I wrote the most beautiful book ever written. I did. The plot, the characters, and the words … oh, I have always loved words. And here was the perfect opportunity to demonstrate just how many I knew. After almost a year of writing, it was complete, and made up of approximately 165,000 gorgeous words. Publishers were going to bid for the opportunity to represent it. For sure.
But I decided maybe I’d show it to someone else first. Maybe someone who had a little experience in that realm. Through a “Writer In Residence” programme, I met author Rona Altrows. She accepted, I think, fifty manuscripts, then sat down with those writers and gave them her opinion. When I showed up for my appointment I felt … what, nervous? Nah. My book was beyond question, wasn’t it?
Rona was wonderful. She told me up front that I had a gift for writing, and that my book had great potential. *ugh* Potential. What a scary word. The first pangs of fear clutched my gut. That was when she introduced me to the Incredible World of Editing.
She started by going through a brutal battle scene at the beginning of my book. She said, “This character is amazing. How did he ever survive all these adjectives?”
And so I embarked on an amazing voyage, learning about adjectives and adverbs (and the need to avoid most of them), Point of View (which was impossible to understand, until all at once I could see it, and I’ll never be able to ignore it again), tense … there were so many aspects to writing I had never considered. Fortunately, I didn’t have to worry too much about spelling and grammar. I have always had a natural propensity for those, which I believe stems from both the vats and vats of books I ingested as a child, and from natural genetics. Both my mother and her mother taught high school English and nary an early sentence went by that wasn’t quickly corrected (“Me and Brian went out” “That’s Brian and I, sweetheart.”).
All right. Done. All those things fixed, I cast my net a little further and joined Scribophile.com, along with thousands of other writers. These folks were less gentle. Their hi-liters and strikeouts were everywhere. More lines than words, I thought.
But they were right. I took a little time and looked at my favourite books, then compared them to mine, trying to find just what separated the two. Then I went through every single word of my novel and ran through it on my laptop three times. I read it out loud twice – once to myself and once to my ever-patient husband. I printed it out and scribbled all over it. About six months later, it was 75,000 words shorter. I felt cautiously optimistic. I posted the first half of the book on Authonomy.com – and it shot to the top.
So what is editing, exactly? We’re all writers here, so let’s look at some metaphors. Editing is like sandpaper on rough wood, revealing the shining oak within. Editing is cutting back on too much salt so that the meal is delicious (and healthier). Editing is folding clothes neatly instead of dumping them on the floor.
Writing is not editing, but writing cannot happen without at least a modicum of editing. Some of it is natural, obviously. For instance, your brain automatically changes:
“Riting storeez iz the thing I luv to do” to “I love writing stories.”
But when you write something a little more complicated, how do you know what goes where? That is the editing experience.
The first step is to write your story as well as you can. Read it over just one more time so you see any glaring error, like killing off a character then having him reappear in the next chapter. Fix those. Now put your story away. Seriously. Find a cabinet with a lock on it and do not look at it for three months.
Pshaw, I hear. But it’s true. Distance may make the heart grow fonder, but it also sharpens perspective. You are too close to your story. I know, I know. You are finally done. Let’s get it out there! But really, what’s the rush? The world has existed without your story, as have you. Take the time to do it right. Put it away. Write something new, or read a different book. Take up macramé. Anything but that book.
*Ding! * (That’s the sound of your calendar alarm saying three months is up.)
Take a deep breath and start to read. If you are fortunate, you will find yourself sinking into your chair, wondering where all these words came from. Did I actually write these? Wow! I don’t remember doing that. It’s not half bad!
Roll up your sleeves. Here we go. We will now edit. Here are the main aspects of editing, as I see them.
1) Please tell me you have spell-check on your computer. Please. Being Canadian, I have the added chore of deciding between British and American spelling, but that’s easily fixable by Search/Replace. I just have to ensure I’m being consistent.
2) Read out loud – preferably in a monotone. Do your sentences sound like sentences? Or are they just words? Do they go on forever, winding poetically through infinite descriptive, albeit beautiful words? Stop right there. Picture your character pulling up to a stop sign. Here are two ways for that character to see it:
Option 1: The sign emerging from the distant horizon is a thin sheet of metal, approximately 75cm across, with a matte background painted a bright, highly visible cherry red broken only by a 20cm white border and clear, easily distinguishable white lettering sending its message from atop a sturdy pole intended to reach the most unaware, recalcitrant, ignorant, distracted of drivers.
