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?
8) Dialogue/Dialog: This is a sticky point for me because I have yet to edit a book in which all aspects are done correctly.
In the time I 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.
- “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.)
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, a 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: www.WritingWildly.com. I look forward to reading your work someday!
Just found this terrific article about editing by Jim Warner http://querytracker.blogspot.com/2010/08/guest-blogger-jim-warner-on-editing.html. The blog's no longer alive, but Jim is, and seemed kinda pleased I wanted to run this. I thought it was great. When I was on Authonomy I had a few arguments - let's call them discussions - with people about editing. I decided I was only going to 'back' books if they were "editor-ready", meaning well edited, etc. After all, that's what I thought mine was. The people who disagreed with me figured that's what editors were for.
Well, turns out I was right. Editors are, like the rest of us, overworked and underpaid. If you want to make your writing tempting to them, make it as perfect as you can. If you offer someone a gift, do you just roll it up in a wad of paper towel or toilet paper? No! You wrap it up nicely - even if it is in a recycled gift bag (ahem ... works well for me). Don't make the editors work. Get them to say 'yes', get them to like your book, get them to publish it.Do the work.
Why I Call Writing Editing (And You Should Too)
by Jim Warner
I’m going to shatter some illusions today.
Writing shouldn’t be called writing. It should be called editing.
Why? And more importantly, why should you care?
Because editing and revision are important, and you must do it well. If you think you’re only writing, and what you do after that is merely cleaning up the rough spots and fixing the little mistakes that creep into an initial draft, you’re missing something vitally important.
Here’s how to tell if you’re doing it wrong. Writing rarely feels like work. But something else does, if you’re doing it right. You know that feels like a chore?
I’ve looked all over for a magic bullet, a way to cut down on revision, editing and proofreading. A way to make this awful process shorter, to get back to the fun stuff, like researching and writing. I hate editing. Lots of writers do. Do it anyway.
I’ve been told Rachel Caine can write a book in two weeks. My source likely heard something out of context, but I could (if I worked really hard and didn’t have any distractions) knock out a first draft that fast. I’m no Rachel Caine, but you probably aren’t either. For me, pre-writing can take anywhere from one to three months. It takes me about a month to hammer out a first draft. But I’m not done there. I still have to edit those words, and this takes time. I plan on at least two months, maybe ten weeks. I spend more time editing than I do on any other process.
I have to revise, and I have to revise a lot. This involves a lot more than looking for typos, misspelled words, and grammar mistakes. I tighten up a sentence here, I unscrew an adverb there, I add detail or take some away. Sometimes I cut things. I’ve been known to dispose of entire scenes, even though I use outlines. I’ve also added them. Both made the manuscript better. It’s all part of the editing and revision process.
The ugly truth is, no matter what technique I’ve used, what gimmick I’m applying, whatever system I’m trying, it takes me ten to twelve drafts to make a novel presentable.
You’ll want to speed through the editing. Resist this. It’s best to work only an hour at a time, maybe two at a stretch. Take long breaks between sessions. Do you think that’s too little editing over too much time? I’ve cheated and my beta readers noticed. That novel took more time than if I had done it right the first time. So develop some patience. Two months is not very long to revise a novel.
The reward for all this self-inflicted torture is the tenth draft. When I get to that tenth draft, I’ve caught almost all of the typos. I’m changing words or making the dialogue work better. I long ago caught all the major errors. By the time I get to the tenth draft, I’m polishing, making my prose more saleable. Sometimes I need to do an extra pass or two. It depends on the state of the manuscript. If I’m playing with words and toying with sentences that are already working, then it’s probably okay to stop. If I’m still finding grammar errors or too many commas, I sigh and start another run the next day. Early, so I’m fresh.
I’ve seen websites out there telling you that you can make do with a single pass. Don’t believe them. If you disagree with me, start saving your drafts as separate documents. Make five passes. (You don’t even have to go backwards, although everyone should try that once. You’ll be amazed at what you find.) Read draft five and then go back and take a look at draft one.
If you’re the editor you should be, you’ll see an enormous difference. The first draft will be awful, embarrassing, and nowhere near as good as you thought it was. You wouldn’t dream of sending that piece of garbage anywhere. But the fifth draft, now that baby just might have possibilities.
In about five more runs.
After a few months, you’ll stop thinking of what you do as writing, and rename it editing. It’s more than a word, it’s a state of mind. Don’t give in to the urge to cut corners. There is no easy path. Unlike the Force, you can’t turn to the Dark Side to find a quicker, easier solution.
