Tag Archives: editing

The Art and Science of Editing

Writers. Your best friend is your editor.

The members of your writing group and your beta readers can be great assets, nudging you toward the type of material you were meant to create and, sometimes, painfully, letting you know it’s time to move on from a piece that isn’t working.

Mike Babcock

But whether we writers want to admit it, we are competitors. Pretend you are a hockey player for a moment, and imagine your fellow writers as team members. You all want to win the game together, but that doesn’t mean they are okay riding the bench while you get all the ice time. What player ever fantasized that someone else scores the big overtime goal?

When our fellow writers read their pages in a critique group, or when we are asked to beta read a story, a big part of us wants to provide support, encouragement, and guidance. Meanwhile, a deeper, more concealed, far less secure part is busy comparing ourselves. Am I as good as this writer? Am I better? Would I have written it that way? If I slam this piece in front of everyone, will I feel a bit too much sadistic pleasure?

Your editor lacks something your writer friends carry into every writing-related interaction with you: An agenda. Or maybe I should say you and your editor share one agenda. Your success.

Ideally, your editor also has experience and fluid intelligence, since these tools are essential to the science and the art of the editing craft.

I’m going to get the “science” out of the way first. The science of editing, of course, deals with grammar, punctuation, syntax, and language mechanics. A good, experienced editor can spot the extraneous words, dangling modifiers, and parallel-construction errors you passed over a dozen times in revisions. Your editor can also see story logic problems and help fix them by moving a paragraph or sentence up or down the page.

When your editor makes such corrections, it does not mean she understands writing better than you do or that you are not good enough. Every writer makes mistakes. Your editor makes those sorts of mistakes in her own writing, which is why we all need an editor. Writing is hard.

As an editor, the art of editing is the aspect that intrigues me the most. The art entails appreciating and respecting the writer’s voice, embracing the poetry in his words, understanding the rhythm and flow of his prose, and, for lack of a better term, “getting it.” A good editor can see the aesthetic quality in a manuscript, and her edits only remove that which obscures the writer’s vision.

A good editor does not try to change your vision or trample your voice. If your editor is caught up in rules and cannot see the words for the letters, get a new editor. If you write noir and your editor does not understand noir, get a new editor. If your editor tries to take over your manuscript and make it read as if she wrote it, get a new editor.

If your editor is smart and makes suggestions that sometimes sting but that you know, deep down, to be true, listen. A good editor is your most trusted advisor.

In our hockey metaphor above, your editor is the coach. She never gets to leave the bench. She wants all of her writers to score the overtime goal, because no matter who scores that goal, she wins.

You.

You.

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Second Drafts

misery

I’m still sticking to that self-imposed August 31, 11:59 p.m. 2014 deadline for a complete second draft of my novel. I have to say, everything is going fantastically well! I work on it for hours and hours on end. It’s all I can think about and, whenever I’m doing something else, I can’t wait to get back in there and…

Oh, who am I kidding? I hate second drafts. On first drafts I lose myself and forget time, intrigued by the mystery of where my story is going and what will happen to the characters. With the second draft, it’s:

Wait, wasn’t her shirt red back on page 47? [press “PgUp” key until I find the previous reference, which turns out to be p 39] Nope. It was blue like I said.

Am I overselling the snow in this scene? Are people going to get that it’s snowing? What’s another word for snow?

Oh crap. Last chapter was also “Chapter 5.” How did I end up with two chapter fives?

Hold on. Do they even have maple trees in Poland?

Really? The submarine ascended upward? Good thing it didn’t ascend sideways. That would mean the ocean got tipped over.

On second thought, I don’t think she would scream “Geronimo!” in this scene. She’s more of the “Vengeance is mine!” type.

And so on.

