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Copyright 2004 Tara K. Harper.  All rights reserved.

TARA K. HARPER
WRITER'S WORKSHOP
What to Learn from an Edit

What Makes a Good Edit?
Levels of Edit

Examples of Good vs. Inadequate Editing Comments
Problems with POV
Problems with Backstory
Problems with Overwriting
Problems with an Action Scene

"A good editor has a heavy hand and a cold heart,
low animal cunning; a killer instinct."

                    - Carl Johnson, USNEC


What Makes a Good Edit?
   

Detail.  It's as simple as that.  This doesn't mean verbose comments, but rather comments that are direct, specific, and illuminating.  A good edit provides two types of detailed information:

  1. Comments which identify problems
  2. Suggestions for solviing the problems 

A writer often knows there are problems, but cannot identify them himself.  In some cases, he is too close to his manuscript and cannot see the trees for the forest.  In other cases, he is not skilled enough to know how to avoid problems or realize that what he has done is a problem.  And, in some unfortunate cases, the writer has an ego that prevents him from acknowledging or accepting that there might be problems.  Especially in the latter two cases, the writer might need comments that explain each problem, not just comments which concisely identify problems and suggest solutions.

The secret of good writing is to strip every sentence to its cleanest components...

                                   - William Zinsser, On Writing Well

In the case of a skilled writer who is too close to his own manuscript, brief editing comments are usually adequate.  For example, it might be enough to say, "Pg 312, L4,: the metaphor is too complex."  A skilled writer will look closely at the complexity, see if he has done enough build-up of symbolism to support the metaphor, figure out how to pare the image down to its essentials, or perhaps delete the phrase.

However, for less-skilled writers, identifying the problem does not help them understand how to fix the problem.  The editor might have to define, not just identify the problem.  The editor might also have to explain issues of style, general writing tools, acceptable (or unacceptable) techniques, and so on.  If the editor must do this latter level of explanation, the writer probably needs more time in writing classes.

The second most valuable task an editor performs is that of suggesting ways to solve the identified problems.  This sometimes requires that the editor do a lot of rereading of the manuscript in order to find the places where, for example, the forecasting would be most effective; where the dialog previously contradicted what is now being said; where the characters were given traits that do not now support the climax, and so on.

A suggested fix is not necessarily the solution the writer will choose.  However, suggestions often provide additional insight into the problems.  For example, if the point of a scene is unclear, the editor might make a suggestion to focus on a particular aspect of that point, using imagery, forecasting, and dialog to bring out the point more effectively.  The editor's comment could be important in seeing how unbalanced the story or scene is toward the point you did not mean to make at all.

The examples listed later show how suggestions can help focus the writer toward a particular problem and solution.

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Levels of Edit
    

What level of edit should you expect from an editor-for-hire?  That depends on your work agreement.  However, I would say that an editor-for-hire should realize the skill level of the writer and how pervasive the problems are within 10-20 pages.  At that point, if it is necessary because of writer expectations, the editor should contact the writer and indicate the level of edit which he feels is appropriate for that story.  It is then up to the writer whether or not to proceed.

There are various levels of edit, but they can be divided into three main categories:

  1. A general story edit, for major problems or issues
  2. A specific story edit, which is a thorough treatment of each scene, and which should include comments about style issues, characterization, dialog, and so on.
  3. A line edit, for grammar, spelling and consistency (use of names, terms, etc.).

In general, the line edit is the least important and the one which any writer should be able to learn to do for himself.  This is simply a matter of learning good grammar and spelling.  If you are paying someone else to do your editing, this is the least expensive edit, but it will not usually provide you with information about improving your story;  only with the mechanics of style.  The highest cost and the best return-on-investment is for a story edit.

"Burrow, burro.  A burro is an ass.  A burrow is a hole in the ground.
As an editor, you are expected to know the difference."

                      - unattributed

Regardless of the type of edit you choose, you should find out whether or not you can get a verbal response to the manuscript, not just a written response.  Often, editors will provide additional important information or clarification that can help you focus on the main problems first.  In some cases, the editor will not want to write down some comments because they are too harsh, and it is easier to sooth the writer verbally than give them the worst news in indelible ink.

