Editing Tips I Learned the Hard Way

Red PenMy writing goals this year include quite a bit of editing, since I have several novels and short stories written but not yet ready for query or publication. Having wrestled with manuscripts in the past, I’m sharing a few editing tips I’ve learned. The hard way.

Don’t edit words you’re going to throw out. I’ve made the mistake of going chapter by chapter in an early manuscript and polishing my words to a shine. And then, in the third or fourth pass, I look at a passage or a chapter and think, “What the heck is this doing for the story?” I suddenly realize that these words don’t move the story along and need to go. It’s hard to throw away pages and pages that you’ve written, but even harder to throw away those hours you spend editing the pages until they glistened like Christmas.

Of course, you should still throw them away if they don’t add to the story. But editing experts suggest you first read a draft and look for plot holes, character issues, story structure, etc. — deleting unnecessary sentences, paragraphs, passages, and chapters — and then move to the sentence-by-sentence editing. 

Know your weaknesses. Through the marvelous Deep EDITS system taught by writing coach Margie Lawson, I learned that I tend to skimp on setting. If I’d written The Lord of the Rings (a particularly descriptive novel), my setting passages might have been: “Hobbit. Green Shire. Underground home.” ACTION!  That’s not enough, y’all. Since I now know this weakness, I check each scene for at least enough setting to orient the reader and character descriptions when a new person arrives in the story.

I’m also given to overuse of certain words and phrases, like “just,” “that,” and “I wondered.” So I hunt those down and mercilessly prune.

Early on, I missed these personal shortcomings. But through deep editing, listening to quality beta readers and critique partners, and reading up on common manuscript issues, I’ve discovered and accepted my weaknesses. Now I can be on the lookout as I edit.

Read it aloud. Without a doubt, this is one of the best editing tips I’ve ever received. I ignored it at first, though, wondering how much of a difference there could be between reading in your head and through your mouth.

When I finally tried it, I was amazed at the difference. Reading and hearing the words at the same time, a writer can catch problems not otherwise revealed.

At the very least, you should read your dialogue aloud to check for authenticity, rhythm, and flow. It can reveal such issues as stilted dialogue, losing track of who’s saying what, and unrealistic phrasing (like characters calling each other by name every other paragraph, when no one does that in real life). I always read the dialogue now, but I try to read the whole manuscript aloud at some point.

Believe it: Every word matters. I just finished reading the last of the Wolves of Mercy Falls trilogy by Maggie Steifvater. Some people ask if learning a lot about writing ruins the read for you (like knowing how sausage is made makes you less likely to eat it). I don’t find that at all. Indeed, I’m in awe of how beautifully and seamlessly Maggie’s writing lifts off the page and captures my attention. Now and then, I do pause long enough to say, “Well done, Maggie.” But mostly, I’m sucked into the story so deep my gut twists every time a main character emotes. Why is her writing so compelling? Why is any excellent writing so compelling?

It’s the attention to every sentence, every phrase, every word. Choosing this word instead of that one changes the rhythm, the cadence, the mood. Describing a character one way instead of another reveals something about the narrator. Ensuring that every sentence pulls its weight removes the burden from the reader and allows her to get caught up in the story itself.

Dig deep. Work hard. Every word matters.

ROW80 Update

Every inch of progress matters as well — whether it’s personal development or professional goals. Our lives should be journeys of improving ourselves and the world around us.

I don’t know how much good I did the world this last week — I don’t think I harmed anything — but I definitely made some progress on my ROW80 writing goals.

1. Read 12 books. This week I read Happy Wives Club by Fawn Weaver (nonfiction) and Forever by Maggie Stiefvater (fiction). Check.

2. Complete two drafts of short stories. I edited two short stories this week and wrote one scene for another. Check.

3. Take care of ROW80 sponsor responsibilities. So happy to take on this delightful role again! Indeed, I checked in on my people and saw some great goals and enthusiasm for this Round of Words in 80 Days. I also drafted my sponsor post. Check.

4. Edit at least once through Good & Guilty, young adult mystery. Edited (at that bigger-issue level) 118 pages, my goal being to cover at least 30 pages each day. Check.