Option 2: The stop sign is red and octagonal, on a post, with white print.
Read those two contrasting sentences again. The first gives you terrific information. Were you bored? Amazed at the detail (unless of course you are researching stop signs, in which case it would be fabulous information, and I recommend Wikipedia)? Did you have to look up any of the words? Did you skip ahead? Of course you did. No one would ever realistically spend so much time describing something simple. Not even your character. If you did, your reader would probably have to put the book down just so they could grab something to treat their impending headache.
Here’s the trick: Go through your first page. Remove every adjective/adverb until the remaining words are “naked”. Can you improve any of those “naked” words with something better, something that negates the use of adjectives/adverbs? Do that wherever possible. Then add the necessary descriptive words and no more. Keep it simple.
3) Sentence Length: While it is good to vary sentence length, anything written non-stop is just plain annoying and amateur. It may seem beautiful to describe a sunset as:
The inevitable rays of the setting sun cast awe-inspiring parting glories in an amalgamation of pure and omnipotent expressions of the gods who have chosen to enliven their palette with the glorious scatterings of aureate golds and bittersweet oranges silhouetted against an endless heliotrope sky.
Too much? I’d say. How about:
The sunset’s stunning array of golds and oranges faded into the purple sky. Or: Evening was heralded by the majestic golds of the sunset.
Well, those aren’t the best examples, but I hope you understand my meaning.
4) Paragraph length: Same as sentences. The reader’s eye is automatically drawn to white space – more particularly to dialogue. Keep paragraphs relatively short.
5) Point Of View: If you’re writing third person from Mary’s perspective throughout most of the novel, then you can’t say what John is thinking. That’s like: Mary had been wondering how John was feeling. “How are you feeling, John?” she asked. John was happy she asked. No no no. Maybe John appeared pleased that she had asked, but it’s impossible for Mary to know if John was really happy or not. See? Complicated, but that’s Point of View. Trust me. Once you get it, you’ll never go back.
6) Tense: You don’t want unnecessary words, and you don’t want the story to stall. Keep verbs as up to date as possible, so the book moves forward. Instead of Mary was forgetting to tie her shoes, use Mary forgot to tie her shoes. Be consistent.
7) Redundancies: John stood on his feet. Where else would he stand? Mary saw the smile on his face. Where else would his smile be?
6) Dialogue/Dialog: This is a sticky point for me because I have yet to edit a book in which all aspects are done correctly.
“Hello,” said Mary. (See how the comma is inside the quotations?)
“Hello,” said Mary. (See how I used the word “said”? Though they have their place, it’s not necessary to always use “exclaimed” “responded” “declared” “replied”. “Said” is just fine.)
“Hello.” (Sometimes you don’t need to tag who is saying what. Especially if the dialogue only goes on for about four or five lines. Too many episodes of “she said/he said” sounds robotic.)
“Hello,” Mary said with a grin. (See how I didn’t say “Hello,” Mary grinned. That’s because she can’t “grin” a word. She can’t “sigh” it or “frown it” or “attempt” it.)
In the time it took to take my book apart and sew it back up again (then take away any evidence of seams), I read a lot of other books. And I have been humbled. There is some amazing writing going on out there, published or not.
I no longer believe my story will change any aspect of the world, but at least I know it’s something worthy of a reader’s time. At last, an amazing agent decided my book was what he had been seeking. He wasn’t through with me, though. He had me re-write the ending three times. When he finally emailed back and said “Yes, I think we’ll go with that,” I felt dizzy with relief. In very little time he called to say Berkley Publishing (a division of PenguinUSA) wanted not only to publish my book, but wanted a companion novel to go with it. That was one of the greatest moments of my life. But then came another one. He said, “The editor said there was virtually no editing to be done.” So those years of writing, re-writing, nit-picking, agonizing, deleting … it was all worthwhile.
It took a long time to get that right. It took a ton of practice. My subsequent novels started to emerge with less need for re-writes. Editing had become a natural process for me (though nothing is perfect the first / second / third time round!). I started editing for other authors and found it was easy for me to sink into the “voice” of the author. They loved my work, and I loved doing it.
So now, along with my writing, editing is my business. If you have done all you can for your beloved manuscript and are ready for a professional touch, please check out my website:
I look forward to reading your work someday!