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Category : The Writing Craft
Most of the series to this point has dealt with editing that adds to or changes the manuscript– correcting grammar/punctuation, filling plot holes, honing your voice, rounding out characters, re-organizing information, etc. As important as these tasks are, however, one of the most important jobs of an editor is not only to add what’s missing, but to trim off the excess or mediocre content (“trim” here being a word which may mean “hack, chop, and/or slash away without mercy”). Being able to fix mistakes and add missing content is all well and good, but an author-editor needs to be able to recognize when the best course of action is simply to cut out a piece of text, and be mentally and emotionally prepared to do it.
Think about your manuscript like a garden. You planted every single seed in that darn thing, and watered and fertilized and sweated over it all summer, and now you feel an emotional connection to every living thing growing in there. The problem is, you mistakenly planted a bunch of weeds right alongside your flowers (or, if you’re weird, vegetables) and didn’t realize it until they were full grown and mixed in among the rest of the garden. Now, even though the weeds are choking out the flowers, you feel like you’ve invested too much hard work and time in them to pull them– okay, so it’s not the best analogy, but many authors do struggle when it comes to cutting repetitive, unnecessary, or inferior content.
It’s only natural– no one writes their manuscript thinking, “Okay, that was a great chapter; now I think I’ll write a mediocre one.” We usually like what we’re writing and think well of it, so when someone tells us our prologue is
Welcome back to the series on editing for authors that will continue until I run out of things to say on the subject! If you missed last week’s post (which appeared on Friday instead of Tuesday), we discussed the second part of “big picture” editing: editing for consistent writing quality, and how, as a self-editor, one of the most important tools you can have is a knowledge of your own strengths and style.
Often, when editing a manuscript, whether one you wrote in a hurry or one you wrote in stop-and-start mode over a long period of time, you’ll encounter some of the aforementioned “big picture” problems– missing information has led to a plot hole, or hurried storytelling have resulted in an absence of your voice in part of the manuscript, or long interruptions/breaks in the writing process have led to an inconsistent tone, etc. Editor-you finds these flaws and makes note of them, but now you have a tricky job in front of you: if editor-you tries to fix these problems, you run the risk of the edited portion of the manuscript reading as less authentic or more bland/sterile than the rest of the manuscript, but if you let writer-you off her leash and tell her to fix things, there’s no telling what new mess she might get herself into. (After all, most of this is her fault in the first place.) How, then, do you reconcile your editing goals with your creative voice in fixing “big picture,” writing-or-story-related problems?
A good place to start is to treat your editing as if it were a job you were doing for someone else. If you’ve ever paid for (or received with a publishing deal) a professional edit, you know that the editor generally doesn’t just go through and make big alterations on his own. Sure, he’ll make a lot of little changes, usually having to do with usage/consistency/grammar, etc., depending
Welcome back to my series on editing for authors. This week, we’re continuing the discussion begun last time on the developmental editing process. As I said in part 5, the purpose of a developmental edit can be boiled down to two goals: to make the manuscript coherent in content and consistent in writing quality.Consistent quality can obviously speak to a myriad of different aspects of your manuscript– punctuation, grammar, sentence construction, voice, dialogue, storytelling, etc. all contribute to the overall quality of your manuscript, but since we’re talking about developmental editing, we know we’re looking at quality in a big-picture sense– the overall way you put together your stories and your overall writing ability. Elements that contribute to this big-picture quality include a consistently strong writing voice, effective storytelling (through good dialogue and and strong characters), and an identifiable tone throughout.While editing for coherence can be a challenge because of your extreme familiarity with and knowledge of the story/material, editing for consistent quality can be difficult for the opposite reason– many writers, especially those who’ve only written a few manuscripts, don’t have the self-awareness necessary to first identify their voice, storytelling strengths, and tone, much less the ability to edit to improve these. One of the first questions I ask authors who meet with me at conferences is, “How would you describe your voice?” and more often than not, especially with first-time novelists or non-fiction writers, I’m met with a blank stare. Knowing what elements most strongly characterize your writing– whether it’s subtle humor, rich language, punchy dialogue, or larger-than-life characters– and knowing the overall tone of your book allows you to notice when those elements are missing from a portion of your manuscript, or when you’ve veered from your tone.Just as beta readers can help identify plot holes and missing information, they can also help you identify your specific voice, the tone of your writing,
Welcome back (after a couple weeks off) to my series on editing for authors. I spent the last two posts talking about the role of a style sheet in the editing process (here and here, if you missed them). A style sheet is an extremely helpful tool in making “little-picture” edits such as consistent spelling or formatting, and in keeping track of details such as a character’s hair color, mother’s name, or the kind of car she drives. When it comes to editing your book for the “big picture,” however, it’s hard to draft a checklist that can anticipate the variety of bigger-scale problems that can show up in a manuscript. Learning to recognize problems such as inconsistent pacing, incomplete plots, weak dialogue, or mushy writing voice takes a different kind of perspective and a different set of editing skills. These kind of “big picture” edits are part of the developmental editing process, the purpose of which can be boiled down to two goals: to make the manuscript coherent in content and consistent in writing quality. We’ll look at the first of these two goals this week.
