Editing: The Editor’s Blog

On the theme of editing, I follow a blog called ‘The Editor’s Blog’, the latest post of which explains Interjections and Exclamations so well.

So if you ever had to wonder whether to use ‘Ah’, ‘Ahh’, or ‘Aah’, now you know…

The Editor’s Blog post on Spelling Interjections and Exclamations.



Editing: Where to start

I was about to start editing a colleague’s work recently and it set me thinking about what I look for when I’m editing my own work. I made a list but I know there’s so much more and as a friend said ‘but rules are made to be broken’. That’s true but you need to know what the rules are before you break them.

So, if I was telling myself three years ago how to edit what would I say?

Firstly, read ‘Self-editing for fiction writers’ by Browne and King, ‘Revision and self-editing’ by Bell and ‘Solutions for writers’ by Stein. I think these give a good start to ideas about editing your own work. I’ve read them all three times each over a few years, each reading reinforces ideas, writing gets stronger.

Secondly, write, write, and write. Through writing, we start to incorporate the ‘rules’ and also develop an awareness of when to break some of the rules to create the effect we need.

Thirdly, consider some of these key ideas when editing fiction:

1. Repetition
Words that are used too many times in the same sentence or paragraphs or throughout a section. Think of other ways to show it unless there is no other way and the repetition is deliberate.
e.g. He carried…then she carried another bag…they carried the pots…

2. Cliché phrases
Similes and metaphors that we know are familiar, have heard before. Try to think of a unique way of describing something.
e.g. the sky was blue – try – It was sunny out, a blessed relief following the dull days but a cold night put a layer of ice over the car windows. Jack dashed at it with the scraper. He was going to be late.

3. Excessive words
Words, which if they are cut out of a sentence, don’t diminish its meaning.
e.g. clearly, just, very, now, then,
e.g. he was clearly excited – try – he was excited – or even better, show his excitement – he jumped out of his chair.

4. Linking words
These words, when used, mean that you may need to rearrange sentences to show preceding actions or information before this sentence i.e. if events are in sequence these words are not needed.
e.g. which, that, as,

5. Active versus Passive
Avoid use of ‘had’ unless going into the past of the past. If you get a ‘had had’, find out why and is it really necessary.

6. –ing
Consider use of the definite form e.g. ‘held’ versus ‘was holding’.
-ing is an action in continuous/indefinite form. –ed is the definite form.
Use –ing form sparingly, as needed.

7. Show not tell.
Avoid telling the reader how someone feels, try to show it.
e.g. he said, amazed – try – He said, taking a step back.
Use an action description that shows the emotion.

8. Dialogue tags
If the dialogue is working, then ‘he said/she said’ is all that is needed. The reader skims over these words, using anything else and the reader has to slow down. The reader wants to read the dialogue, not the dialogue tags.

Try to use volume descriptions of said, if needed, e.g. she shouted, screamed, whispered.
It is not necessary to use the dialogue tag to describe what is happening in the dialogue if the dialogue shows it (this is repetitive and superfluous)
e.g. ‘he rejoiced’ when his dialogue shows this already.
e.g. ‘You are right,’ he agreed. Repetition.

Also, don’t combine actions with dialogue tags i.e. you can’t laugh and speak full sentences at the same time. Separate action from speech.
e.g. He laughed. ‘All I can say…’ not He laughed, ‘All I can say…’
‘We’ll go there…’ He pointed to the pub.

Use speaker with tags consistently e.g. he said/she said versus said he/said she. The latter is old fashioned. Whichever way you decide, be consistent.

9. Naming characters
Avoid giving characters similar sounding names, names that start with the same letter or sound e.g. Jim, Jack, John, and Janice met in at the restaurant.

10. Eliminate all trace of the author’s voice, unless author is narrator.
Everything in the work is from the Point of View of the characters (single or multiple), what they say, how they behave, what they see and sense.

Dialogue should sound like your character (time, place, age) not the author.
Also, vary speech – most people don’t speak in really long sentences.
Note: Phonetic dialogue is not always necessary though, can be done subtly.

11. Sentence variety.
Vary sentence length and type. Short sentences speed up the action. Long sentences slow it down.

12. Paragraph length.
Big blocks of writing and the reader usually skims what is in the paragraph. Vary paragraph lengths with the pace you want for the reader. Use dialogue to break monotony of long paragraphs, if relevant.

13. Details
Use concrete and specific details (telling detail) instead of the general.
e.g. the garden was bountiful – try describing – rows of peas, beans and mounds of potato plants. An example of ‘show’ versus ‘tell’.

