Category Archives: Self-editing Tips

Stuff I Made Up Last Minute

One: In Which I Make a Single Point About Dialogue But Don’t Actually Tell You What the Point Is Because It’s So Obvious Even a Non-Writer Could Figure It Out

“So it’s Friday and that means I can talk about whatever I want,” said Stephen.

“You can talk about whatever you want any day,” interrupted Stephen’s alter-ego, Pedro.

“I know that,” interjected Stephen, “but Friday is my day to be especially random.”

“Pedro?” queried Pedro. “You named me Pedro? What’s wrong with you?”

“Nothing’s wrong with me,” countered Stephen. “Pedro is a fine name. What concerns me is this horribly stilted dialogue.”

“Tell me about it,” grumbled Pedro. “Not only am I saddled with a name that calls to mind an outdated Napoleon Dynamite reference, you’ve got me ‘interrupting’ and ‘querying’ and ‘grumbling’ and that’s just not right.”

“Yeah, well, look at me. I’ve ‘interjected’ and ‘countered’ and who knows what’s next,” puzzled Stephen. “Oh great, now I’ve ‘puzzled.'”

“Look, you’re in charge of this stupid conversation,” argued Pedro, “so why don’t you just fix it?”

“I will, eventually,” answered Stephen, “but I like to pound my point into the ground and then keep pounding it until the sound of the mallet against metal and mud gives everyone around me a headache.”

“Mission accomplished,” ached Pedro.

“So I don’t need to actually explain the point?” tribbled Stephen. “Oh c’mon, me. Tribbled? That’s not even a word.”

“Ha!” Exclaimed Pedro loudly. “You really sound stupid…hey…wait a minute. You just burdened me with an adverb!”

“That’s for laughing at me,” gargled Stephen.

“You just gargled!” burped Pedro. “I can’t believe you just gargled that sentence!”

“Yeah, well you just burped your words. Don’t poke fun at me or I’ll have you fart the next ones,” threatened Stephen.”

“You wouldn’t dare,” farted Pedro.

“Told you. Clearly, I rule,” gloated Stephen.

“Fine, you rule,” acquiesced Pedro. “Oh, c’mon, now. You’re making me look like a real loser.”

“I win!” celebrated Stephen.

“I’m afraid there are no winners in this conversation,” Pedro concluded brilliantly.

He was right.

Two: Upcoming Things

  • The second contest starts next Friday. Here’s how it’s going to work. I’m going to give you three “First” sentences to choose from and three “Last” sentences. Your mission? Write a short story or scene that begins with any one of the First sentences and ends with any one of the Last sentences. What possible real-world writing skill am I trying to teach with this? I’ll tell you next Friday.
  • I’m working diligently on a new semi-regular feature. It’s called “Doofus and Talent” and if you’ve spent more than five minutes in a dentist’s waiting room, you’ll know exactly what children’s magazine feature I’m ripping off.
  • Also coming soon, the first in a series called “Things I Learned About Writing From…” or something like that, except there will be some other words where the ellipsis is now. And next week, I’m going to give you, yes give you, seven characters Guaranteed to Spice Up Your Novel. Just plug and play.

Okay. This has been Friday.

See you on Monday.

A Little Editing

Remember that writing contest I had a few weeks ago? Well, as part of that fun, I asked if I could use some of your entries as editing examples right here in front of everybody. With Jana’s permission, I’m going to show you a couple of ways I might approach the editing of her creative entry.

First, I’ll show you the original work.

The fire cast mirthless shadows over the face of a stranger. He was encircled by four armed men. A fifth man curiously appraised the unusual items that had been confiscated. One object was like a ring of red light reflecting the flames. Fascinated, the man reached out to nudge the object, half expecting it to be hot. He smiled as he held it in his hand, caressing its smooth cool surface, captivated by each intricate detail. He stepped closer to the fire when he noticed unfamiliar markings on the circular centerpiece. As he scrutinized it, he noticed movement within. He tapped it sharply to determine if it was alive. Then he held it up to his ear, quickly dropping it, startled. When it fell, it began emitting a green light. Trying to regain his dignity, he carefully retrieved the object. He ran his finger over a small bump on its side. The stranger jumped to his feet shouting unintelligibly, but was quickly stopped by four sharp spears held inches from his throat. Unfazed, the man continued his study, pushing on the strange protrusion. A flash of light suddenly enveloped him, blinding the observers. When it subsided, he had vanished.