Occasionally, a writer might have requested a line edit, when a general story edit is necessary.  For example, the line edit might be impossible without detailed editing about major problems that include characterization issues, plot problems, believability issues, overall pacing, rough or trite dialog, and so on.  If there are major problems with the story, the editor should stop as soon as the extent of these problems has been identified.  This may mean stopping after a detailed edit of only Chapter 1, with references to other, skimmed areas of the manuscript.  Or it may mean stopping after a detailed edit of the first two or three chapters.  How much editing will be required depends on the subtlety of the problems.  It might be easy to identify that there are major problems with characterization;  it will probably be more difficult to figure out whether they are partly the result of pacing issues or unfocused story points.

"Vigorous writing is concise.  A sentence should contain no unnecessary words,
a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should
have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts.  
This requires not that the writer make all his senteces short, or that he avoid
all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that every word tell."

                      - Strunk and White, The Elements of Style

At any rate, the editor should not be making specific comments on the rest of the manuscript until the writer understands just how extensive the major problems are.  This is because any rewrite that fixes major problems will probably change a significant portion (if not all) of the scenes.  Comments about a wording problem on Pg 289 could easily become moot because, for example, the writer deleted that scene, rewrote so the wording problem disappeared, or expanded the dialog so that the wording is adequately explained.

In general, the book should go through a general story edit, then a specific story edit, and only then a line edit.

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Examples of Brief vs. Specific Editing Comments
    

The following examples show two types of editing comments:  brief and specific comments.  In general, if you are receiving the brief comments, the editor a) is not being as thorough as he could be, or b) knows you can make the appropriate corrections from such simple comments.  If you are an experienced writer, you probably don't need more than the brief comments to see the problems with your own work.

If you are a new writer and have just gotten as far as the publisher/editor who has made an offer for or is interested in your manuscript, you will receive the specific type of comments.  These comments identify the problem and provide enough information for you to figure out how to fix the problem.  If you have a question about a particular comment, you should call (or email) the editor and request clarification.

Problems with POV
Problems with Backstory
Problems with Overwriting
Problems with an Action Scene


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Example 1:
Problems with POV
    

Brief:
There are too many POVs.  Pick one and stick with it.

Specific:
This story starts with Ray, not Jenna or Mike, and of the three, Ray's POV remains most important throughout the story.  Reslant most scenes from Ray's POV.  In particular:  Pg 14, L8-23 -- delete; Ray gets this information from the clerk (pg 18).  Pg 106 -- delete; you already stated on pg 102 that Ray knows Mike is having problems.  Etc.

What You Should Learn:
In general,  readers need to be able to identify with one character so well that they feel they are living the life of that character throughout the story.  It is difficult to effectively split the POV between characters.  And, it usually means that the reader is pulled out of each character's life just as he is getting comfortable with that character.  Changing POVs means that the story itself is often distracting, irritating, and distancing.  The reader's attention is as fractured as the writing.  If you want the reader to focus and live the story -- feel the emotions and tension as if they are his own--then give him one person or character to be.

Yes, some writers can change POVs at will, without sacrificing their story or the reader's attention.  A good writer can use threads of common goals, similar thoughts and questions, common foreshadowing, etc., to retain a general POV, even if the story is being told through more than one person.  James P. Hogan does this well in his novels.  Mike Resnick (also recommended) uses an interviewer and multiple main characters in his novel Paradise to present multiple POVs with a common thread.  I do this in some parts of the Wolfwalker novels, when the main character (Dion) is separated from the secondary main character (Aranur).  However, even when Dion and Aranur are separated, the story remains focused on Dion, the main character.

Especially with beginning writers, multiple POVs can indicate that the story or characterizations were not well thought out.  If you receive a comment about too many POVs, look carefully at the life of the most "main" character.  See if the story would be stronger for following a single POV.  Or, rewrite so that there are more common threads and less story fragmentation between the POVs.

