Wednesday, January 2, 2013

My Six Rules of Editing

Deb McLeod

During my writing career I have workshopped short stories with authors like Pam Houston, Ron Carlson, Barbara Kingsolver and many others. They all emphasized the need for me to become the best reader of my own work that I could be.

Over the years I have developed my reading skills through my writer’s book club, through critique groups and by editing for my clients. In the process, I’ve come up with some editing rules that I ask my clients to apply to their work. These rules apply to novel or memoir editing. Short stories require a little different focus and I will write on that some other time.

In this age of beta readers, reviewers and critique groups it feels ok to get lazy and let someone else do the work. Having readers polish your work is an absolute must. But if you’re not able to edit your own work, you’re not growing as a writer. And you’re not pushing the potential of your work to its fullest.

I am reading a popular and well-selling indie author right now on my new iPad. On the first page I caught some things. Yes, there was a typo but there were also some habits that as a coach I would challenge this writer to eradicate in order to improve her writing. You can always get better.

Here are some rules to consider when you’re editing (before you engage anyone else to read):

Rule #1: When you’re done with the draft, clean it up and put it away. Only you can decide how long it takes to see it with fresh eyes. For me, it’s a few weeks.

Rule #2: While you’re waiting to distance yourself from the piece, write a logline or revisit the one you wrote when you started. Make it short and sweet. Sum up your work in one sentence.

Blake Snyder’s suggestion for movie loglines translates fairly well to novel and memoir writing. This is one example of a logline for Jaws. You can find others for Jaws, but this one succinctly sums the movie into one line, contains irony and gives the reader an indication of the time period of the movie.

        •     The logline should contain a vivid adjective about the protagonist and the antagonist. (Ex: A water-fearing police chief. A man-eating great white shark.).
        •     It should contain some sort of irony so we can get a sense of the story. (Ex: A water-fearing police chief embarks on a deep-sea mission to fight a man-eating great white shark…)
        •    There should be some sense of the time period in which they story takes place. (Ex: A water-fearing sheriff embarks on deep-sea mission to fight a man-eating great white shark attacking beaches in his resort town before the Fourth of July weekend.)

Rule #3: Break your work into manageable chunks. You don’t have to edit your whole book at once. I use Act 1, Act 2 (Part 1), Act 2 (Part 2) and Act 3. I rely on Blake Snyder’s Beat Sheet to verify that the work has an arc and that it is the best story these characters can tell. As a note: I offer this service as a deep or content editor and I teach others how to do it for themselves.

Rule #4: Once the story is set, you can break it into chapters. Use chapter breaks to control pacing. Make use of cliffhangers so you can keep the reader reading just one more chapter. But don’t do that forecasting thing some novice writers do. (Ex: At the end of the chapter it might say something like this: She tried hard to control her tears. Little did she know….)

Rule #5: Verify. This rule covers a lot of ground. Here, you are working with the book first in its entirety and then on nitpicky items.

Overview: These are the larger issues to verify.

        •     Verify the character/story arc.
        •     Identify that your protagonist changed or at least had the possibility to change.
        •     Is your villain believable? Remember villains don’t know they’re villains.
        •     Is your protagonist passive? If plot = character choice, and your character is passive then does it follow that your plot is weak?

Nitpicky: I have clients that keep “cheat sheets” by their computers that contain a list of the habits we’ve identified. The overused words, the clich├ęs they rely on, the weak verbs, etc. This is by no means an exhaustive list of what to look for. For that, you’ll need to create your own cheat sheet.

        •     Look at your dialogue tags – I only allow “said” or “asked.” If you have to tell me how to read the words that were spoken, the dialogue is weak. Rewrite so the reader understands how to read the words. You can use actions or words of the dialogue to show me, not tell me.
        •     Weak verbs – eradicate these.
        •     Tense consistency
        •     POV consistency
        •     Filters – especially in first person. You don’t have to put everything through your character’s sensibility. Just say it.


        o     First draft: I got up late on Saturday morning so I got kitchen duty. I saw the cup on the table. I walked over and picked it up. When I sniffed it, my suspicions were confirmed. He was drinking again. (See how the author is putting everything through the “I” sensibility?)
        o     Better? Up later on Saturday than everyone else, the dishes were my job. The cup on the table smelled like bourbon. He was drinking again.
        o     Best? Last one up does the breakfast dishes. Today, that’s me. The cup he left smells like Bourbon. I knew it.

The last filter (I knew it) is effective since it adds a punch to the paragraph in a way that the filtering in the first example weakens the paragraph.

Rule #6: Read aloud. This is the best way to hear your work like your reader hears it in their head. I have one client who writes at night when everyone else is asleep because she reads aloud as she’s writing. Her work is clean.

That author I mentioned who is popular and selling well? I contend that if she was writing better, she’d be more popular and selling better. So hone your skills on your own work. It really makes a difference.

About the Writer:  Deb McLeod, is a writer, creative writing coach, co-founder and executive director of The Writing School. She has both an MFA and a BA in creative writing. She has been teaching and coaching for over ten years. Deb has published short fiction in anthologies and journals. She has written articles and creative nonfiction. Deb has been a professional blogger, tech writer, graphic artist and Internet marketing specialist.

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