Coherency in a finished manuscript is one of the hardest things to assess accurately as a self-editor. After all, all your manuscript’s content came out of your head– you invented the crazy plot, you know the thoughts running through the characters’ heads, you understand the connection between seemingly unrelated anecdotes or lessons in your memoir, you appreciate the significance of a piece of information in your business book, etc. Inevitably, some of this information that is so clear in our heads gets muddled when we transfer it to the page, leaving a reader confused about a sequence of events, a character’s actions, or a seemingly pointless paragraph. We can try to edit our own work for clarity and coherence, but because we invented these scenarios or are writing out of our
I thought you’d like to see this question someone sent me: “I’ve been writing for several months now, and I’m trying to figure out what my motivation is. Can you help me understand WHY so many writers want to become published authors?”
A fascinating question. Okay, this may surprise you, but I believe most new writers basically want to get published so that they’ll be famous. They want that thrill of holding up a book with their name emblazoned on the cover, show it to their friends, leave it on their coffee table, maybe peruse a copy at the bookstore and casually mention to someone in the aisle, “You know… I wrote this.” I think most new writers are seeking fame and encouragement, that they believe validity and meaning will arrive out of publication. They see fame as offering a measurable amount of worth and competence.
That’s not to say most new writers don’t also have something they want to say — they do. It’s just that many newer writers struggle with having a worthwhile story. Think about it — we all know it takes a while for a writer to become competent. Rarely do you see a novelist get her first completed work contracted. The industry average is five complete books before landing a deal… in other words, if you’re starting out, it will probably be your fifth completed novel before you get a contract. That’s why so many writers give up after one or two — it takes persistence to complete five novels before a publisher will pay attention to your work. So, in my opinion, many writers get into the business as a way to express themselves; as a way to get noticed.
Yet most writers who have achieved some level of fame fairly quickly eschew it in favor of craft. They may still enjoy the warmth associated with being recognized, or having someone come up and
Welcome back to my series on editing for authors. Last week, I started to talk about the role of a style sheet in the editing process, specifically the story and character-related elements. This week, we’re looking at the craft and style-related elements of a style sheet, as well as how to use a style sheet to focus your editing.
As I said last week, style sheets are largely descriptive rather than prescriptive– in other words, your style sheet is based on the writing voice/habits that are already in evidence in your manuscript. When you’ve finished a draft of a manuscript and are ready to start editing, you want to look at your manuscript and determine which conventions you’ve used most often and which ones you want to define your voice, and build your style sheet accordingly, adding entries addressing usage, punctuation, spelling, style, and formatting questions that will arise as you edit your manuscript.
For example, if you hyphenated a word the first three or four times you used it (“birth-mother”), you would probably make the hyphenated version an entry on your style sheet, the idea being that you will use that entry as a reference by which to determine that you will alter any subsequent uses of that word where you didn’t hyphenate it. If, however, you hyphenated it the first time but then used it seven more times in the first three chapters without hyphenating it, you’d probably want to let the majority dictate your style-sheet entry, and use the non-hyphenated version as the rule to be followed on your style sheet, since, again, the goal of a style sheet is to define the elements of your style that are already in evidence in your writing and your voice so that you can ensure that they are reflected in your whole manuscript, since precious few of us write with perfect consistency throughout a 75,000-word manuscript. Use this
A writing friend sent me this question: “Are you a writer because of your distinctive ideas, the volume of material you produce, or because of a call or skill or gift?”
None of the above. I’m a writer because I write. It’s my venue for sharing truth and beauty and all that is important to me. It’s how I express myself. My friend Rebecca is a singer because she puts herself into her songwriting and musical performance. My buddy Brad is a doctor because that’s how he connects to the world and shares himself and his abilities. Maybe that constitutes a calling — it’s certainly a gift. But I’ve always seen books and words as a reflection of who I am. Some of us have to write, the way others have to sing or run or paint or speak or run or lead. With me, words tend to pour out.
