(This article also appears on the QueryTracker Blog this week)
As the saying goes, I don’t necessarily like writing as much as I like having written something. The editing phase should be easier, right? After all, you’ve just written a whole book. You dreamed up characters, gave them dialogue, threw in some plot twists and probably did it all while holding down a full-time job. So editing, in theory, sounds less time consuming, maybe a bit tedious, but not hard.
Au Contraire. Exit out of your spell checker and come sit a spell. Let’s talk editing strategies. I like to think of editing as sort of a food pyramid (before USDA went to the whole My Plate thing, which I don’t get). At the bottom of the pyramid are these basics:
Start with spelling and punctation. Have handy your CMS or whatever style manual you use. Don’t trust your computer. The programs can be wrong, and they definitely won’t fix your homophones. So if you typed “brake” instead of “break,” you will have to catch it by hand. Other things to look for on this level of editing include getting your capitalizations and commas correct in your dialogue. While you’re already looking at your dialogue, scan the dialogue tags to make sure you haven’t used overwrought phrasing like “terrifyingly shrieked” when a simple “yelled” will do. “Said” is always a safe bet because characters can’t shrug or snort words.
Moving up the pyramid are high-end items, such as, is high-end hyphenated? Is it anyone or anybody? Is that participle dangling? Now is the time to weed out phrasing like “Barreling into the room, I thought he looked like a tiger ready to pounce,” when what you mean to say is that he was barreling into the room, not you. This is the time to look for one of my downfalls: the “flying eyes.” I can’t stop writing characters whose eyes fly open, or dart around the room, which obviously, they can’t do.
Next stop on your way to the top is elimination of filler words. Your Find and Replace function will assist you weeding out useless words like just, then, about, almost. Make your own list of filler words, and words or phrases you tend to overuse. For me, my characters roll their eyes and shrug constantly. By using find and replace, I can either substitute a different gesture or delete it entirely. Look for other useless phrases like, “I could see.” We know you could see it because you’re telling us. Just saw “I saw” or better yet, just describe what is being seen. As the earlier QT blog on adverbs mentioned, searching for “ly” words will help you weed out excessive adverbs.
Scan the page for repeated names and words. If your main character is “Joe,” it stands to reason his name will appear often. But have you started nine paragraphs in a row with his name? Did you use the same word multiple times in a single paragraph? Here is where you fix it. Despite my best efforts at writing the best first draft I can, I still find words repeated in close proximity to each other. That’s why it’s a draft.
Watch those gerunds. This is another of my first draft frequent offenders. I often have draft sentences such as “Raising her glass, she thought of her absent friends.” These predicating “ing” clauses make editors twitchy and, when oft repeated, really make your writing come across as uninspired and amateurish. Find and Replace is your friend here. The sentences can easily be polished and tweaked.
Now were are getting past the nuts and buts and into content. Here is where you make sure you haven’t gone from Tuesday to Wednesday and then back to Monday over the course of a few chapters, or called a character Kate and then called her Karen. If a character had a beloved pet in chapter one, did it disappear for the rest of the book?
Themes, plot, and clues and backstory. If revenge is the driving force of your story, it should be woven in throughout the story. If your villain is revealed at the end to be a master counterfeiter, is there some small hint of this earlier or did you just drop it in, deus ex machine? Is your backstory spewed out in a multipage information dump, and if so, can you take bits and pieces and spread it out with a mixture of dialogue, flashbacks, action, and narrative? Is there a massive plot hole about how a character could possibly have known a piece of information? Do characters disappear for large chunks of time and then re appear for no apparent reason, or worse, never get mentioned again?
Next up: How is your pacing? Do your action or high conflict chapters pack a punch, only to be followed by pages of mundane dialogue and no conflict? Identify where your story sags and be merciless cutting out the parts that don’t work. Conflict should be present on every page, even if it’s internal.
Voice. Ah, Voice. What do agents and editors mean when they say, “Voice”? My take is that it is the narrator’s unique way of telling the story. John D. McDonald’s Travis McGee had a bohemian philosopher’s way of describing his adventures. Holden Caulfield practically leaps off the page with his disdain for phonies. Ginny in A Thousand Acres is both resigned and defiant. Whatever your storytelling style is, keep it consistent. Darkly funny is great. Don’t let your edits turn your darkly funny story into a faux literary tome.
Finally, time to fire up the printer. I really recommend doing this instead of relying on your computer because a book in hand is a different reading experience. You can read it all and make casual notes, or comb through it with a ruler, or both. But having the printed word in hand should reveal only minor issues, since you’ve already eliminated plot, pacing, and grammar issues.
I now use the Chicago Manual of Style, Merriam Webster Dictionary, and occasionally Strunk and White when I do this pyramid editing. Don’t hold me to editorial perfection on this blog because I am dashing it out at the last minute (sorry, Patrick) and it’s likely got a few errors. Keep in mind that this article is geared toward those who are doing their own editing and not relying on a content or copy editor. Getting your manuscript in the best shape possible will help set you apart from the crowd.
And mind those gerunds.