My big plan this weekend was to knock out large swaths of text, get ahead of the game, and then sit back and sip margaritas from a tiki glass whilst wearing a Hawaiian shirt and Bermuda shorts, surrounded by the cast of Sorority Babe Heat Wave 4, each of whom thinks it’s too hot in here. Instead I worked on my WiP for a collective total of 2 hours, and, despite an entire month passing since I finished draft one, I haven’t hit page 70 yet. I did vacuum a bit and give myself a haircut, and I went to the supermarket to buy stuff to pack for lunch. Which is, you know, something.

I’m still gonna hit that deadline, fickle muses be damned!

How about you? Do you find revision a drag?


The Number One Most Common Mistake in Internet Lists

Gamera the Giant Flying Turtle: Not Sexy

Gamera the Giant Flying Turtle: Not Sexy

See what I did there?

My title should either be: The Number One Most Common Mistake in Internet Lists or The Number One Most Common Mistake in Internet Lists. There can only be one “most common” mistake, so it is unnecessary to specify further.

I wish online-content creators understood the redundancy of the constructions “top ten most” and “top ten best.” You can either list The Ten Best Australian Jai Alai Players of 1948 or The Top Ten Australian Jai Alai Players of 1948. Writing The Top Ten Best Australian Jai Alai Players of 1948 is the same thing as saying you lack proficiency in grammar and composition.

I mean, is there a different group of “top ten” Australian jai alai players from 1948 that necessitates the introduction of best as a modifier? The top ten most average players of 1948? The top ten most last-minute cuts from the team?

I’m not referring to blog posts by new writers trying to learn as they go along. We all try, make mistakes, and grow. I’m talking about Yahoo! and Buzzfeed and Huffington Post and all the other big, fluff-heavy infotainment sites where professional writers are paid to ruin productivity at offices everywhere by distracting us with top-ten lists.

If you are thinking of dipping your toe into the high-stakes pool* of internet list making, here’s a basic guideline on how to construct your title: If the first word after the number is an adjective, drop the “top.”

Example: The Top Five Sexiest Japanese Monsters.

Since “sexiest” is an adjective, drop “top” and change it to The Five Sexiest Japanese Monsters.

[For the record, the five sexiest Japanese monsters are Mechagodzilla (the 1974 version), Gigan, Godzilla, Battra, and the Brown Gargantua]

Gigan: Now there's an attractive monster.

Gigan: Now there’s an attractive monster.

You have more leeway in the absence of an adjective. With a noun, you can either drop the “top” or eliminate the modifier.

Example: The Top 29 Best Colors for Scotch™ Tape Dispensers.

The Top 29 Colors for Scotch™ Tape Dispensers works just as well as The 29 Best Colors for Scotch™ Tape Dispensers. Although, on a side note, I think this is a terrible idea for a list. Once you get past “green” and “clear,” you’re probably going to hit a wall.

