Home    Workshops    Members Only    Contests    Join    Contact us                       RWA Chapter

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Develop “Mental” Editing

My work as developmental editor has shown me patterns in first-time-authors’ manuscripts. Many exercises such as removing excess “that” and substituting concrete terms for “it” are things authors can do before submitting a manuscript. Often, authors don’t see these items and don’t look for them, soaring instead on the emotional wings of story, description and plot—and having a finished manuscript to submit.

And so I say, authors need to develop mental editing.

Right brain creativity got the words onto the page to begin with, but at the revision stage, the author needs to use left-brain creativity. Make changes using logic and the known (and look-upable) rules of our language, rather than clinging to words with emotion born of admiring one’s own cleverness. Yes, you stuck words together in a unique way, but is that what’s best for the story? Repetitive or inexact words detract from the bigger picture.

If an author seeks revision advice from an outside source, the source must be weighed on a scale of relative usefulness. Suggestions from friends, family, and critique groups can often be refuted if the author’s inclination is to reject the advice. Take a step back and think about the suggestion before allowing the knee-jerk reaction to reject the idea. Suggestions for change handed down from an authority source such as a multi-published author or professional editor carry more weight. How do you react to any suggestion that your individual word choices may not be the most stellar?

Holly Lisle said it best, that “yeah, but…” will keep you unpublished. The “yeah” is your acknowledgement that change is needed. The “but” is your excuse for not making changes that could launch your writing career.

End the marriage to your words. Forgive me for using an emotionally-laden format, but the following is borrowed heavily from an online dissolution of marriage document:

I petition for a summary dissolution of marriage from my words and declare that all the following conditions exist on the date this petition is filed with the muse:

1. My words and I were married on (date): [enter completion date of first draft]

(A summary dissolution of your marriage will not be granted if you file this petition more than five years after the date of your marriage.) Don’t sit on your manuscript forever—get it revised and out the door. After five years, you are entrenched in the marriage to those words.

2. There are no derivative stories born of our relationship before or during our marriage or adopted by us during our marriage. The wife, to her knowledge, is not pregnant. [Is the author the wife or is the story the wife? Important to know who gives birth to new stories here—you or your work]

3. Continuity differences have caused the irremediable breakdown of our marriage, and each of us wishes to have the muse dissolve our marriage without our appearing before an editor.

4. Upon entry of judgment of summary dissolution of marriage, we each give up our rights to appeal and to move for a new trial.

Sign it.

This is your vow to hack and slash unneeded words or scenes as necessary. This includes heavy backstory set-up that explains anything.

As an editor at The Wild Rose Press, my responsibilities cover many stages of editing including rudimentary proofreading and copyediting (reading for grammar and syntax as well as brand-name usage, basic facts, etc.). The main joy of my job as editor, however, is developmental editing. Looking past the words on the page into the author’s intended meaning is my favorite part.

Sometimes the language used is…for lack of a kinder term…inadequate. My job is to flag areas where this happens in a manuscript and ask the author to flesh it out, beef it up, use a different word or phrase or…something else creative.

This is where editing from the editor must end and where editing from the author must begin. The author has to dig deep within and find a new way to express what he or she meant the first time but didn’t quite reach.

I’m also an author, so I know how this bit feels. No, No, NO, NO! you scream. The manuscript was perfect when I sent it to you—you contracted it, right?

Yes, the editor contracted the story—the plot, the characterization, the tone and voice, and the sheer beauty of the author’s imagination.

An editor wants writing to express the author’s meaning as clearly as the author wants it to. Emotional distance from the work allows an editor to see the holes and flaws the author misses. Your editing job as author is to consider each revision—even on un-contracted works—with the same objectivity.

When you receive official revisions from your publisher, decide if fighting over a particular requested change is worth breaking the contract and never being published. In that light, many requests to dismiss words or phrases in favor of others diminishes in importance.

Authors need not knuckle under and accept every suggestion—at TWRP, we are open to negotiation in most instances. But look at each suggested revision carefully. An editor ultimately wants the book to sell and produce good reviews, which will lead to more sales. An editor at a publishing house has seen many manuscripts outside of yours and can compare what works with what does not. He or she would not make suggestions to weaken your story or its chances of selling well—that would be counterproductive. Selling books is a business, and badly edited books lead to bad reviews, which is bad for not only the author but also for the publisher.

Here’s a trick I love, if your word processing program has this feature. In Word, at least, you can use the “find” tool to highlight every instance of a word or phrase. Use colors from the highlighting tool found in Track Changes to mark the words or phrases, or change the font color. I like to highlight all “that” in dark navy blue and read around them to see which are really necessary. Try this with –ly adverbs, exclamation points, “it,” junk words like “very” and “some”—anything you might want to reduce or eradicate. The multicolored highlighted words trick your brain into seeing individual words rather than reading the emotions behind them.

So to practice your mental editing, take a deep breath. Turn off the knee-jerk emotions. Turn on your left-brain. And revise like an editor.


Kelly Schaub has edited the Faery Rose line for The Wild Rose Press since September 2007. Books she has edited have gone on to earn high praise from reviewers and readers, as well as garnering multiple awards and contest wins.


Alexis Morgan said...

Great post! The bottom line is that I want to write the best book possible. That means doing what it takes to bring the story into sharp focus. Revisions can be tough, but they are necessary.

Susan Macatee said...

Great advice, Kelly! As a published TWRP author, I've learned a lot through working with three great editors. Hopefully, each new manuscript I write will improve as I learn to be a better self-editor.

Paty Jager said...

I agree the more you write the easier it is to see the overuse of some words. In the beginning, when a ms was finished(or so I thought) I'd highlight the beginning of sentences with one color, that, look, but, and very with another color, and the adjectives and verbs with different colors. It's amazing how many time s in a ms you use the same words when you could use a much stronger word.

Now I instinctively change words when I feel the urge to use the mundane ones. I have the internal editor turned on as I write.

Great post!

Emma Lai said...

Great post, Kelly! Full of useful information.

Unknown said...

Excellent post! I'm glad I read it and intend to pass it on.

Good job!

Kelly McCrady said...

Thanks everyone. And a confession--I didn't spit this out on the page and have it posted un-edited. I let it sit for ~ 5 days and ran it past my critique group first. Edit edit edit...

Jessa Slade said...

LOVE the word marriage dissolution idea! I divorce thee, I divorce thee, I... Oh man, I need to keep that hyper-extended metaphor tho ;)

Maybe I'll try a trial separation with counseling first.

Anonymous said...