Weave in details through the scene, if possible. Avoid a massive paragraph of description at the start of every scene (one or two scenes may be unavoidable but not every single one, surely)

14. Plot.
How the story unfolds and keeps the reader interested. Does anything feels forced, out of place, take the reader out of the dream?

So this was my list. But I defer to the three books I named above as describing the things to look for when editing your own or another writer’s work; they give excellent examples, way better than mine.
When editing, you want to retain the writer’s voice in the material not re-write it completely the way you would have written it or described it.

To finish, a dip into Strunk and White’s ‘The elements of style’, or any book on grammar, occasionally, to keep the basics in check.

Rules are made to be broken and that applies to everything in this article but I think when you’re starting to edit your own work, or others, the ideas above would be worthwhile considering.

What do you think?

Struggling to finish

I remember doing one of those personality tests years ago and I remember ignoring the results. It was something like…I was good at starting and investigating things but poor on completion i.e. finishing.

So when I struggled to finish the second draft (second attempt at second draft) of my second novel (note: first novel still needs to be re-written and third novel draft to be finished) that I noticed that for the first half of the draft I was flying along with the words and ideas and, hey, life was great, it was a breeze…

But then, when I had to bring it to a conclusion, I seemed to hit wall after wall of self-doubt that I could do it.

So how did I call time and bring a halt to that stuttering of thought…how did I get myself to write the next word, the next sentence, and the ones after that?

I told myself that I can do this. I have been doing this.

To breathe in deeply.

Remind myself; Believe. Listen. Trust.

Believe in me.

Listen to me.

Trust in me.

Told myself, I will be a finisher. I am a finisher. End of.

And then got back to the writing….

Tackling writer’s block

We can spend days, weeks, months, or years blocked as we get through our novels. Some of it could be due to not knowing. Not knowing how to write, not knowing how to craft a novel, not knowing what happens next…

In a previous post I wrote about being stuck, the responses that came out of me were about not knowing the basics of how to write a novel which I deeply wanted to do. Two years later, after reading loads of books on novel writing, a couple of courses later, many drafts later, practice, practice, practice, I’m starting to see the light, through moments of being so stuck and frustrated to moments when I can actually push through and rewrite and say to myself, yes, that’s what I was trying to write, that’s exactly it, that paragraph, that scene or that chapter is working now.

Recently, I got advice from Mia Gallagher, author of ‘Hellfire’, about tackling my novel, at a recent poetry/prose event. She told me to:

1. Take time to do your re-write – don’t feel under pressure.

2. Be honest about where it rings true and doesn’t.

3. Experiment with being uncomfortable – to go further in the writing. The next level is unknown.

4. Use a structured environment to push the most out, to crack through.

5. Stay with the blank page, feel the unease.

To get to that point, to push through those days I get stuck, when things are uncomfortable, when there is unease, I write the sentence ‘What is wrong?’ and write whatever comes out of me down onto the page. So when you’re stuck, ask these questions,

‘What’s wrong?’

‘What’s wrong with this?’

‘Why am I stuck?’

Write whatever comes to mind, be true to yourself. My own responses range from nothing happening, I stare at a blank page as my mind churns away, unaware or afraid to admit what I’m thinking. Let’s be honest writer’s block that isn’t from lack of skills comes from not knowing what should be next or knowing that you’ve written a shitty first draft and haven’t a notion of how to craft and rewrite that draft into something publishable and getting stuck in the re-write of a chapter or part of the novel that may not be working at all.

So write the question down. Dig deep and be honest. My own responses are usually very simple like:

It’s wrong. Something’s wrong.

It’s not working.

It’s boring, repetitive.

Push on further and ask yourself, if there were no constraints on where this story could go, what would be the most interesting thing that could happen next in the plot, and jot the ideas down, brainstorm them out. As the ideas come, one knocks into your thoughts and the chapters/scenes begin to form on the page.

Alternatively, take a break, allow yourself a break, step away from the work and the ideas and inspiration you need, will come again.

Tying up loose ends

I’m terrible. I keep changing things constantly as the story progresses in my novel and thinking ‘ooh, that’s a better idea now, I’ll use that’ and then I have to make note of the change and go back through chapters to introduce the idea or cut out the previous idea from scenes as I feed the new idea in.