Intriguing, don’t you think? Okay, here’s a quick line edit, keeping the contest’s word count limitations in mind.

The fire cast mirthless shadows over the face of a stranger. Four armed men encircled him while a fifth appraised the confiscated items. He reached for a ring of red that reflected the firelight, expecting it to be hot, then held it in his hand and smiled, caressing the smooth, cool surface. He stepped closer to the fire to study the ring’s intricate markings. Had they moved? Was it alive? He tapped the ring sharply, held it to his ear, then dropped it, startled by a foreign sound. When it fell, the ring began emitting a green light. The man looked over at the others who stood as still as statues, then retrieved the object. He ran his finger over a small bump on its side. At this, the stranger jumped to his feet and began shouting, but he was quickly silenced by four sharp spears held inches from his throat. Unfazed, the fifth man continued his study, pushing the strange protrusion. A flash of light suddenly enveloped him, blinding the observers. When it subsided, he had vanished.

Can you identify the changes in this version? I replaced some of the passive voice with a slightly more active voice here and there and attempted to clarify the action a bit. By defining the object as a ring, I made it something the reader could easily picture. That doesn’t mean Jana has to use a ring if she prefers some other device, but whatever the object, it needs to be described in such a way that the reader sees it immediately and can participate in the action along with the fifth man. And about that fifth man – as it is written, this is his POV, his story (or about to become his story).

Just for fun, I decided to play even more with the content. Now this is slightly more involved than a standard line edit, but I wanted to push a few of the ideas a bit farther, just to see what this could become. This isn’t necessarily a better version, just a different version. When I work with authors on the early stages of a book, I often offer suggestions like these to show the author alternative ways to color a scene. (Usually these suggestions are noted in margin comments, though, not in the midst of the narrative itself.)

The fire cast mirthless shadows over the face of the stranger. Four armed men encircled him. A fifth appraised the confiscated treasure, each item a curious enigma. His eyes were drawn to a ring of red reflecting the flames. He reached for the ring, expecting it to be hot, then smiled as he held it in his hand. He caressed the smooth, cool surface, captivated by the intricate detail.

He stepped closer to the fire to study the unfamiliar markings. They seemed to be moving. Was it alive? He tapped the ring sharply, but it did not scream. He held it to his ear, listened, then threw it down, frightened by the foreign language of click and whir.

When the ring came to rest on the stony ground, it began emitting a green light. The fifth man stood tall, turned to look at the others, grunted a false confidence, then bent down to retrieve the object. He ran his finger over a small bump on its side. The stranger jumped to his feet and began shouting unfamiliar words, but was quickly silenced by four sharp spears thrust within inches of his throat. Unfazed, the fifth man pushed the protrusion. Suddenly a flash of light enveloped him, blinding the other men.

When it subsided, he was gone.

As you can see, I added a few lines here and there. Maybe it works, maybe not. But these are the sorts of editorial changes and suggestions that lead to a spirited dialogue with the author. Sometimes the scenes look completely different at the end of the process than either the original or my first editing attempt. Sometimes they look very much like the author’s draft. And, of course, sometimes the scenes are cut entirely.

picture-3Now, the way this looks in practice is different than the above. In addition to the “comments” feature, I always use the “track changes” feature in Microsoft Word so the author can see everything I touched and I can see every change he or she makes throughout the back-and-forth process. Just for fun, I took a screen capture of my second edit with track changes turned on. This is the “red pen of death and life” at its finest – scary to look at, but upon closer inspection, it’s not so bad, really. The story is the same. And hopefully, the author’s voice is intact or better defined.

Okay, I’ve already missed my posting deadline, so I’m going to wrap this up for now. Thanks to Jana for allowing me to play with the fun scene she entered in the contest. If you want to play the part of the author, feel free to ask why I made a particular editing change or suggestion in either of the above examples. I’ll share my rationale and then you can nod and agree or tell me why I’m wrong. (Because I sometimes am, you know?)

Have a great Wednesday. See you here again tomorrow? Bring a friend. We’ll make s’mores.

What Do You Mean by “Editing”?

what-boxThis is the first in a series of “what do you mean by…” posts. I want to tailor this series according to your interests. So…queue up your questions and then send ‘em along so I can make this as helpful as possible.

I thought it would be appropriate to start with “editing,” since that’s kind of an important topic on this blog. So what do I mean by editing?

Let’s start with a little quiz.