Any particular writing mistake you notice over and over again in your cyberspace adventures?

~~~

*Yikes. Maybe I should do a post on embarrassingly bad metaphors.


One more thing about commas…

They aren’t periods.

"Run-on sentences? Game over!"

“Run-on sentences? Game over!”

When a writer uses a comma where a period belongs, he creates a run-on sentence. We all know this. We all know what a run-on sentence looks like. Yet, I see this error quite often, even from experienced writers.*

In terms of language mechanics, if a writer makes two full statements in one sentence but doesn’t have an and, but, so, which, or some other conjunction after the comma (or at the very beginning), he needs a period instead. Consider the following hypothetical recap of the latest Game of Thrones episode.

“The shows featured lots of gratuitous nudity, there was oodles of killing too.”

This is a run-on sentence. It’s pretty obvious when we read it but not always when we write one like it ourselves. After my comma-themed post the other day, a few commenters mentioned that their primary-school teachers had advised them years ago to put a comma wherever they felt they would pause if speaking the sentence aloud. I have no background as an educator of children, so perhaps those teachers understood something I don’t about child development. Still, that seems like terrible advice. People pause between sentences, don’t they?

Here are more examples:

“My trip to Tokyo was a disaster, Godzilla showed up and smashed the department store.”

“Life was miserable for Jan Brady growing up, her sisters got all the attention.”

Godzilla! Godzilla! Godzilla!

Godzilla! Godzilla! Godzilla!

When you revise your latest writing project, be it a novel, blog post, essay, short story, memoir, manifesto, confession, or ransom note, read it aloud. If something sounds choppy, check to see if you didn’t accidently let a run-on sentence slip in there. It might have felt like a proper sentence when you wrote it because of how you mentally phrased it, but if there’s no conjunction after the comma, and the second clause sounds like a complete sentence with a subject, you have a run-on. Let’s revisit one of the examples.

“My trip to Tokyo was a disaster, Godzilla showed up and smashed the department store.”

This sentence has two subjects: your trip to Tokyo and Godzilla. These are excellent subjects but maybe not when crammed together like that. We could turn it into two sentences, as in, “My Trip to Tokyo was a disaster. Godzilla showed up and smashed the department store.”

Another option is to employ a conjunction. “My trip to Tokyo was a disaster, because Godzilla showed up and smashed the department store.”

You can also stick a conjunction at the beginning. “Since her sisters got all the attention, Jan Brady was miserable growing up.”

Or, as I prefer, “My trip to Tokyo was awesome! Jan Brady was miserable because Godzilla smashed the department store, so she allowed the festering rage within to take control, which manifested itself in the form of an instant growth spurt that turned her into a 400-foot-tall, lighting-spitting middle sister. I watched in stunned silence as the titans engaged in a death battle and laid waste to a once-gleaming metropolis.”

See. I told you I am a writer. You think a goon like Hemingway could have conceived that?

***

*When I do one of these punctuation or grammar posts, I may imply the error I’m discussing is encountered with alarming frequency. Let’s just say, instead, that the error under discussion happens often enough that I wrote a post about it.

To help confuse you, I created this meaningless chart. It’s pure nonsense, but I advise you to keep your errors in the blue area anyway. Let those green and maroon bastards take all the heat.

We apologize. Rabid weasels hacked into our servers and inserted offensive content into this chart. Rest assured that category 4 does not in any way represent your face or suggest that your face has errors.

We apologize. Rabid weasels hacked into our servers and inserted offensive content into this chart. Rest assured that category 4 does not in any way represent your face, your loved one’s faces, or the faces of anyone living or dead. We also regret that a chart about errors has an error. 


Sentence clauses and where to put the comma. With gratuitous nudity.

Warning: The naked monster in this picture has nothing to do with the content below and is therefore gratuitous.

Warning: The naked monster in this picture has nothing to do with the content below and is therefore gratuitous.

Do you have any idea how hard it is to think up an enticing blog post title when your topic is sentence clauses? That’s about as unsexy a thing as can be discussed. My other options were Full Frontal Commas and When Punctuation Marks Hook Up, but I ultimately decided “sentences clauses” and “comma” both belonged because the union of those two language elements is what we’re talking about today.

I’m willing to bet that when writers express worry about their punctuation skills, their chief grief is commas. Like, when to use one and where to put it (by the way, if you block out the rest of this post, you have to admit what I just wrote could be sexy). Today I shall discuss one aspect of comma use: when they are required to separate sentence clauses and when they are not.

