Friday, January 1, 2010

There's Editing & There's Editing...What's Your Process? By Robert W. Walker

The business of editing your story once you’ve got it going is an important consideration, and the first consideration is precisely WHEN do you do your editing; what is your best choice of processing the process? Do you edit as you go, line by line, or afterward altogether at once? I imagine some folks do it scene by scene, chapter by chapter as they go—which I do nowadays, but in my youth, I used to do my serious editing only AFTER the manuscript was completed and entirely out of my head. Some say you can’t do two jobs at once—create and edit—in the same breath as each job requires the opposite side of the brain, but as I have matured as a writer, I have come to discard that notion. I edit much more as I go nowadays than I once did, and I will consciously be editing a line as I write it, a scene as I write it, a chapter as I write it. I will also re-read and edit two or three scenes and chapters before I continue on to the next scenes and chapters, rather working in a parabola fashion, like a wave action, back and forth.

I won’t catch every misplaced modifier or weak metaphor or missing comma or apostrophe, but I know for a fact that I am too close to the trees to see the forest, or too close to the forest to see the trees, or both since like a client in a courtroom who represents himself, I have a fool for an editor. I know it needs a judicious second and even third eye; in fact, better than most, I know I need all the help I can get. To this end, I have cultivated close friends whose advice and editing eye are spot on—folks I can rely on. Such friends can drive you insane as they are so detail conscious, but they are, as I said, spot on.

I have seen errors in my finished books, however, and this after I have written and rewritten the story to exhaustion, and it has been vetted by my readers, and it has had a thorough going over by my editor and a copy editor as well, and guess what – still typos and words like Lamb for Lame filter in or are crammed in by the ink gremlins (creatures that abound in magazines, playbills, brochures, how-to’s, and novels). Still we try and try and try.

No novel in the history of novels has been rewritten more than my Children of Salem and yet my hero, Wakely gets spelled as Wakley at least once, and tomb should have been tome in the first chapter. So it goes, but we must strive to make the version that goes to an editor’s desk as clean and error-free as we can possibly make it, as this is a major part of the job at hand.

TEN items I edit for as I write (in fact both sides of the brain can work in tandem with experience)

1 - Edit for LY words and other modifiers, adjectives, adverbs to hug the word they ‘modify’.

2 - Edit to catch pronouns that are ‘fuzzy’ or confusing for whatever reason and in need of being replaced by naming the person, place, or thing the pronoun is standing in for. Constantly ask who are they…what is it…who is he/she.

3 – Edit out as many prepositions and prepositional phrases as possible as in switch: ‘stood up from the chair’ with ‘stood’ – and such phrases as ‘out of the back of the car’ with ‘from the car’ and excise so many sentences that unnecessarily end with ‘to me’. Anytime you can replace two or three prepositional or directional words with a single word that is a WIN.

4 – Omit as many of the word VERY as you can find along with many another qualifier in the narrative; look up the part of speech that is called a qualifier and avoid them like the plague; they are related to adjectives, adverbs, and modifiers and are often meant to emphasize but instead they manage to de-emphasize the otherwise strong subject and strong verb they qualify or modify.

5 – Put in as many ‘absolutes’ as you can, often replacing the qualifier with an absolute word or phrase. Instead of VERY replace it with an absolute as in: ‘The swiftly flowing wind roared very loudly’ with ‘A swift bearlike roaring wind peeled its anguish’.

6 – Edit out trivial matter in both narrative and dialogue. Trivial matter is such material as is metaphorically spinning wheels and not moving the story along. That is description that serves no purpose or has no connection to your character(s), and/or dialogue that fails to illuminate character or push the story along.

7 – Make sure that all description of people, places, and things are filtered through the five senses of the characters.

8 – Make sure that all description of people, places, and things come about as thought and speech while your characters are involved in some action or actions. Avoid whole paragraphs of simple passive description or thought or inner monologue.

9 – Edit for whole paragraphs and scenes that fall into telling only and no showing; rewrite these by dialoguing the same information, spreading out these “telling” lines to various characters who may speak them aloud inside quotation marks. In other words: Dialogue dull scenes into walking, talking, doing scenes that involve the five senses of your characters rather than the speechifying of your narrator.

