Definition of EDIT from Merriam-Webster online
- to prepare (something written) to be published or used : to make changes, correct mistakes, etc., in (something written)
- to prepare (a film, recording, photo, etc.) to be seen or heard : to change, move, or remove parts of (a film, recording, photo, etc.)
- to be in charge of the publication of (something)
Once you go through Step 1 – Revise and feel confident your manuscript’s story elements (plot, conflict, characters, etc.) are in place, the next step is to make a pass focusing on technique and style. The Internal Editor you tied to a chair in Step 1 gets to have his day.
If Step 1 – Revise focused on the big picture of the story, the middle step of Revise-Edit-Polish will examine how the story is delivered to the reader: the writing. By “the writing” I refer to elements that run from artistic choices to basic mechanics:
Style and Voice–the author’s distinct use of words and her selected manner of expression for this story;
Diction and Syntax–the choice of words and how they are arranged in phrases and sentences;
Grammar and Punctuation – the set of rules that explain how words are used in language and the marks used to regulate text;
Errors and Other Considerations – typos, missing words, padding, and other boo-boos.
Editing goes beyond catching typos. A manuscript may contain a series of grammatically correct sentences, but if the sentence structure is the same every time, the MS will be repetitive; if the word choices are unimaginative, the MS will be dull; if the voice is indistinct, the MS will unremarkable; if the words contain no action, the MS will be aimless; if the style is affected, the MS will sound false; if scenes are told instead of shown, the MS will be distant.
You may think of this step as examining the sound of your story—what your words say and how they will sound to a reader.
Separating Style and Technique
Editing the manuscript at this level means you will examine it paragraph by paragraph and then sentence by sentence, for style (the author’s artistic choices) and technique (the mechanics of grammar).
Style asks, Is this sentence pleasing to the literary ear? Does it work best in this spot? Are word choices strong?
Technique asks, Is this sentence grammatically correct? Is it efficient? Is it necessary or redundant?
Every sentence in your manuscript should serve a purpose: to advance the plot, reveal vital information about a character, describe the setting, inform about an important past event, ask a narrative question, introduce a thematic concept. Every single sentence needs to have a function. If a sentence does not do a particular job—meaning, if the scene will fall apart or be less effective without it—that sentence should be cut.
How those sentences are arranged and delivered will create the sound of your story. You want a manuscript that will be pleasing to the literary ear, and entertaining, and technically sound. You can do this by writing a series of strong sentences that perform a particular function to advance the plot.
Many writing guides have been devoted to self-editing, so distilling a guide into a blog post means hitting the basics. Not all writers are strong grammarians. Not every writer is gifted with a unique literary voice. For an overview such as this one, some self-examination is necessary. Do you recognize good grammar? Can you be brutal and cut out what is not necessary in the narrative?
The first step in good editing is to distance yourself from your writer’s ego. In Step 1 – Revise, you had to fight off the Internal Editor. Here, in Step 2- Edit, you have to push away your Writer’s Pride, pull back, and examine your words with as little bias as possible. Editing is as much mental as it is task-oriented.
I’m going to focus on what I often see as common editorial problems in manuscripts. These may not be your particular issues, but these are the repeat offenders for me. Check your manuscript for the following:
~ Cutting: Some writers write long, some writers write short, and a few lucky ones write just right. If you write long, you’ll need to trim the bloated parts; if you write short, you’ll need to take care you don’t pad to hit your targeted word count. As written in bold above, if a sentence doesn’t do a job, it should be cut. Bigger than that, however, is when a section or a scene doesn’t perform a vital job in the story. Vital means that the story (plot advancement, character development, background) will fall apart without it. Cutting out the extraneous should have been handled in Revision, but Editing should reaffirm that every sentence in the story is there for a reason. A good reason.
~ Repetition, Overwriting, Over-explaining: Do your pages contain sections like this:
“She entered the basement. It was pitch dark. The dank room was as black as night. She couldn’t see her hand in front of her face. She felt along the clammy wall for the light switch.”
^^Here, the writer tells us three times that the room is dark. By the time I get to the hand, I’m ready to yell “I get it!” at the author.
“The door was locked. She needed the key to open it. She scrabbled in the drawer for the key and used it to open the door.”
^^Readers know how a key works. “The door was locked. She scrabbled in the drawer for the key” does the job.