If you’re skeptical, try this on for size. I’ve never received a rejection telling me my writing needs work. I don’t get letters that tell me to polish, rewrite, and resubmit. What I get are “enthusiasm” letters. They didn’t like the book enough to represent it. They had trouble with the premise, or they didn’t like the style. It wasn’t right for them. But they never have trouble with the prose. I’ve even received compliments from agents for my writing. And that’s what we are all about, isn’t it? That’s what we’re trying to sell. Good writing.
Ironically, it’s really just good editing.
We're writers. We love words. But why do we need to junk up our work with too many of them? It's because we want to make sure everyone reading our book understands exactly what we mean. But too many descriptive words cut up on the piece, shoving speed bumps all over the place for the reader to navigate.
I'll never forget what my mentor, Rona Altrows asked about the first battle scene of mine that she read. She shook her head and said, "This character is amazing. How did he survive all those adjectives?"
So what King suggested (and at first I said Pshaw! I'm not doing that! ... but I did, and wow) was:
1) Take the first page of your book. Read it - out loud.
2) Delete EVERY SINGLE adjective and adverb (of course I don't mean delete permanently. Do this on a separate document. Never delete anything you've written).
3) Now your first page is 'naked'. Read it - out loud. Doesn't that sound cleaner?
4) Read it through slowly again, adding in any descriptive words you feel are imperative. But don't layer it on thick. Don't use three adjectives when you could use one more effectively. For example: It was a hot, humid, oppressive day. Change to: It was a muggy day.
5) Apply this technique to everything you write.
My original first novel was 150,000 words long, and I loved every single word. Using the above technique (and a few others), I cut it to 90,000. And you know what? They're way better.
...I just haven't had time / don't have the willpower or concentration / don't think it'd be any good / don't know what to write” ...
It's funny, the evolution of a writer. I started writing five years ago, and people kind of smiled and said things like “Oh, that's nice.” And when I started asking people if they'd like to read it, they usually would make a kind excuse or suggest they didn't read that genre, whatever it was. I wasn't offended. That's how I would have been.
But there were a few who bravely agreed to read what I'd done, and they were apparently * ahem * impressed. I told them I wanted to get better, so would they please tell me what they didn't like as well as what they liked. They asked me questions about what I'd written, found errors, questioned impossible plotlines ... and I surprised myself by being defensive and somewhat belligerent. This was my baby! How could they possibly find anything wrong with it? I folded my arms over my chest, huffed, and continued along the same line, determined to make it work.
And yet their ability to find fault showed me that they cared enough about the story to make it better. Their first impression every time was, “It was really good.” So eventually I started considering their suggestions (which, of course, I had initially requested) and began to work on them.
My husband was my first supporter, thank goodness. If he hadn't been, I would have felt guilty, spending so much time with this new “hobby”. After all, what did he have to compare to this? Because I love writing. I love when an idea grabs me and pulls me along, tosses me into the fray, grips me hard and makes me cry. I love watching my fingers fly when the characters tell me their stories.
So he started telling people “My wife's a writer. She's written three novels."
The response was always something like, "How interesting. Are they published?"
He replied (until recently), "No. Not yet. But she wrote them.”
Since it was he, not I, who was announcing this, people began to take me more seriously. And that's when I started to hear, “Good for you. WYou know, I've always wanted to write a book.”
Is it wrong for me to admit that I never wanted to write a book before I did? I had no idea writing would become my passion; I was never one for telling stories. My kids would ask me to tell them a story and I'd race off to the bookshelves to read – I never imagined making anything up from my own imagination. It was stories by other people that inspired me eventually to try my own hand, and I was relieved to find out that I didn't have to tell a story. It told itself.
So if you want to write a book, why don't you? No time? Five minutes a day. Really. Can you afford five minutes? Because if you start with that, the rest of the time will find you. But try really hard to do it every day or else you could be distracted by things-that-have-to-be-done.
Lack of willpower/concentration? First off, you should know that I, personally, have no willpower whatsoever. I could be entirely full from a ten course meal and still look at that chocolate bar as if it were the last food on earth. Secondly, concentration? Trust me. I can barely remember ... what was it I was saying?
Lack of confidence? Ha! Even the best of writers have that. And who's to know? Maybe you just write something but keep it to yourself. It's still writing. And never, ever throw anything out. Just put it away.
Don't know what to write? Some people say “write what you know”. Others say “know what you write”. I say “write what comes into your head.” Some days I might scribble about what the beach makes me feel. Some days I might vent about my day. Some days I might sink into my story and lose myself in history, adventure and romance. Just let it take you away.
I read an article awhile back in which an author was offended (as were most of the commenters on the site) by people comparing their desire to write with someone whose work was published. Well, I'm offended by the attitude of the article. Writing is writing. Of course the dream is to publish – if only so you can share what you've written with a wider audience. But if someone tells me they've always wanted to write, then my immediate reaction is ... Do it! Would you help me?they ask. Sure! Ask away.