The guidelines are pretty simple. If you have a dependent clause, you don’t need a comma, and if you have an independent clause, you do need a comma. Important note: Dependent and independent clauses are typically separated by “and” or “but.”

But sometimes, to even the most experienced writer, grammar talk sounds like bleeeeeaaaaaaahhhhhhh grldlugnk fzzznuh. Therefore, I shall provide examples.

A sentence with a dependent clause:

Im-Ho-Tep, pre bling

Im-Ho-Tep, pre bling

Im-Ho-Tep was awakened from his ancient slumber and began killing the archeologists who disturbed his tomb.

Two things happened in that sentence. Im-Ho-Tep woke up, and he began killing archeologists. Each thing is described by a clause (as well as separated by “and”). I made the second clause dependent (without a comma) because the two things are connected. He was awakened and killed the people who woke him up, kind of like I wanted to kill the garbage truck that woke me up this morning at 5:45.

By technical definition, the second clause is dependent because it depends on the first half of the sentence for meaning. Began killing the archeologists who disturbed his tomb does not have enough information to be a sentence. It’s missing a subject.

Here’s one with an independent clause:

Im-Ho-Tep awoke from his ancient slumber, and he quickly decided to ditch the yellowed wrapping in favor of Versace and some nice bling.

I made the second half an independent clause because, while the subject (Im-Ho-Tep) does not change, the two actions aren’t directly related. By technical definition, the second clause is independent because it stands alone as a complete thought or idea. He quickly decided to ditch the yellowed wrapping in favor of Versace and some nice bling works as a sentence.

To recap: If your second clause depends on the first to make sense, you do not need a comma because the thoughts are not separate. If your second clause stands alone from your first clause as a functionally independent statement, you do need a comma. More examples follow…

Dependent:

Countess Dracula climbed out of her coffin and ventured into the night in search of human blood.

Two ideas are expressed and are separated by “and,” but ventured into the dark night in search of human blood is incomplete by itself.

Independent:

Countess Dracula gazed longingly into the eyes of her human beverage container, and he gave it up to her after deciding there were far worse ways to die.

In this case, he gave it up to her after deciding there were far worse ways to die could be a sentence by itself, so you need a comma.

OK. It got a teeny bit sexy at the end.

OK. It got a teeny bit sexy near the end.

Dependent (with “but”):

Larry was bitten by a werewolf but did not transform into one until the night of the next full moon.

Did not transform into one until the night of the next full moon is not a complete sentence. No comma.

Independent (with “but”):

Larry became a drooling, uncontrollable savage last night, but that happens every weekend at his frat house.

That happens every weekend at his frat house is a complete sentence. Yes comma.

This is hardly a comprehensive explanation of when to use commas and when not to when composing a two-clause sentence, but I think the other scenarios are more intuitive.

Thoughts, comments, monetary donations are welcome below.

***


Onset vs Outset

Frankenstein meets

I’ve seen the above words confused for each other a few times recently, right here on WordPress. By writing bloggers no less! Let’s fix that.

Outset = the beginning of something.

Onset = the beginning of something.

Okay, maybe I see the confusion. Think of “outset” as positive and “onset” as negative:

“At the outset of the Star Wars series, George Lucas created more iconic characters and ideas in two hours than any other filmmaker has since generated over an entire career. Unfortunately, with the onset of his egomania, Lucas forgot what made him successful and started insulting his audience with drivel like Jar Jar Binks.”

Or think of “outset” as something you chose and “onset” as something that chose you:

You didn't think I was going to put a picture of Jar Jar Binks on here, did you?

You didn’t think I was going to put a picture of Jar Jar Binks on here, did you?

“Larry was bitten by a werewolf. At the onset of his lycanthropy (during the subsequent full moon), he too transformed into a wolf and began killing. Later, he sought help from Dr. Frankenstein. At the outset of his treatment, he felt positive, but he soon realized only an idiot seeks advice from a lunatic who sews dead body parts into monsters and brings them to life with lightning.”

Or you could simply invert the words:

“At the outset of the Lord of the Rings movie trilogy, Frodo Baggins and his friends set out to destroy the ring of power. After watching 53 hours of walking scenes and experiencing the onset of severe boredom, the audience became dead set on hiring a more assertive film editor for director Peter Jackson.”

Please note that today’s advice is more of the Malcolm Gladwell “it just feels right” school than of the English teacher “I’m telling you facts” school. Sometimes language is funky like that.