“Mickey cursed and charged at Evan. Evan, half a head shorter, realized his best chance was to call in his old wrestling skills. He crouched and head-butted Mickey in the stomach. Mickey oofed and stepped back. Knowing his upper hand was temporary, Evan crouched again and took Mickey down at the knees, and then used his left arm to bend back Mickey’s right arm….”
^^Is this the most boring takedown ever? In a fight, there is no time to explain (realized, knew, used his arm). In an action scene, stick to the action.
Writers repeat, overwrite, and over-explain for two reasons: They don’t trust themselves, or they don’t trust the reader. If you have written a good strong sentence with a clear purpose, relax. The reader will get it.
~ Weak Word Choices: Run, look, hurry, walk, turned….these are useful verbs, but for each, a stronger choice can paint a clearer picture for the reader. If you change walk to amble, the impression changes. If you change amble to strode, it changes again. A look is not the same as a glance which is not the same as a stare which is not the same as a stare. Don’t play it safe and stick to the same-old, same-old in word choices, but take care when playing around with the thesaurus.
~ Distinct Dialogue: A person’s speech reveals a great deal about their economic, social, and educational background—plus their self-image. What do your characters spoken lines show about them? Do your characters sound the same, or do they show their distinctions in speech?
~ Balance: Exposition, action, dialogue—these are three types of writing to be balanced in the manuscript. Some things need to be explained. Action scenes need to move the plot. Dialogue is necessary for intimacy. However–too much exposition may make the narrative ponderous. Too much action may leave the reader gasping for subtext. An overload of dialogue can make the setting disappear. Read for balance and give the reader a break by shifting from one type to another. If you find page after page of long paragraphs, add dialogue, and vice versa. A reader will appreciate variety.
~ POV Slips: No matter the editorial choice of 1st Person, 3rd Person, close or omniscient, a manuscript works best when delivered via one Point of View at a time. A character can only report what he sees, feels, and knows. He can interpret or guess at what other characters see, feel, and know, but a slip occurs when he reports from someone else’s head. In Editing, put yourself in the character’s head. If you can’t see it, feel it, or think it, the character can’t report it. Check your narrator’s words to be sure she is only thinking what she is thinking, feeling what she is feeling, seeing what she can see.
~ Show, Not Tell: Are your scenes live—action that is happening in the now of a story? Telling is appropriate in circumstances of the story, but if you choose to tell, make it a choice. Telling about a location or past event, or any type of background pauses the forward motion of the plot and makes it stay into neutral for a while. That may need to happen, but know that you are pulling the reader out of the now of the story. Don’t linger so long in telling that the story stalls.
The following are a mixed bag to consider while you read through your manuscript sentence by sentence:
Is this sentence grammatically correct?
If not, is that a style choice?
Does the construction of this sentence match the author’s style?
Are sentences constructed in various ways?
Is the voice of the sentence active or passive?
Am I using dialogue tags effectively?
If I’m using a semi-colon, is each side an independent clause?
Am I using an ellipsis to show a line fading out, and a dash for an interruption?
Is it clear what I am trying to say?
Is this sentence giving unique information, and not redundant?
If I open a scene with dialogue, do I immediately thereafter ground the setting?
Do my scenes open in a variety of ways?
Do my scenes close time after time with the same punchy type of line?
Are my verbs sharp and distinct?
Do I hold back from using too many adverbs?
Do I show emotion through action (clenched fists) rather than clichés (her heart pounded in rage)?
Do I avoid clichés in general?
Do I use similes sparingly?
Do I disrupt character’s dialogue with non-productive actions?
Do I stick with said in dialogue tags?
Do my characters take deep breaths, roll their eyes, and ears perk up, while their hearts beat faster, their pulses race, and their eyes water?
Do my characters speak or make speeches?
Overwhelmed? If so, let me simplify the Step 2 –Edit step.
Read through your manuscript, sentence by sentence and ask:
- Is this sentence grammatically correct?
- Does this sentence perform a specific function, in this spot, for the story?
- Does it advance the plot?
- If read aloud, is it pleasing to the ear?
If yes, move on to the next sentence. And the next. And the next. That’s what editing is, evaluating sentence by sentence.
Tomorrow, Step 3 – Polish.