Slaying the Editing Monster


“A great many people think they are thinking when they are merely rearranging their prejudices.” William James


Do you sometimes feel like you are just rearranging your writing?  Constantly editing?  Revising?

We edit for spelling, grammar, word usage, structure, consistent verb tense and content.

At a critique group session last evening, I mentioned some verb issues to a novice writer.  She went from past to present tense several times in a paragraph.  When I pointed it out, she said, “But I did that in the past and now I’m doing this in the present.”  It made her story very confusing to read.  When the tenses were congruent, it was easier to read and rather interesting.  The rhythm of her story (which was about running) was excellent. The sentence structure became shorter and shorter as the story progressed, showing the runner working and breathing harder.  It was a great technique, but her verb tenses disrupted the pace.

Verbs   When I edit my works, one of the first things I do is underline all the verbs in my sentences.  Are they in the same tense?  Are they action or passive verbs?  I change the passive verbs and revise the tense to match the paragraph.  If I find I need to use past tense in a sentence with present tense, I determine if I need a new paragraph in past tense.

Structure   One editing technique that works for me is to read my story backwards.  Start with the very last sentence and read it.  Does it make sense?  Does the sentence read well alone?  Then I read the second to the last sentence and so on and so on.  If a sentence can stand alone, it is probably in correct form.  I usually use this technique when I have already checked grammar and verb usage.

As in many things in life, prevention is the best “treatment” for a healthy manuscript.

Content editing  

“Just the facts, ma’am.”

We have all read books that have made us scratch our heads when we run across a fact or image that doesn’t fit.  I remember the first time I noticed that was in a Michael Crichton book where he described a baby that had meconium-aspiration.  As an NICU nurse for many years, I have taken care of babies with meconium aspiration pneumonia and what he described in his book didn’t make sense to me.

I was surprised that Crichton had made such a blatant error.  He already had several books out and must have had a group of editors read his manuscripts, but somehow that error was missed and it made a difference to me as a reader.  It made me stop trusting his story.

There are things in various fields that we may insert into our books.  We want to make sure we have the facts right.  If in doubt, have an expert read the sections of your book that contain medical or technologic or legal issues that you “kinda” know but maybe don’t have entirely correct.

With a novel, I found that it is useful to have a timeline.

A friend pointed that fact out to me as I was floundering and getting lost in my novel.  He suggested I make a timeline for my characters so that the characters are where they should be in the story.  Prior to developing the timeline, I had difficulty bringing my characters together when they needed to be together. He helped me create a linear chart with scenes on it.  (Unfortunately, I am not techno-savvy enough to insert it into this post.  Tried and failed.)  It contained scenes like:

  1. Jake in the car ready to commit suicide
  2. Flashbacks to childhood and parents
  3. Flashback to delivering newspapers
  4. Flashback to Kennedy election

Each scene in the book is mapped out so it doesn’t get lost in the shuffle.

I recently found another excellent tool that I wished I had had at the beginning.

It is a character chart.  The author lists characteristics of each character, even though most of the information will not be used in the novel.  It is a way for the author to know the character.

  • What is the character’s full name?  What is his or her nickname?  How did the nickname come about?
  • Where is your character’s hometown? What year was he or she born?  How old is the character now? (Your story may take place in a different era, so age can become confusing at times, so write it down so you remember.)
  • What color are his or her eyes?  Hair? Type of body build? Skin type and tone?  Distinguishing marks such as scars, birthmarks, freckles? Predominant feature–what do people notice when they first look at your character?  Is your character healthy?  If not, what condition does he or she have?
  • What was the character’s first memory?  What was his or her childhood like? Was there an important event in childhood that continues to haunt your character now?
  • List of favorites–what is your character’s favorite color, food, music, book?  How does your character travel–car, bus, bicycle, airplane?  Is he or she a careless or cautious driver?
  • Does your character use any expletives or common expressions a lot?
  • What are your character’s vices? Does your character smoke or drink?  If so, how much?
  • Name your character’s hobbies and interests.  What does he or she do during the winter months, summer months, when it’s raining or snowing?  Does your character go on regular vacations?  If so, where?

I will end with this wonderful statement from Woody Allen.  To me, it represents editing at its worst.  It is a delightful paragraph and I enjoy the imagery, but it is confusing.  Basically, he asks if he should be a writer and Gertrude Stein says, “No.”  He ignores her.  Woody uses over 50 words to tell us that.

“In the afternoons, Gertrude Stein and I used to go antique hunting in the local shops, and I remember once asking her if she thought I should become a writer. In the typically cryptic way we were all so enchanted with, she  said, “No.” I took that to mean yes and sailed for Italy the next day.”  — Woody Allen

How would you edit Woody’s paragraph to “cut to the chase?”  Post your reply on my blog.


Making Dialogue Work for You

Critique groups like to use certain words and labels when gathering to discuss manuscripts. POV (point of view), “beats,” “tags” and “show, don’t tell” are a few of our favorites.

A discussion on dialogue tags and descriptive beats came up at our critique group yesterday. There was some confusion as to what each is. One person even thought that the words were interchangeable.

A dialogue tag is when a word is used to describe the manner in which a character is speaking. For example:
“Wait,” Bob shouted.
“Wait,” Sally whimpered.
“Wait,” Grandma hesitated.

The dialogue tag is “telling” the reader how the character is saying the words.

When I was a child in elementary school, our teachers encouraged the use of dialogue tags. It was frowned on to have too many “saids” and “asks” in our stories.

Nowadays, it is believed that the reader doesn’t really notice the dialogue tags, so “said” is preferred. Some editors go as far as to say that dialogue tags are distracting and confusing. The action of the scene or the emotion of the character should be apparent if the writing is clean and concise. There is no need to say “Bob shouted” if the story tells the reader that Bob is running down the street after his estranged girlfriend who has just driven off in his new Corvette.

“Beats” are used to move the action along or to enhance the emotions of the dialogue. No “said” is needed. A “beat” will indicate who the speaker is while showing action. It is “show, not tell.”
“Wait.” Bob ran, waving his arms, as Jill drove off in his brand-new red Corvette.
“Wait.” Sally wiped a tear from her eye.
“Wait.” Grandma stopped as she tried to maneuver her cane through the revolving door.

What techniques do you use to keep dialogue moving?