When you tell a friend that you’re “editing” your novel, which of the following best describes what you’re doing:

  • I’m going through the novel and making sure there are no misspellings or missing words.
  • I’m reviewing the entire manuscript and considering whether or not I should give up my dream of being a published writer.
  • I’m looking at plot and characters and overall writing quality and attempting to improve all of these things.
  • I’m re-arranging commas and adding lots of semi-colons.
  • I’m copying-and-pasting sections of The Time Traveler’s Wife into my novel so I can have a better chance of getting a seven-figure advance. (Which I’ll need in order to pay legal bills for that little “plagiarism” thing).

Depending on who you talk to, or what stage of the writing process you’re in, the word can mean all kinds of different things. Here’s a quick rundown of the basics. Keep in mind, this is based on my experience with editing. There is no universal standard to define these roles, so you may hear a different definition from someone else. If you’ve decided to work with an editor, be sure to ask what he or she means by “editing” so you know what you’re getting … especially if you’re paying for it.

Developmental (or macro or substantive) editing is the first sort you’d run into if you’ve just signed a contract to publish your novel. The editor assigned to your book (whether an in-house editor or a freelancer assigned by the acquiring editor) will read your book cover to cover and suggest all kinds of changes and improvements – from structure to plot points to character development to writing style. Remember the lighthearted editorial note post I wrote a couple weeks ago? Editorial notes are the practical result of substantive editing. A dev editor is tasked with making your novel better in as many ways as possible, but is primarily focused on the “big picture.” Dotting i’s is secondary to getting the story, the characters and the tone or voice just right.

A line edit (or micro edit) comes after the writer and dev editor have ironed out all of the bigger issues and the writer has re-submitted an acceptable manuscript. Sometimes the line editor and the dev editor are one and the same (I typically work with authors on both rounds of edits), and sometimes it’s another editor altogether. Some publishers choose the former approach to streamline the process, maintain the integrity of the relationship between editor and writer, and…to save money. The advantage of the latter is the opportunity for another set of eyes to (potentially) catch things the dev editor and author missed. Line editors get into the nitty-gritty of the writing – fixing grammar and cleaning up the writing wherever necessary. Line editors are responsible for making sure the dev editor’s requests were met and that the book is in great shape for publishing.

Copyediting comes next. Copyeditors are responsible for making sure the writing is clear and correct (according to the style determined both by a publisher’s in-house style sheet and any specific style notes for the individual book). Copyeditors also check facts and work with the typographers to assure consistency in presentation. Good copyeditors also serve as a sort of “first reader” for the edited work and sometimes save the day for publishers by identifying potentially risky legal issues or – in cases where the previous editors all wore the same blinders – catching big-picture problems with the story’s continuity – or even (gasp) quality.

Proofreaders go through a typeset manuscript and identify any remaining errors (or new ones introduced by any of the changes made throughout the process). They are the very last line of defense before a book goes to press. While I’m pretty good at noticing typos in menus, this is a job that would quickly send me to the padded room. It takes a special kind of person to be a proofreader. And by special I mean someone with X-ray vision who grunts in frustration upon discovering an em dash where a hyphen should be. I salute you, proofreaders.

Think of the roles this way: the writer is the woodcarver. The dev editor helps shape the wood into a more beautiful thing. Line editors smooth the edges with files and rough sandpaper. Copyeditors use the fine-grain sandpaper. And proofreaders point out the imperfections everyone else missed.

Okay, it’s not a perfect analogy, but the oven timer just went off and I think I need to eat some food today so I’m just going to call this post “done.”

If you find a typo in the above and it makes you physically sick…you might just make a good proofreader.

Tomorrow I will divulge the long-hidden secrets to publishing success. Am I being serious or will this just be a silly post? Does it really matter?


What Your Editor Is Thinking

Ever wonder what your friendly editor is really thinking when she emails or calls to talk about your manuscript? Here’s a handy-dandy guide to help you understand the deeper meaning behind her words.*


When your editor says: “I really like the basic plot. Nicely done!”

Your editor is thinking: “Okay, there are 90,000 words here, so that’s a start. And the story has characters and they do stuff. That’s a good thing, too. But whoa baby there’s a ton of work to do. I’m going to have some long nights with this puppy.”


When your editor says: “I’m not sure the subplot about the missing orangutan is working as written.”

Your editor is thinking: “The subplot about the missing orangutan is unsalvageable.”


When your editor says: “I think I see what you’re trying to do with this…”

Your editor is thinking: “I have no freakin’ idea what you’re trying to do with this but surely in the next draft it will make some measure of sense… surely then…?”