Anyway, as usual I got carried away with this on the current novel (perhaps this is one of the reasons the revisions seem to be never ending) and at a meeting with a literature mentor, it dawned on me that if my mentor has questions about the synopsis and I still have ideas that haven’t been worked into the novel then this novel is never going to end unless the ideas are finalised and stop changing.

It gets to that stage of writing that when someone else reading your novel keeps asking questions about it and even though you keep an open mind and accept the critique, you need to ask yourself – if this reader has to ask these questions, what other questions haven’t been answered?

Ok, most of the time I have the answers and sometimes I haven’t thought about it at all. But for every question that was raised, it meant that there loose ends in the novel that had to be tied up. And adding to this, there were also unanswered questions in my own notes that needed to be fleshed out and determined as well before I continued writing.

So to solve the problem, I made a new list called a Fact Sheet – a list of everything I was asked (yes, even if it seemed to be a silly question). Then I wrote about each item, clarifying and/or re-enforcing the facts about it.

The facts were about settings, characters, their backgrounds, the locations, the plot, and the subplots and I added two separate columns to indicate which chapter a fact is hinted at and when it is revealed in full. E.g. character X is married to Mary and has two young boys. Was B’s best man and got him current job at the Institute.

Now all that needs to be done is to review each fact and decide when and where it goes into the story line (Or even, does it need to be known at all – not all back-story needs to be told). Hints and reveals are shown via thoughts, dialogue, and descriptions from the point of view character, for example, as foreshadowing before a fact is revealed. Sort of drip feeding the information throughout the novel rather than going ‘ta da’ at the end and trying to reveal everything in one big chapter.

I’ve made up the Fact Sheet and I feel like I’ve cemented the unanswered questions now. Plus everything on the Fact Sheet is going to help me with my synopsis. Onwards we go…

Getting over the initial fear

Getting over the initial fear of putting pen to paper, placing my fingers onto the keyboard, opening up the last draft, checking my notes, starting the corrections, adjustments, editing my work, working on the millionth (it feels like it) revision of a chapter or a scene, some days feels like the hardest thing in the world.

Knowing that the chapters and scenes that I’ve looked at and edited will work better, read better after their revisions and convincing myself to keep going because this next chapter, this next scene, after I put in the changes I’ve identified that it needs, will be better. It will sing, exactly right, exactly the way I want it to. I’m getting there.

So, today, I feel the fear, the worry inside that tells me ‘what if you are wasting your time, what if this novel is crap?’ and I try my best to ignore it, that malicious little voice, and I shout back ‘But I’ve seen it, I’ve seen the precious fragments in my writing that tell me I’m mastering this craft, I’m doing this, I can do this’.

And then I tell myself.

‘Do not be afraid. Write. You deserve to have your voice heard and your words deserve to be read.’

P.S. I feel like I’ve been editing forever…thank goodness I sorted out all the plots and subplots, this should work better now. All I have to do is keep going, with a little faith…No, with a lot of faith.

The second draft edit

As we weave our way through the process of trying to get at least one novel published, many options are presented for editing that we try out to determine if they will work for us.

I watched a video about editing and in it an author said that you will have to cut out half of your book, cut out whole scenes, just cut, cut, cut. But he didn’t explain what you have to cut.

For a beginner novelist, I think that this is overwhelming advice. When I heard him say that, I thought why didn’t you tell them it like this, see below, which is a bit more realistic than just ‘cut, cut, cut’. So these are my thoughts…

During the editing phase of your novel:

1. You will cut, revise, and rearrange most of your novel to pull the best from it in the revision and editing phase.

2. Initially, using a top down approach, you will look at the structure as a whole, examining the scene and chapter intentions through the whole novel.

3. You identify which chapters and scenes were a nice detour during the first draft but now add nothing to move your plot along, unless part of interesting sub-plots. These will need to be cut unless they are revised to incorporate plot elements that move the plot forward.

4. You will look to see if additional material is required to improve missing sections or holes in the plot.

5. You will look at which scenes require revision of their structure to make the plot work better within them. Sometimes a scene can work harder by being combined with another one. This includes situations where you have too many characters – which ones can be combined into a single character.

6. When you have completed the overall rewrite to ensure a better structure for your plots and subplots, you analyse plot within each chapter and within each scene and then within each paragraph. Make every sentence in your novel work harder for every word contained within it.

7. And when your heart has stopped breaking with all the changes you’re going to make, then you will remind yourself that this can all be done in small bite-size steps.

8. You will learn how to flick between creator and editor continuously during this process.

9. You must also keep reminding yourself that you are a writer and you will complete this novel.

Does this sound closer to your editing process?