; he would have to find another way back to the busier road. After only two or three steps, he froze. His already wide eyes bulged as a second man stepped calmly round the corner.
This man was older, taller and broader than the first, dressed casually in dark jeans and a dark jacket. He wore soft-soled black shoes and black leather gloves.
If not for the knife he held point down in his right hand, he would have been an unremarkable sight. The knife, though, had a brutal serrated edge, covered in blood. It had already ripped a gouge in the younger man’s leg, and now caught the light, thirsty for more.
The older man stepped forward, swinging the blade slightly. The younger one turned and resumed his painful retreat. He half staggered, half hopped down the cul-de-sac, his head whipping  from side to side in a desperate search for an escape route. His pursuer picked up the pace, but failed to break into a run. The younger man opened the gap between them, lurched to one side suddenly, and hurled himself over a waist high wall. He fell through a lavender bush onto a short wide lawn, scrambled to his feet and staggered across the grass. He had taken only a few stumbling steps towards a ginnel at the side of the bungalow when the older man vaulted over the wall behind him.

I stuck with Audrey’s suggestion of “repository,” because, as she said, it just seemed to fit the picture, although I had to add the “a” in front of it to make it make sense in my brain. Sorry if that’s wrong Audrey. I changed “adorning” to “ornamenting,” as this somehow feels more appropriate for old folk’s bungalows.

Taking Audrey’s suggestion, I moved the description of the young man around to begin with “at first glance,” but I retained the reference to the mud on the other leg, as it’s more important to the plot than Audrey could have known, so couldn’t really be left out. Also, rather than change the description of “whipping” from side to side, Audrey’s comments made me realise that it should have been his head rather than his eyes that were the focus of the sentence in question. And thanks to Audrey, that modifier is no longer misplaced.

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2 responses...

Gail, I love that you have shown both how your work changed through self-editing as well as how it changed with a professional edit. Both are so important. I did leave out one comment I could have made on your writing. I always keep an eye out for passive constructions. When I got your sample, you had used passive voice exactly zero times. Had I known that was a habit of yours, I would have congratulated you. Let me do that now. Among other things, the educative usually exposes habits like that and sets the writer on the path to successful self-correction. That should make subsequent editing much cheaper. It does if I’m the editor. Now for others reading this, there is a place for passive voice. Used well, it can send a powerful message.

Thanks Audrey, both for your comment and for the work on the edit.
There are still a few places in the manuscript where I’ve let the passive voice stand, but those are where I really wanted the effect. Of course, without editing all the others into active voice, the few instances where it makes sense loose impact. You only have to read the first draft of this to see that, lol.

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