When your editor says: “This paragraph on page 94 is amazing!”

Your editor is thinking: “I wish there were more paragraphs like the one on page 94!”


When your editor says: “The middle section drags somewhat…”

Your editor is thinking: “The middle section needs a complete re-write…”


When your editor says: “The word count is a little high.”

Your editor is thinking: “We’ll have to cut 50,000 words.”


When your editor says: “Don’t be too put off by all my editorial notes.”

Your editor is thinking: “Please don’t hate me, please don’t hate me, please don’t hate me…”


When your editor says: “If you cut phrases like this one you’ll have a much stronger narrative.”

Your editor is thinking: “I just know you labored over these phrases. But the thing is – they’re overwrought, distracting and pretentious. If only you would read them aloud you’d see just how unwieldy they are. I hope you don’t fight to keep these. Choose a different battle. Okay?”


When your editor says: “The dialogue is clunky.”

Your editor is thinking: “The dialogue sounds like it’s coming from soulless cardboard robots.”


When your editor says: “Thanks for all the hard work you’ve put into this.”

Your editor is thinking: “Thanks for all the hard work you’ve put into this. Really, I mean it. Writing and re-writing is no picnic and I’ve been throwing you curve balls and stirring the pot and invoking dozens of other clichés and yet you’re still standing. I will now drink a glass of wine in your honor. You should have one too. No, a glass of wine, not an entire bottle. You can put the bottle down now… really, put the bottle… okay, fine. Yes, you are a damn good writer. Better than Faulkner. And Fizzy Gerald, better than him, too. What’s that? Yes, I love you too. Go to bed now.”

*This entire post is a mild attempt at humor. Seriously, I mean it. In truth, all editors are painfully transparent and almost never hide what they’re really thinking.

The Contest. Just click here and enter. Okay? Because if you don’t, the terrorists win.

The Law of Diminishing Returns

Last week, literary agent and dispenser of great publishing wisdom Nathan Bransford invited his savvy blog readers to answer the question, “How Do You Know When Your Novel is Really Finished?” (If you haven’t already studied the many and diverse responses, click here to see what writers had to say.)

As I consider my own novel-in-progress (I prefer the abbrev. n.i.p. over w.i.p., is that so wrong?), I can imagine I’ll still be editing and re-writing when the Hilton Lunar Resort and Golf Course opens on the moon. (I won’t be able to afford an Earth-view room, but since I’ll be spending most of my time in the Moonbucks coffee shop staring at my MacBook Virtual Netbook Mini-Z it’s not like I’ll be missing anything.)

But this isn’t a post about my writing life, it’s about my role as editor.

Some authors are natural self-editors. With every iteration of the manuscript, their book improves. Theoretically, they could re-write forever, improving incrementally until they’ve created a near-perfect novel. For them, a deadline is a gift – a forced ending place for brilliance that just won’t stop.

But for many authors, there comes a point when rewrites fail to improve a novel in any measurable way, and, in some cases, actually start to make it worse. This may be due to writing fatigue or overfamiliarity with the plot or characters, but whatever the reason, it’s a clear indicator that the novel is “really finished.” (Or at least ready to hand off to someone else for critical review.)

How do you know if you’re about to invoke this law of diminishing returns? Here are a few signs to watch for:

  • Reverting to an earlier version of a scene that you never liked before and still don’t like now
  • Adding tons of new details to an already detail-rich description
  • Skimming through a thesaurus to replace words that work fine, but suddenly don’t seem “fresh” enough
  • Adding dialogue or description that, upon further review, is almost exactly like something you’d written for an earlier scene
  • Ordering a venti white mocha and pouring it onto your laptop keyboard
  • Yelling at your significant other because she’s not as well-written today as she was last week despite all the time you’ve spent with her

If you find yourself in this place, it’s time to let go. If you’re already working with an editor, this is when they earn their paycheck. But prepare yourself. Those recent changes you made in a well-meaning attempt to improve your novel? The editor might just decide to reject them. This is perfectly okay and doesn’t necessarily mean you’re a bad writer.

It may just mean that you’re done.

Remember that contest? You know, the one I’m hosting where you can win a $40 gift card and (potentially) a collectible Santa Yoda? Well, I just wanted to remind you there’s still time to enter. I’m enjoying the 200-word scenes some of you have already sent – which run the gamut from heavy relational drama to science fiction silliness. Don’t you want to join the writing party? Click here and get to it.