As some of you might know, I frequent a board that has a lot of new and young writers. It can be interesting to see some of the same questions I had as a new writer coming up, time and time again. It’s a reminder of what it felt like to be new and hungry, looking for that first toehold. It’s also a reminder that I’ve come a long way in the past 5 years.
One recent questioning trend on the boards has been editing. It seems like such a basic thing… write it and edit it… but what is editing, really? There’s more to it than fixing typos and cleaning up grammar, but what?
The good news is, it’s not as scary as you think it might be. the bad news is, I can’t tell you exactly how to do it. Editing, like writing, is a very individual thing. There are a lot of tips and tricks, but when it comes down to it, each writer must determine what works and doesn’t work for her, and build her own method.
Luckily, there are some universal points, and they are pretty basic. Some people can do all these things in just a couple of passes. Others will need to focus and do an editing round for each item. Finding out what works will likely be a matter of trial and error.
I believe in starting with the big jobs, and when it comes to editing, content is the biggest thing on the page. This focuses strictly on the nuts and bolts of the storyline. Is the plot believable and is it complete? It’s important to note that by believable, I don’t mean realistic. I mean the major plot points need to make sense. Every scene needs to build toward the climactic black moment. Every love scene needs to make sense in that moment and every step in the character’s relationship should go toward making that black moment bigger.
Wait… too much information, right? Lots of talk and no instruction. Let me break it down.
Are there any dead ends in your story? – Weed out any unused hints or clues and don’t leave the reader with questions about, “what happened to…” It’s the base principal of Chekhov’s gun, which basically stated that if you show a loaded gun in the first act of the play, the gun needs to be fired in a later scene. If it’s not fired, it’s not important to the plot and needs to be removed.
Are there bits of plot or subplot that don’t go anywhere? This has the same idea as Chekhov’s gun, only it’s dealing with story concepts rather than items. If the hero and heroine are working on, say, a missing child case together, then by the end of the story, the reader needs to know the fate of the child, good or bad.
Is back story woven in? This is another tricky point. we give our characters rich backstory because it’s important. It tells us who they are and why they act this way or that way. But the reader doesn’t need to know the details of these past events. Past events are not the story. Take out that info dump about the third grade school play wardrobe malfunction that left the character with stage fright and just allude to it in the moment when she’s overwhelmed. Maybe she can tell the hero she was a piece of pizza and some strategically placed pepperoni fell off and she doesn’t want to talk about it. That’s enough.
Are all the elements needed at the climax introduced earlier in the story? In a way, this goes back to Chekhov, only in reverse. If that gun will be needed, make sure I know about it. If the villain is the hero’s evil twin, we need to know the hero has a twin.
We’ve determined the story makes sense. We’ve added all the elements we need and removed the ones we don’t. The next ‘big thing’ to clean up would be storytelling. The big thing about storytelling is that the reader needs to understand what is going on. We’ve all heard that there are Rules, and The Rules won’t let you do prologues and epilogues, dream sequences or flashbacks. While I’m not a fan of Rules, I will agree that these things often get in the way of storytelling.
Once again, I’ve dumped a bunch of vague information. Here’s a checklist for putting it into action.
Do your scenes flow together logically? Every story is a journey, and when you’re on a journey, you don’t jump ahead or behind to grab some information, then go back to where you were. The path can wind but it always needs to go from point A, to B to C. make sure everything moves naturally and in order, not just on the scene level, but town to the sentences in a paragraph.
Do you have an appropriate amount of description? This is my nemesis. I like action, but the reader needs to have a working concept of where the characters are and how they move around the space. And description isn’t just physical. The scents, and mood surrounding people and areas play a part in building the story. Too much description or overdone can be a negative thing, too. I don’t need to know about the knotholes dotting the kitchen paneling like spots on a dalmatian, but if you tell me it’s knotty pine, I’ll get the picture.