So what editing tips do you have? What have you learned from others or learned the hard way? And how was your week?

What an Edited Page Looks Like

Welcome to Scarlet Thread Sunday, when I throw out a thread of something I’ve learned in the labyrinth of life.

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Fear the Red Pen

Do you remember submitting a paper to your English teacher and having it returned with her editing marks? Some teachers were gracious and made suggestions rather than commands to fix the problems, perhaps even including happy faces or exclamation points in those sections where your writing was particularly good. Other teachers were less merciful and told it like it was–marking up your pages with ink until they were covered like a tattoo-sleeved arm. The result was that you learned to Fear the Red Pen.

It can thus be difficult to make the transition to marking up your own writing like the hard-lined instructor with the red pen poised like a hatchet and ready to prune your pretty writing. But you must.

You can no longer fear the red pen. In fact, you must embrace it…and add some highlighters and/or other colored pens to the mix. When your nasty teacher corrected you, she seemed cruel. But you must be cruel to yourself…cruel to be kind. (Yes, of course, “in the right measure.”)

So for all of the beautiful talk of inspirational muses and writing flowing from our fingertips like fairy dust and weaving of the story plot like a crocheted blanket to warm us, it is time to discover what the editing process can look like. Without further ado, here’s a no-holds-barred, buck-stops-here, fix-it-til-it-works look at an edited page.

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THAT is what writing looks like. What we often don’t see when we open the crisp spine and thumb through our favorite books–or download the ebook and scroll the pages across our screen–is that the author toiled to get those words in that order to convey the meaning she wanted.

I didn’t realize going into writing that I would actually welcome ink all over a page I’d written. The result of such toil is writing that flows effortlessly across that page and bids the reader to continue.

“If you knew how much work went into it, you wouldn’t call it genius.”~Michelangelo

This is true of any writing–whether fiction, nonfiction, screenplays, advertising, your master’s thesis, your research paper, or the essay you’re writing for your high school English course. If you want to avoid the red pen of others, embrace it yourself. Force yourself to take the writing to a higher level.

What else have I done to take my writing to a higher level? Here’s my week’s check-in.

ROW Update

Editing/Writing

  • Complete full rewrite of SHARING HUNTER. Rewrote one chapter. I’m kicking this into gear this week. Hello, FAST DRAFT, starting Monday. If you want to join in, let me know. I’d be happy to give and receive encouragement!
  • Edit first short story. Deep edited last chapter. Letting it sit for a week, then I’ll polish it up.
  • Write second short story. First draft finished last week.
  • Write blog posts for Sundays (including ROW80 updates) and Wednesdays. Posted Music Covers and ROW80 on Sunday and The Language of 19th Century Spirit Mediums on Wednesday (with guest K.B. Owen) and Stepping Up and Stepping Out: The Mark of a Man on Friday.
  • Complete weekly lessons for Writing Body Language course. This week was lips/mouth, touch, and dialogue cues. Completed, with thanks to my fabulous class editing partner, Rachel Funk Heller.

Reading

  1. Hush Now, Don’t You Cry by Rhys Bowen (historical mystery)
  2. The Yard by Alex Grecian (historical mystery)
  3. Your Spiritual Personality by Marita Littauer (nonfiction)
  4. The Ruth Valley Missing by Amber West (mystery)
  5. The Twelve Clues of Christmas by Rhys Bowen (historical mystery)
  6. Frosted by Wendy Sparrow (paranormal romance)
  7. Savage Cinderella by P.J. Sharon (YA contemporary)
  8. Blood Ties by Lori G. Armstrong (mystery)
  9. Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov (literary fiction)
  10. Tighter by Adele Griffin (YA contemporary)
  11. The Emerald Tablet by P.J. Hoover
  12. Shrilugh by Myndi Shafer – started

Non-writing goals

  • Exercise twice a week. Participated in the first yoga class on Monday. I couldn’t make Wednesday’s class, and Zumba was on hiatus. So half-done.
  • Take a true Sabbath–no working and time with God and family one day a week. Done.

Comment on whatever you want. Editing. ROW80. The annoying English teacher you had in 9th grade who red-inked everything you ever wrote. Your pick.