Chip MacGregor

September 18, 2015

Editing for Authors: Part 6, Know thyself, edit thyself


brick green no smile b:wWelcome 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, and your storytelling strength; however, keep in mind that a beta reader who can spot a plot hole or disorganized information may not be as able to identify voice or other writing strengths, or to be able to articulate them if they do. While any reader who pays attention and follows the story or the thought process can give feedback on coherence, it usually takes a more specialized, “word-savvy” reader to help with issues of writing quality (and, ideally, a reader who’s familiar with and a fan of the genre you write in). That’s one reason why it’s worthwhile for you to become a student of your own strengths and style, so that you can big-picture edit your manuscripts for consistent quality after inevitable author tunnel-vision and rabbit-trailing over months of writing (especially for “pantsers,” or authors who write by the seat of their pants rather than planning out their books in detail in advance) result in conflicting tone or an inconsistent voice.
The first step in big-picture editing for writing quality, then, is to acquaint yourself with your writing style and your book in particular– your voice, your book’s tone, your strengths, your book’s strong points, etc. Think about what aspects of writing come easily to you– writing dialogue? Putting together an intricate plot? Creating really memorable characters? Think about both your current manuscript and your previous works, if any. Even if there’s room for improvement (like there usually is), these areas probably represent some of your biggest strengths as a writer and the best components of your current manuscript. When reading your manuscript or previous works, make a note of the passages or turns of phrase you’re especially proud of– which sentences or scenes just really delight you after you’ve written them? Which ones would you show to someone who wanted to know what your writing was like? The material you feel the most pride in, the biggest personal connection with, or the most emotional investment in usually says a lot about your voice– whether it’s humorous, cerebral, literary, conversational, gritty, etc.
Looking at the passages or fragments you are most proud of or that came most easily to you, themes will start emerging– lively, interesting characters, or subtle, tongue-in-cheek humorous narration, etc. You can then use these recurring themes to calibrate your editing eye for the rest of the manuscript– if you identify “writing lively, interesting characters” as one of your strengths, go back through and take a look at each character and make sure you haven’t “phoned in” any of them, that one isn’t going to stand out by virtue of being comparatively underdeveloped or forgettable. If three-fourths of your manuscript gives you that proud, giddy feeling you get when writing your best work but you’re just ambivalent about the other fourth, you may want to try re-writing some of it with an eye toward incorporating more elements of your voice so that there isn’t a single moment when the reader is able to tune out or forget who’s writing.
You should also consider the specific manuscript you’re editing– what are its strongest points, apart from your writing skill? What aspects of the story or setting stand out in its genre, and how can you expand on them to make it even more of a stand-out? What’s the overall tone? Where does it fall on the spectrum of its genre (e.g., how intense is your suspense novel, how casual is your non-fiction, how serious is your romance novel, how melancholy is your literary fiction?, etc.)? Once you identify the overall tone of your book and the category it falls into (thinking of comparable titles can be a big help in figuring this out), you will have a measuring stick to use when editing to help you determine whether the tone of a certain scene is too light-hearted compared to the majority of the book, or whether your descriptions in another are too tame, or whether a certain plot development is too dark, etc.
This isn’t to say that you can’t have some intense moments in an otherwise more lighthearted romantic suspense, or some humor in the middle of a horror novel, but if you depart significantly from your tone, your readers are going to feel like you conned them– if they’ve read three-fourths of a zany murder mystery, they don’t expect a tender, serious, realistic deathbed reconciliation between a mother and daughter at the end, and even though that scene felt natural when you wrote it, you have to be able to recognize the moments when your own momentum as a writer carried you too far from the path you started out on and when you might have to make the tough decision to scrap or alter material you really like. Identify your tone and examine similar works to help you determine whether a scene truly belongs in the book you’re going to try to sell.
A confident familiarity with your writing strengths and your writing voice allows you to edit your own work from a position of confidence and competence. Take some time to get to know yourself as a writer and then use that knowledge to power your editing!
As always, I’d love to hear your suggestions or your questions in the comments. Thanks for reading!
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  • Kristen Joy Wilks says:

    This is so good. I found myself trying to write the way I wished I could write for years. But finally when I just relaxed and wrote something for fun, that was when my voice came out. I’m not as intense and literary and dramatic as I wanted to be. But my voice is funny and flirty and quick. I’m learning to let go of what I am not and enjoy what I can do well. A good thing to remember when editing.

  • A.E Sawan says:

    Oh, Now you tell me, I sprinkled few jokes during some torture scenes. It was the personality of the character that I had to keep consistent. Thanks.

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