If you’re feeling the onset of an urge to respond, please visit the comments section below.


Eleven Rules for Freelance Editing

eleven car

Have you ever thought of taking up freelance editing? It’s a good gig for writers because you put your language skills to work and get paid for it, often earning more money than your client will as the author. And with the abundance of folks self-publishing their projects, opportunities are plentiful. After all, every writer needs an editor.

The bad news: Editing is skilled labor, not something you can pick up over a weekend. Before you spill a drop of red ink over anyone’s precious manuscript, you must know these eleven rules of freelance editing:

1. Write. Write some more. Write until knowledgeable people say you are a good writer. You have to understand the rhythm of language to edit.

2. Read. Read some more. Read all kinds of stuff, because it will help you understand the rhythm of language even better.

3. Know language mechanics and grammar rules (but don’t let them rule you).

4. Think expansively. You’re not simply editing words. You are editing words in a format within a genre using a language that serves a culture containing multiple sub-cultures. A book about the history of hip-hop in Los Angeles requires a different application of language than does a guide to refinishing antiques or a historical romance novel. In other words, “get” the material.

matt smith25. Respect your client’s voice. If your author styles herself after William Faulkner and you emulate Tom Clancy, you edit with William Faulkner in mind. Your job as an editor is not to make the story sound as if you (or Tom Clancy) wrote it. Write your own book.

6. Respect your author’s story. If you think chapter one is dull and needs an action scene to grab the reader, suggest that to your client. If you think your author’s inner-city drama about a middle-aged, married, white woman falling in love her 25-year-old gay, black, male parole officer would work better as a medieval-era papal conspiracy thriller about a robot triceratops discovered under the dome of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, shut up and write your own book.

7. Understand that editing is a multi-stage process. Shaping the document involves reading the entire manuscript and identifying the parts that don’t work or the parts that drag or the sequences that confuse, and then suggest rewrites. In the line-editing stage, you will go line by line, eliminating redundancies and tightening prose until you have successfully removed that which blocked the full expression of your client’s voice. Proofing is the final pass, during which typos, grammar missteps, and punctuation mistakes are fixed.

8. Develop an eye for unnecessary words. Read:

“In the National Hockey League, 16 different teams make the playoffs at the end of the season each year, though only one of them will be able to skate away with the Stanley Cup raised proudly over their heads.”

Editing that, you can cut at least 15 words and up to 20, depending on the audience and the tone you seek. I hope your client writes less clunky constructions than the one above, but not all writers are equal.

Here’s the minus-15 version:

“In the National Hockey League, 16 different teams make the playoffs at the end of the season each year, though only one of them will be able to skate away with the Stanley Cup raised proudly over their heads.”

“In the National Hockey League, 16 teams make the playoffs each year, though only one will skate away with the Stanley Cup raised proudly.”

With 20 words removed, slicker but with less emotion:

“In the National Hockey League, 16 teams make the playoffs, though only one skates away with the Stanley Cup.”

9. Be consistent. If a movie title is italicized in Chapter One, it shouldn’t be placed in quotes in Chapter Four and bolded in Chapter Nine. You may not be ultimately responsible for formatting, but don’t set bear traps for the printer or publisher.

Lloyd10. Be prepared to fact check. Editing isn’t all limos and invitations to party with Justin Timberlake. Sometimes you have to make sure your author gets dates right, attributes the right quotes to the right real-life serial killers, and so on, whether you’re editing fiction or non-fiction. I recall reading a novel that mentioned a J.S. Bach symphony. I happen to know something about classical music, and I know that Bach did not compose symphonies; he composed concertos (there’s a difference). I can’t remember much about that book, such as its name for example, but that flub is still vivid.

Note that in my entry for rule #6 above, I joked about a robot triceratops found in medieval times under the dome of St. Peter’s Basilica. Thing is, St. Peter’s was not finished until the Baroque era. How embarrassing! Keep your flub radar on at all times when editing.

11. You have to be on, all the time. You can’t zone out halfway down the page. You must read every single damn word in the entire manuscript and look at every last comma. You have to look at them hard and interrogate them. You must outlast the text. If you have a short attention span, editing is probably not your gig.

For real meaty editing talk, visit Candace Johnson’s blog Change it Up Editing, the top of the food chain for such things. And feel free to tell me what I missed in the comments!