Is your pacing appropriate? This is one of those things that sounds harder than it is. In every book there are going to be important moments. He’s holding her and realizing he’s in love, for example. That’s a moment you want the reader to hold on to, to savor, so slow it down and go long. Longer sentences, longer paragraphs, longer descriptions about the little things, like the scent of her hair. Other times you want your readers to be flipping pages madly, anxious to see what happens. Here things need to be fast. Short sentences and paragraphs, choppier dialogue and where before the descriptions were about small things, slow realizations, description in action scenes will be sudden, a crunching punch out of nowhere. Forget the details and stick to big things.
Is your point of view consistent? This is where the infamous head-hopping comes in. to be clear, changing point of view isn’t strictly forbidden, but when that change is made, it needs to be for a reason, and the new character needs to stay in control of the scene. But POV also means little things, like is the character feeling her face get hot instead of seeing her own skin flush. Is he drawing conclusions about what she’s thinking from logical body language instead of reading her mind.
Grammar and Language
Now that all the big things are in place, it’s time to start cleanup. Grammar is a tricky one for a lot of people, especially younger writers, because schools have taken a lot of emphasis off grammar basics. The good news is that there are a lot of resources online that can help. I like the Perdue OWL. But there is also the question of making the language sound natural. Even those of us with strong grammar skills don’t speak with impeccable grammar. There is a balance between what is technically right and what works for the story. there are times you can forget grammar.
So… checklist time.
Are your sentences simple enough to be easily understood? Whoa, what? We’re not making it all sophisticated? Nope. the average book for adults, including romances, need to be on a seventh to eighth grade reading level. Shocker? Maybe. The thing to remember is that sentences need to be understood and absorbed quickly. If a reader has to stop and figure out what this or that means, she’s going to be yanked out of that moment and the story has lost its momentum.
Are you varying sentence structure? Repetitive structure can read like a game of ping pong. He said, she did , he wanted, she snored, ping, pong. it sets up a predictable rhythm that bored the reader instead of pulling them in. Instead of, he waited by the door and checked his watch, maybe he stood by the door, checking his watch, or waiting by the door, he checked his watch. it’s a small change but it breaks up the beat and keeps the reader reading.
Is your language natural? It has to fit the character. That hard-nosed biker dude isn’t likely to use whom properly, and is he really going to say, “I burn for you, my love,” or will he say, “You’ve got me so hot, baby.” It’s not just the dialogue, either. That narrative is his POV, too.
Have you checked for homophone errors? Oh those homophones. This is one area where you may need to make sure you have some heavy backup in crits. if you don’t know if it’s pay do respect or pay due respect, you can’t fix it. (It’s due, by the way.) But if you know you have a problem with certain homophones, you need to keep a list of them and when you get to edits, do a search. Never bulk search and replace, but check them individually. Time consuming but prudent.
Do you have pet words and phrases? The answer to this is yes, you do. We all do. And they might vary from day to day, or even page to page. find frequent repeats and reword. Don’t rely on a thesaurus for replacement, either. Think it through and come up with the best wording possible.
I don’t have a fancy checklist here. There are just a few basics to know.
A line edit is not the same as proofreading. One of those facts I recently learned that had me going… huh. One thing a line edit does is check for consistency through the manuscript… Her shirt stays red, a certain word is always capitalized, etc. Another is making sure the right word is used. Sometimes words don’t mean what we think they mean. This is another area where if you don’t know better you can’t fix it, but if you fix what you do know, a good crit partner will have your back on the other stuff.
A manuscript needs to be as clean as possible, but remember we’re all human. Clean up those typos and don’t sweat the ones you miss. because you will miss some. So will your crit partners and beta readers. So will your editors. Readers won’t, though, and you’ll get an email at 3am telling you about that misplaced comma on page 143. It happens. Just do your best.
Take the time to research formatting. Learn how to put in an automatic paragraph indent and lose the tabs. Make sure you have double spaced, one inch margins and an acceptable font. if you’re getting ready to send, make sure you’ve checked websites for any special formatting notices.
So that’s what it means to edit. I find myself lacking a clever sign off here, so I’ll just say that if you’ve hit this point, than you for reading. I hope this helps.