Teaching writers how to edit fiction is one of those things that can be surprisingly counter-intuitive. Most books and articles about editing are actually nothing more or less than books and articles on good writing. After all, the fundamentals of good self-editing are the fundamentals of good writing. The skill set for good editing is no different from that of good writing: an understanding of grammar and style, knowledge about character development, awareness of story structure, and the je ne sais quoi necessary to make narrative pop.
That’s all fine and good. The more we know about that stuff, the better we’ll be at both writing and editing. The downside is all this wonderful writing advice can sometimes end up being more than little, shall we say, general when what you really need are tips on how to edit fiction.
That’s why, today, I’m going to share with you the “real-time” editing process for one of my daily writing sessions from my historical superhero work-in-progress Wayfarer.
Every day before starting a writing session, I take the time to first edit what I wrote the previous day. These quick edits are my first pass through the rough draft, so I’m not content editing so much as cleaning up the prose, getting rid of my obviously bad ideas, and putting the initial shine on my emerging diamonds.
Below you can see the full screenshot of my edits for this section of the story, which I’ve marked using Word’s Track Changes feature. Note that not all of my corrections will make sense out of the context of the main story, and some (such as my many tweaks of word choice to better reflect the 19th-century British setting) will be pertinent only to me and this book. (Click on the pages for a larger view and then use your browser’s zoom feature–shortcut: CNTRL plus +–if necessary.)
And now let’s get down to business! I have selected twelve particular examples from my edits, which are general enough for any writer to glean from. Read on for full explanations of what I was doing and why.
1. Resist the Urge to Explain
Basically, resisting the urge to explain is nothing more or less than choosing showing and subtext over telling and talking down to readers. The phrase comes straight out of Renni Browne and Dave King’s canonical Self-Editing for Fiction Writers:
It is nearly always best to resist the urge to explain (or, as we so often write it in manuscript margins, RUE). This tendency to describe a character’s emotion may reflect a lack of confidence on the part of the author. And more often than not, authors tell their readers things already shown by dialogue and action–it’s as if they’re repeating themselves to make sure their readers get the point.
My character’s fear, as observed by the narrator, is completely clear from the context–both from everything that happened previous to this scene and from her high-tempered reaction and trembling hands. Readers don’t need to be told she is frightened–or that the narrator hopes her healthy fear will keep her out of other dangerous situations in the future.
2. Avoid Unnecessary Word Repetition
Sometimes repeated words and phrases can be used to great effect for rhythm, emphasis, and even humor. But that is always a technique to be approached carefully, since clumsy repetition can easily jar readers and pull them out of the prose. I’ve seen books docked in review stars simply because repeated words bothered the readers so much.
Here, I had to eliminate the repeated word “know” (you know, I know), but I still needed to highlight the speaker’s emphasis of her knowledge. Adding “of course” was a quick fix.
3. Get Rid of “Seemed” and Other Weak Inferences
Remember a few months ago when I posted an installment in the Most Common Writing Mistakes series called “Inferring Non-POV Characters’ Thoughts“? Well, that post was inspired by my own persistence in using this sloppy technique in my rough drafts.
“Seemed” and similar inferences are usually an attempt to convey a non-POV character’s thoughts or emotions without delving outside the point of view. The result, however, is too often another round of telling instead of showing.
Sometimes the solution will be fleshing out the description to show readers the same facial tics and body language that the narrator is interpreting. Sometimes, as in my sentence, the emotion is already clear and the only thing that needs to be done is cutting the word “seemed.”
4. Pay Attention to Where Emphasis Belongs
There are good ways and bad ways to emphasize important points in your sentences. Or rather, I should say: depending on the sentence, some methods will be much clumsier than others. One effective method of emphasis is to begin a sentence with a conjunction (“and,” “but”). Although technically frowned upon, this has become largely accepted within casual writing and some fiction narratives.
But(!) despite their usefulness, conjunctions as emphasis are rarely an elegant solution. In this instance, my need for emphasis was better served by deleting the “but” at the beginning of the sentence and instead italicizing the exact word I wished to stress (“that”).