10 – Make certain each character has his/her own speech patterns, mindset, psychology, props, ticks, and anything that sets each apart. The worst thing your novel can do is have every character working in similar tone and attitude. No two can walk or talk alike unless you’re doing twins.

It’s not by any means an exhaustive list but these are major items and issues editors will be dealing with when autopsying your book, and the worst sin of all is the sin of being unclear. All of these steps help me in self-editing even before they are dealt with by your first readers, critique group, agent…editor. I hope the list is helpful; I use it all the time with my own work and when I am acting as an editor for others when wearing my freelance editor’s cap. Bringing this back around full circle, if you are first starting out as a writer, you may well prefer and want to get the entire book out of your head before you begin a serious, all encompassing rewrite – unless you find it easy and fulfilling to edit scene by scene as you go. Find what works for you as we all must find our own working methods.

I welcome your comments and we at ACME have made making comments a walk in the park; it’s that easy, so don’t hesitate. Meanwhile, find me on facebook, at Twitter, on Myspace and for details about my editing service visit me at

Happy New Year of Writing and Reading,

Robert Walker, author of Dead On & Children of Salem, the INSTINCT and RANSOM series and find me on Facebook, Myspace, Twitter, and Google me!


Morgan Mandel said...

Great editing tips, Rob.

Morgan Mandel

Debra St. John said...

Oh, those errors found after a book goes to print drive me crazy! I think it has to do with your example of "the forest being too close to the trees". I'm so familiar with my work, I miss things...I see how they are supposed to be, not what they really are, even after a million rounds of edits.

I do some editing as I go, but I save the big stuff for several reads before submitting to my editor. I look for different things with each pass through. Once I've submitted, I don't look at it again until I hear back from my editor. This allows me to leave it for a time, and come back to it with a fresh perspective.

Happy New Year, all!

Marilyn Meredith a.k.a. F. M. Meredith said...

Good reminders for us all.

And like you, despite me checking, an outside editor going through it, the editor at the publishing house, mistakes still manage to sneak through. Grrrrr!


Rob said...

It's endemic or pandemic if you let it be; I do also believe storngly in putting it aside for awhile, working on anohter project altogether, then come back to it and do a fresh-minded cold-blooded, cold-hearted re-reading and re-editing. Writing is Rewriting is Writing. Thanks for your insights eveyone and for stopping by. Keep those comments coming.

Maureen Hume said...

Thank you.
Always stuff to learn or be reminded of.

Loretta Wheeler said...


This was "very" good;) ah, there's that word! It is truly amazing how many things we can find to correct. It never ceases to surprise me. No matter how many eyes have been on the piece I can usually find something that's been overlooked.
I tend to do as you do now, I edit to a certain degree as I go along. It just makes the whole process simpler.
I enjoyed the post:)


Doug said...

Certainly good points to watch. However, as was pointed out to me by a dear friend about to recommend me to her agent, you have to have a story.

And all the craft in the world doesn't make up for not having a story.

(You can see where my hangups are _)

Rob said...

Doug, agred...story is the most important element of all, but no one will read a story all the way through if it is riddled with pronoouns for instance or infested with the word WAS as in twenty five per page, or other such considerations. Writing is aobut keeping all the pie plates up in the air at once. Read Owl Creek by Ambrose Bierce or a story by Mark Twain - flawless grammar and clarity. But correct, both men were virtuoso storytellers.

Polly Iyer said...

Great tips, Rob. As for number five, I feel that when the description tries too hard, it stops me as a reader. I know we all look for that beautiful turn of phrase, the colorful simile, but I've read many that sound pretentious. Too many of them and I stop reading.

Deb Larson said...

Great reminders, Rob.
I too edit a bit before surging on with new writing. It helps me slip back into the story and the correct POV.
DL Larson

Rob said...

Hey all thanks for dropping by, and I think we are all in agreement this time rants! Kindness prevails. My new resoluiton this year is to piss no one off....yeah, right. Am enjoying these days where I put up 8 chapters of my opus Children of Salem. Check out the site; it is awesome for writers and readers.

Margot Justes said...

As usual, a helpful blog. I always start with an edit of the last couple of pages to help me get into the characters, and even in the midst of writing, I sometimes go back and tweek it because I remembered something.
I agree it's so easy to miss things no matter how many times you you edit, it's about the familiarity of content.

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