The thing that doesn’t get talked about very much is the fact that not everybody can be a writer, and few of us can ever be great writers. I’m all for writing conferences, because I often get to meet and encourage diamonds in the rough. And I’m a big supporter of mentor/protégé relationships because they allow an experienced person to share with an inexperienced person. But I’ve come to believe there’s a limit to the talent that can be shared. I believe I can make a writer better, but I’m not convinced I can ever make a writer great — some people just have the gift. Some people can paint, some people can sing, some people can dance – we can write.
Occasionally I come across a writer whose talent is enormous, and it usually leaves me in awe. I love that. At a conference this past weekend, I had a chance to host a salon with one of my favorite writers, Tom Robbins — an author whom many believe
To better understand the value of a style sheet, let’s consider first the earmarks of a well-edited manuscript. Compared to an unedited manuscript (or one that has merely been proofed for typos), the following is usually true of an edited manuscript:
- The voice has been refined
- Plot clarity has been improved
- Story universe is more clearly defined
- Pacing is more consistent
- Syntax is tighter/cleaner
- Word choice is more effective
Some of these qualities are dependent on the author’s experience/writing skill– it generally takes a more practiced ear to pick up on and critique things like sentence structure, weak word choice, or inconsistent pacing. Others, however, are virtually entirely dependent on good record-keeping and a disciplined adherence to the established norms– plot and character details are vivid at first because the author wrote them that way, but they stay sharp and clear in the reader’s mind because the author kept track of and stuck to the initial rules he made for that universe/character. An author’s voice is most effective when it is consistent and clear throughout rather than weakened by distractingly inconsistent usage, punctuation, spelling, or grammar. That’s where a style sheet comes in.
What is a style sheet?
Think of a style sheet as a reference tool written especially for and tailored specifically to your manuscript. Remember the APA or MLA reference books/handouts your teachers in high school or college gave you and expected you to use when writing your papers? If a teacher wanted your paper in APA style, you consulted your APA style manual to determine whether or not to use an oxford comma, how to format a quotation, which spelling of “cancelled” to use, etc. A style sheet (and don’t be
Call me a late adopter, but I only just read The Hunger Games, by Susanne Collins. Wow. Within three pages, I knew this lady could write. There are four quick lessons I learned from her that I’d like to share with you.
- Jump right into the action and then insert background info.
Notice how the story starts immediately, “When I wake up, the other side of my bed is cold.” Collins doesn’t first spend a chapter on Katniss’ back story or what the Hunger Games are. We don’t even learn the narrator’s name until page 5.
Instead, Collins deftly weaves the background in. “[I] grab my forage bag.” Without telling us that she is telling us, Collins tells us a lot about Katniss’ family and how they live. The result is a book that keeps a great pace without sacrificing depth.
What does this mean for you? There’s a fair chance you could remove the first chapter of your book and end up with a better story. Just because Tolkien begins with chapters of background information doesn’t mean you can! (BTW, I’d argue that Tolkien was great in spite of such chapters, not because of them.)
- Show, don’t tell.
Related to the previous lesson, notice how little “telling” Collins does:
Our part of District 12, nicknamed the Seam, is usually crawling with coal miners heading out to the morning shift at this hour. Men and women with hunched shoulders, swollen knuckles, many of whom have long since stopped trying to scrub the coal dust out of their broken nails and the lines of their sunken faces.
Pay attention to how much information is hidden in those two sentences and how well she paints a picture: The name of where they live (a name as soulless as “Airstrip One”), the local economy, and the hardship of their lives.
Now read a sample of your work and highlight every place you
Continuing my series on being your own editor, I’m talking today about the importance of the right perspective when editing your own work, specifically the role that time plays in your editorial success.
Writing is an up-close-and-personal business. You live and breath your story while you’re writing it, spending hours with your characters while thinking about and planning your story, talking about it with friends and family or your writing group, and then when it’s time to write, your creation appears on the page literally seconds after you conceive it– writing is, in essence, a largely improvised art form. Even if you know the general direction your story is going to take, even if you plan out all the names and scenes in advance, the truth is that when the time comes to put words on paper, you’re making it up as you go along. The words that come into your head are the ones you put down on paper; that’s the only way anything ever gets written. If I sat here and waited to write my blog post until I knew every word I was going to say in exactly the order I was going to say it from beginning to end, I would die before I started a single sentence– that’s not how writing works, and many writers’ favorite thing about writing is the instantly measurable nature of it– “I wrote 1000 words today!” But while that stream-of-consciousness creation is great for getting words on the page, it’s not so good for editing.
Editing is a process in which the majority of your decisions are made on a comparative basis— this line isn’t as clear as the rest of the paragraph; this scene’s pacing is slow compared to the rest of the chapter; this character/plotline is less developed than this other one, etc. To be an effective editor, you have to train yourself to take one or