Chip MacGregor

September 2, 2015

Editing for Authors: Part 5, The Big Picture


brick green no smile b:wWelcome 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 own substantial knowledge or experience, we often read our own work with too much background information to be able to make an accurate call as to whether it will make sense to an outside reader or not. We automatically “fill in the blanks” left in the text with our own knowledge and so we don’t even notice them.

I remember seeing Harry  Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban with my sister and my mom; my sister and I had read the book but my mom hadn’t, and a couple parts of the movie didn’t make sense to her. At first, my sister and I just assumed our mom hadn’t been paying close enough attention, because it made perfect sense to us, but after watching it a second time, we realized that there were several plot holes that the filmmakers never bothered to explain in the context of the movie– if you hadn’t read the book, you would have had no idea of the significance of certain scenes or the connections between certain events/characters. Because we’d read the book, we filled in those blank spots automatically with our greater prior knowledge and we didn’t even notice them the first time we watched it. We would have made lousy editors on that film (though apparently, that’s the kind they used…).

Because of this innate, unavoidable bias on the side of not noticing the coherency issues in our own manuscripts, our best hope for identifying issues related to confusing plot sequence or missing information or erratic character behavior is to employ a beta reader to read a manuscript and provide feedback on its clarity. Now, don’t be spooked by the word “employ,” you most likely know several people (okay, at least one) who would be willing to read through your manuscript for you and give you their thoughts for free (though gift cards are always appreciated), and they don’t have to have any qualifications beyond knowing how to read (and preferably liking the genre you write in). You’re not asking them to edit– that’s still your job– you’re just asking them to read it from beginning to end and flag any “Huh?” moments. Obviously, the more word-savvy your beta reader, the more technical and in-depth they might get with their feedback, but while you might get some bonus craft-related feedback from folks like this, even a non-expert reader will usually be able to recognize plot holes, point out seeming character discrepancies, and alert you to confusing scenes or passages.

If you’re really reluctant to let someone else read your manuscript (though if that’s the case, why the heck are you writing in the first place…) or you just can’t find any good beta readers, it is possible to detect your own coherence issues if you know what to look for, such as:

  • plot holes (unanswered questions or plot developments what happen out of the blue without explanation),
  • character discrepancies (instances in which a character acts or speaks in a seemingly inauthentic or uncharacteristic manner),
  • unnecessary, incomplete, or out-of-place information (in non-fiction).

Just like when you’re editing for punctuation errors, you have to tune your “editing eye” to be on the lookout for the types of clarity issues that might trip up a reader. You may find it helpful to work backwards through your manuscript– find the end of each plot thread or storyline and follow it backwards through the story to the beginning, making sure you can find all of the pieces in the correct order– this strategy helps you to look at your plot through fresh eyes and can help you become aware of gaps in a particular plot thread that don’t exist in your head but do on the page. To evaluate your characters, compare the extremes of their behavior and their relationships and then make sure you’ve given the reader enough information to understand any huge range between extremes– if your character had a big confrontation with a cheating boyfriend at the beginning of the book, we’re going to need a compelling reason why she just moves to Vermont without a word or a note when she thinks her new boyfriend is cheating on her. (The obvious reason is, of course, because this makes for the requisite misunderstanding-between-lovebirds that is required in every romance novel and if she’d just confronted him she would have found out right away that the girl he was hugging in the street was his sister and there wouldn’t have been a misunderstanding, but without a good reason for not confronting him like she did the last loser she dated, this move seems out of character and like a lame, plot-serving move by the author. You have to build bridges between your extremes.) For non-fiction, you can try the same backwards approach, tracing the line of narrative or the thought process back to its origin and comparing every paragraph to the theme or point of the chapter to ensure it’s all on-topic and in the correct place.

I’ll talk more in the future about techniques for fixing these issues, but without an understanding of the most common enemies of coherence and the danger our own bias poses to recognizing these issues during the editing process, we’re not going to make much progress on the developmental editing front (or, by extension, on the getting-a-publishing-deal-for-our-well-ordered-logical-and-coherent-manuscript front). Come back next week when we’ll look at big-picture editing for consistent writing quality. Thanks for reading!

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  • A.E Sawan says:

    Thanks, I read the first few chapters of my own ms after months. Immediately I found a couple of holes. I knew what I meant, but I did not bother to explain the background to the reader. Oh, now I have to start again.

  • I agree that it’s hard to read a MS at the story level after you’ve been looking at it up close. I can’t wait to see what techniques you’ll share for developmental editing.

  • Nick Kording says:

    I couldn’t agree more. As a writer and editor, it is hard to find an editor who wants to read an editor’s work. But I can’t edit myself on a larger level – I just don’t see the holes… even in non-fiction. It’s there – just in my head.

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