5. Don’t Qualify Your Dialogue
Throat-clearing words like “well,” “look,” “listen,” and “oh” can be excellent dialogue aids because they are so common in real-life speech and can evoke that same realism in our dialogue. They must, however, be used sparingly and only to purposeful effect.
Too many of them will clutter your dialogue or, as in this instance, water down the effect. My character–who is a straight-talking young noblewoman–doesn’t need the hesitating “well” at the beginning of her sentence: it robs her speech of her natural forcefulness without adding anything in the way of meaning or characterization.
6. Delete “That” Unrelentingly
I have to give my longtime critique partner Linda Yezak a nod for this one because I think of her every single time I see a “that” in my work. She’s always getting all over my case for letting this little parasite gorge itself on my lean writing. “That” is a filler word that(!), more often than not, is completely unnecessary. If you can delete “that” from a sentence without compromising clarity, do it. Linda will be proud of us both.
7. Streamline Language
This is the one that always has me thinking of William Brohaugh (who is not my critique partner but is the author of the awesome Write Tight–which, again, I must thank Linda for). In a nutshell: never add a word that is unnecessary to your meaning. Write tight; streamline your language; keep your words and your meaning as tight as possible.
It’s amazing the clutter that sometimes fills our sentences. Once again, “that” is a frequent culprit (as it is in this example), but notice how the whole phrase “that can” adds words but no meaning.
8. Show Don’t Tell and 9. Mind the Motivation-Reaction Unit
As we saw above in #2, regarding “seemed” and other inference words, sometimes shifting from telling to showing is as simple as deleting a few telling words to let the showing words shine through. Here, instead of telling readers the narrator was “finding he was almost embarrassed,” I can let his thought stand on its own for stronger effect.
I’ve also switched around the order of this paragraph a bit to allow for a stronger motivation-reaction unit. Remember: the motivation-reaction unit (or MRU) is supposed to present a logical order in which the character’s reactions are shown in the sequence they actually happen: thought > action > speech. In this instance, first the character is embarrassed, then he acts upon that embarrassment by covering it up with a chuckle.
10. Bold Reminders to Fact Check
Sometimes when we’re writing along, the last thing we want to do is break out of the zone to fact check. Whenever I’m writing or editing and feel it would be counter-productive to hop onto the Internet to research a questionable fact or word, I’ll simply bold that word and move on. Later, after I’ve finished the first draft, I’ll go back and double-check all my bold words.
11. Ensure Pronoun Antecedents Make Sense
I love referring to my characters by pronouns whenever possible. This is a technique that subtly deepens the intimacy of the narrative–except when the pronoun’s antecedent (the person–or thing–to which the pronoun is referring) is unclear. Whenever there’s a doubt about clarity, always name your character instead of opting for a pronoun.
This is also true even when the last possible antecedent was one mentioned in dialogue as it is here (and therefore couldn’t logically be the character referred to in the next sentence). Even though readers might recognize (or figure out) that the “he” at the beginning of the next sentence isn’t the guy mentioned in the dialogue, they can still experience a split second of confusion. A split second is a split too much.
12. Use Paragraph Breaks to Punctuate Dialogue
We touched a bit on this last week in the post on paragraph mistakes. In this instance, even though it might have also been technically correct to keep all the dialogue (and its action beats) within a single paragraph, a little bit of breathing space makes for better timing and better emphasis.
Here we have the character performing an action that literally stops his dialogue–he puts the bottle in his coat pocket, then looks up. Furthermore, when he does finally look up, he’s going to change the subject and send the conversation in a new direction. As a result, the paragraph break made good sense.
The situations and challenges you will face as you figure out how to edit fiction will of course be vast. The twelve points I’ve highlighted here are just a few of the many things to watch for while you’re correcting your stories. I hope this candid peek into my daily process has offered you some clarity and inspiration in your own editing process. Head over to your manuscript, pull out that red pen, and start making your story even better than it already is!
Wordplayers, tell me your opinion! What is the best tip you’ve discovered for how to edit fiction? Tell me in the comments!
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