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Example 2:
Problems with Back-Story
    

Brief:
Too much padding in the beginning.  The story doesn't start quickly enough.

Specific:
Too much padding in the beginning.  The story actually starts on page 18, with Lyle and Todd in the car.  Delete the front end of Chapter 1 and start directly with the car scene.  Work the back-story into the dialog on pgs 19 and 24, or just delete it -- you develop the history better in chapters 3 and 4.

What You Should Learn:
Many writers begin their books with a lot of back-story :  explanations and character descriptions and town history, etc.  The problem is, all this pushes the beginning of the story back far past the first pages.  Back-story is, essentially, an "info dump."  It doesn't belong at the beginning.  Instead, you should be working these details into the story one at a time, unfolding the character histories and relationships throughout the book.

While you often need this background information for yourself (the writer), the reader should not be subjected to this up front.  He should get everything he needs from the story, as he finds out what you have to say via the character's actions and growth.  Don't lecture him; let him explore your world for himself.  You will probably find that most of those info-dump details won't be needed later, because once you get into the story as a writer, you develop those ideas in better ways, through your plot and characters.

My suggestion for writers who need to write down all that back history just to get started is yes, go ahead and do it.  Then pull it all out into a separate file, and start over on your story from the point at which something interesting happens.  As you write, steal an implication, line or even a paragraph from that history dump (in that separate file) as you need it, chapter by chapter.  This should help you fold that information in more appropriately.

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Example 3:
Problems with Overwriting
    

Brief:
You are overwriting.  Eliminate the dramatics.

Specific:
You are overwriting.  Lynn is constantly anguished, Perry is horror-stricken, and Timmy is caught in an unending nightmare.  None of these emotions are shown through actions, description, or dialog.  Eliminate the qualifiers and let the characters show us the story.

What You Should Learn:
Overwriting is easy to do, especially if you're trying to force the reader to feel a specific emotion.  The problem is, you can't force a reader to feel anything.  You won't solve the problem by using stronger qualifiers, either.  Doing so just means even more overwriting than before.

Look for and delete overly dramatic phrases and the misuse of or excess qualifiers, such as anguished, devastated, overjoyed, etc. that make a scene shallow or cartoonish, rather than poignant or gripping or full of whatever real emotion you wanted.  Remember that immersion in a story doesn't come from being told what to feel, but by being allowed to feel it for ourselves.

Check out the Writer's Workshop article:  Show, Don't Tell the Story

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Example 4:
Problems with an Action Scene
    

Brief:
The action feels unreal here.

Specific:
The action feels unreal.  These people have been "toiling" up and down the hills for three weeks, but there is no sense that any of this is real.  For example, Neblin is "exhausted and thirsty," but he doesn't do anything to find water.  Where have they been finding food?  Do they ever encounter anyone?  Etc.

What You Should Learn:
Immediacy helps make the story real to the reader.  To help make something immediate, describe at least one aspect (character, geologic feature, element of action, etc.) in detail, contrast that description with the next aspect.  Dialog is a great tool for adding a sense of immediacy.  Exclamations, cursing, or even the inability to speak -- these things can help bring immediacy to a scene that might otherwise rely too heavily on mere action instead of also relying on the characters supposedly performing or being affected by that action.

Immediacy and detail are important.  Still, try not to describe every scene in such detail that it takes eight pages to endure a boring ride through the woods.  You should provide enough detail that each scene is an integral part of the story, not just a birds-eye view of something happening somewhere to someone, but so generally that we don't care that it occurred.  If the scene is so unimportant that it doesn't require any details, why write it at all?  Give it the two lines it deserves as a transition to the next scene, and concentrate on something more interesting and which better furthers the story or your point.

"When you can with difficulty say anything clearly, simply and emphatically,
then, provided the difficulty is not apparent to the reader, that is style.
When you can do that easily, it is genius."

                - Lord Dunsany


Copyright 2004 Tara K. Harper

All rights reserved.  It is illegal to reproduce or transmit in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, any part of this copyrighted file without permission in writing from Tara K. Harper.  Permission to download this file for personal use only is hereby granted by Tara K. Harper.


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