Thursday, February 3, 2011

5 Tips to Help You Edit Better

I occasionally participate in a few Twitter author chats. Just before Christmas, there was a rather heated debate over the definition of editing vs revising. I generally use the term editing; it's just a personal preference. However, editing or revising or whatever else you wish to call it, needs to be more than simply checking for typos and grammatical errors.

*Blink* Editing isn't just reading the sentences, word by word, and making sure everything is all pretty and smooth? That is a step in the process, yes. However, I've discovered that there are many steps before that particular phase. Some of us do these steps without thinking, but I have found that it's a good idea to at least have them in mind during the entire editing process.

1. Does my plot flow in a smooth and logical manner?
I read one particular manuscript seven times when I'd first started writing seriously and felt it was near perfect by the end. Yes, I know, that should have been my first clue it was really bad. I submitted to a reader who, after three chapters, pointed out a plot hole larger than the one in the ozone layer. 

I take to scribbling down the major plot points on paper or, for particularly complex stories, on Post-It Notes on my wall. I let it sit for a couple of days and then review. I challenge each and every step.

2. Are my characters real?

This covers a few points. Are their actions consistent with their personalities? Are they likable, flawed, deliciously hateful (but your reader will cheer them on)? Does your main character carry the story, or do people and circumstances drag your character around?

3. Is my setting well developed, but not too developed?

Do you explain your setting? Grab a scene mid-book and evaluate it for the five senses, along with things like body language and physical reaction to situations. Can you smell your scene? What tactical surfaces are there? 

On the other side, if you have paragraphs and paragraphs describing entire rooms, you may have swung to writing a grocery list of items. See if your characters are interacting with these items. Are your characters telling us their impressions of the scenes or are you, the author?

4. Is my dialogue natural?

Dialogue is a tricky one because it can easily get turned into "As you know, Bob" moments. Instead, I find the best dialogue to read is the kind where people interact the way that I'd expect them to behave as real people...minus the boring parts of day-to-day dialogue, of course!

Likewise, do your characters all speak the same? One way I avoid this is to make the main character the standard of my story. Then, as I introduce a new character, I think about how they will appear next to the main. Will they be more educated? Less? Do they come from a different area? Is he a child whose learning to read? Is she an old woman who likes to tell dirty jokes? All of these things help me ensure that the dialogue is (I hope) never boring.

5. Is this the story I wanted to tell?

This is one that I constantly have to keep in mind. It's really easy to be sucked into writing what is trendy, popular, or what I think people want to read. 

I look at the world in a way that no one else does. Your perspective of the world is very different from mine. When we write, I believe we need to write the world that we see, not the world we think others see. Sure, there are guidelines to follow and certain skills that you must develop. However, the core essence of your story should be for your perspective on the world.

Let me give you an example. About two years ago, I started a SF story called "Road to Hell." I kept trying to make it the way I thought pro magazine markets would want it. Only, it never worked. It never rang true, not for one moment. I eventually scrapped it and turned it into a novel. Then, I made the critical decision to turn my main character into a marriage lesbian. I often worried that I should make her straight, or have her a single lesbian, because "married" and "wife" brought out some interesting reactions amongst the beta readers.

Today, I signed a contract for "Road to Hell," complete with my marriage lesbian main character.

After all that, there is still grammar, structure, and proofreading. However, once I started keeping those major points in mind, I discovered my manuscripts got better and sold faster.

What editing tips do you use?


  1. One important tip is to make sure you reread the entire manuscript all the way through after rewriting any particular scene or section and before sending the manuscript off: one of the most common errors I encounter (including in my own writing) is discovering characters are making references to events that have no longer happened, or that don't happen for another 20 pages, or anticipating events that have already happened in the current rewritten version. Oops! It is easy to screw up the continuity as one adds, deletes or moves scenes around.

  2. I agree! It needs a final read-thru!