Editing Advice from Authors

Over Labor Day, I attended several writing panels at Dragon Con. It was great fun, and if you’re in the Atlanta area, I highly recommend it. In this blog, I’ll pass on some of the authors’ advice about editing. Note that this blog may seem a little disorganized, and that’s because I want to show the views of all of the authors, which sometimes contradicted with the other authors’ views. Additionally, it was a conversation, so it ebbed and flowed and wasn’t always linear. I hope this blog will give you some ideas about how to edit your own story.

If you’re an outliner, one author/editor recommended using the SPOOC method for your outlines to ensure you’re covering each of the necessary points. SPOOC stands for Situation, Protagonist, Obstacles/Opposition, Observation, and Conflict/Climax. All cautioned that, even as an outliner, you are likely to get off track from your original plan at some point. That’s okay! What you come up with now is probably better because you know your characters and settings more.

One author likes to start her writing day by editing what she wrote the day before, then she continues writing the next scene. This helps her get back into the story where she left off, and she can make adjustments as she goes along.

Others recommend writing the first draft all the way through before going back. After that first draft is finished, all recommend that you celebrate that you finished writing a story! They pointed out that many more stories are started than are finished, so you’ve accomplished something significant. Then, cry, sleep, shower, whatever you need to do to recover a bit.

Most recommended letting your first draft sit for a week or two before going back to revise it. Maybe work on something else for a little while so you don’t get burned out on your primary project.

All spoke of many different rounds of revisions, each with a different focus. Most said to start with high-level things, such as making sure you have your plot holes plugged and that you’re hitting your pulse points for your plot at the appropriate times. If you’re a discovery writer, do a reverse outline (outline after writing) to make sure your plot and character development works.

After you’ve covered these high-level areas, go scene by scene. Make sure the plan for each scene is clear at the top of the scene, and get rid of unnecessary tangents.

Next, look at a lower level of detail. Add more description. Remove overly used words. Eliminate adverbs and replace them with stronger dialogue or description instead. Cut “telling” and leave “showing.” Shorten sentences that are too long and tighten up your dialogue. One author
recommended doing a “how do they feel” pass to see if the characters are properly emoting as intended.

Pay attention to pacing. For example, is an action scene the appropriate time for a long inner monologue? Probably not. Nor is it the time for long sentences. The shorter the sentences, the faster the reader feels like the plot is moving. Longer sentences slow down the pacing.

Revise awkward phrasing, but remember that proper grammar isn’t everything. Sometimes a sentence that is written with proper grammar results in something that is completely unintelligible. A sentence that makes sense is always better. Similarly, keep rules about writing in mind, but don’t be afraid to break them every now and then (e.g., it may be better to use a short amount of “telling” rather than “showing” for something that isn’t important but helps you get to the next scene).

Some recommended reading your manuscript out loud. Reading it out loud will help you find repeated words or realize that your dialogue doesn’t represent the way people really talk. One author said she used to have her husband read her novels out loud to her so that she could listen as a reader and find additional problems that way. Some also recommended printing the manuscript and re-reading it on paper. They said that they see things on paper that they miss on the screen.

Make sure you’re not telling your readers what to think; instead, give them things that let them think for themselves (i.e., trusting your readers to be intelligent enough to follow where you are leading).

Along those lines, themes should be subtle. Some said to make sure you’re not hitting people in the face with the theme, but that the theme is present. Others said they didn’t worry about the theme much and often didn’t realize what the theme was until a reader told them.

Don’t get stuck on something for a long time. If you’re having issues on something and can’t get through it, just make a note on it to come back so you can move on and get through the rest. Save those things for if you have time at the end; it’s better than continuing to bash your head against the wall and run out of time to work on the rest of the manuscript. When making notes to yourself, use “///” or “xxxxx” or something else that is obviously not intended to be published to make it clear that it’s something that it’s not supposed to be there. Patricia Briggs told the story about how, in a Sherrilyn Kenyon book, “INSERT HERE” got published by accident when it was meant to be a reminder for her to go back and work on it some more.

One author who is also an editor recommended color coding every single sentence or phrase with a unique color for each of the following categories: plot, character development, subplot movement, setting, and feeling/atmosphere/overall theme. Every single scene should have plot and character development; if it doesn’t, either cut it or blend it with another scene. Additionally, every scene should have at least three colors; if you have too much of one color, adjust it to be more well-rounded.

All authors said that it’s important to let someone else that you trust read it because they don’t have access to your innermost thoughts and so may see holes that you don’t see. This person could be a developmental editor, a spouse, a fellow writer, or your best friend. But this person needs to provide valuable feedback, not just, “It’s good!”

Don’t overedit. At some point, you will have to let it go rather than constantly adjusting. You eventually won’t be able to see the problems anymore. For example, you may end up with a character who is described as not talking much but now has a long dialogue thanks to editing. It’s also important to realize that most manuscripts will go through seven to nine sets of eyes and will still have some errors that make it through. One author told a story about a sci-fi novel where an overzealous and unknowledgeable copyeditor changed “space them” to “spare them,” which have drastically different meanings!

Again, all of the authors emphasized that you have to find your own process. I’ve included some examples where the authors said completely opposite things (e.g., worry about theme versus forget about theme). Their advice should give you some ideas (they even got excited about each other’s methods), but you can and should tweak it to work for you.

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