The Editor’s Scalpel Blade

As editor, I find myself dealing with certain quirks in my clients’ manuscripts that seem to be recurring issues across the board for the majority of newbie writers. So, I feel I need to address these issues, and I’ll probably revisit these pointers again and again in the future.

Thing is, when you first begin writing, it is difficult to cull these little gremlins, which is why an experienced beta reader or a good editor is worth her weight in gold, even before you start submitting your story. But, let me level with you here, these are tricks you can learn yourself that will go a long way to making your manuscript stand out from the rest. Trust me, you do not want to know the singular brand of hell that slush readers go through. If even a fraction of the authors out there took the time to hone their craft based on the following ten tips, we’d already be a long way ahead to ensuring that some hapless editor doesn’t sometimes feel like gouging out her eyes with a red pen.

So, while these tips might not guarantee sales, they will, without a doubt give you an edge over the rest of the pack. Learning to self-edit for these little quirks will allow your editor to focus on other aspects of your writing, and so help you become even better. Otherwise so much time gets wasted with the search-and-destroy efforts.

1 HEAD HOPPING

In films, directors employ an omniscient, third-person point of view i.e. God. This is not necessarily a bad thing. Unless we have a character running a voice-over monologue in a film, it’s impossible to show what this character is thinking and feeling – so the director withdraws to this god-like perspective to show the viewer as much as possible.

Writing fiction from an omniscient, third-person point of view is not necessarily a bad thing. After all, masters such as Terry Pratchett and Frank Herbert, among others, employ this technique successfully. So it’s not wrong, per se, but current commercial writing conventions favour a deep, third-person point of view. My advice for newbie writers is to first master a deep first- or third-person point of view before attempting omniscient third.

My rule of thumb for authors who wish to write multiple points of view is to stick to one viewpoint character per scene, and clearly define shifts between characters with scene breaks, so that readers do not become confused.

Here is a fantastic article on this topic. Go read it.

2 LAYERING/DEPTH FOR DEEPER CHARACTERISATION

Following from the first point, I’m now going to show you how you’ll make your characterisation better. Your novel is populated by characters, and you’ll go a long way by turning them into living, breathing, thinking and feeling individuals as opposed to ciphers who merely go through a set of actions in order to progress a plot.

Remember, your reader is experiencing your world through the senses of your character, so it stands to reason that you need to engage the reader’s senses.

What is your character seeing, tasting, touching, smelling and hearing? Concentrate on showing this throughout the process, and half your work is already done. Your world comes alive in glorious Technicolor. Consider “Jack walked into a bathroom” vs. “The linoleum beneath Jack’s bare feet was cool when he entered the bathroom, and he caught a hint of Byron’s woody aftershave.” See the difference?

But your character isn’t just the sum of the physical input relevant to progressing the plot. She’s also a thinking, feeling person. While she talks to someone or explores her environment, she’ll be processing information, which may trigger memories and opinions. She’ll also draw conclusions – so show what’s going on in her noggin.

Thoughts and external stimuli will also trigger another aspect of your character – the emotions. This is another vital aspect in creating well-rounded individuals.

Example:
Betty picked up her mother’s old teapot and packed it in a box. A tear ran down her cheek.

Vs.

Her mother’s teapot had that little chip on its lid from that from that time when Betty had dropped it. A small flush of shame at how she’d disregarded her mother’s love for the antique back then caused a warm tear to track down her cheek. She missed her mom so much a hollow ache had filled her heart.

Of course it’s important to balance all these details, otherwise your writing will become bogged down with too much description. This is why it’s important to keep in mind only the material that is relevant to progressing the plot. Don’t spend two paragraphs describing a mountain if your character is focused on reaching a meeting for which he is running late.

Here is a fucking fantastic article about characterisation. Don’t say I don’t share useful shiz.

3 INFO DUMP/EXPOSITION/PROLOGUES

I have a little mantra whenever I start a new editing assignment, especially when I’m dealing with fantasy or SF: PROLOGUES MUST DIE. Why? Nine times out of ten, your reader is going to skip the prologue. (Also, consider once your book is up on a vendor’s site that allows readers to preview the first few pages. Imagine that your sucky prologue is the only thing they see.) Seriously, most prologues suck, because the author goes on this whole vibe that makes JRR Tolkien’s Silmarillion look like the latest episode of Game of Thrones.

By the same measure, I’m not saying don’t ever write prologues, but if you absolutely must, go see how some of the big-name authors in your chosen genre have handled prologues (hint: Joe Abercrombie rocks the prologue like it’s no one’s business). Ask yourself what makes the master author’s prologue kick the proverbial butt, then figure out what you should do to yours. (My advice: ditch it.)

Now we get to one of my most notorious editor quirks. Dozens of authors who’ve suffered under the tender mercies of my red pen can attest to my habit of highlighting entire paragraphs (if not pages) and telling them to cut the exposition.

I appreciate that authors often much that they want to impart to readers, but, face it, reams and reams of back story break up the flow of your narrative and it is often dry and dull as bricks thanks to all the facts you are churning out.

So, how do you get around the problem? I suggest slipping in short snippets of info, where relevant. A character might remember a fact when she arrives at a location, or she might tell another person about an occurrence in the past. But here, very, very important: keep these short bursts of information relevant.

Yes, yes, I know many classic authors have often indulged in exposition – and at great length. Why can’t you do it? There’s no can’t, but I advise you to avoid exposition, especially since current trends (thanks to social media) favour those who can communicate succinctly. You might not want your novel to have the same tone as a Wikipedia entry, now would you?

When you do offer bursts of information, be aware that your information is viewed through the lens of your character, and how it pertains to her. Be careful not to have these bits mutate into the author’s voice intruding for the benefit of the reader.

Also, be aware of what I’ve heard termed as “As you know, Bob” type dialogue, where characters, who already know all the facts about the subject they’re discussing, bring them up in dialogue purely for the reader’s benefit.

Here’s a great article about exposition. There are many more out there. Go ask Google.

4 REDUNDANCY

This one is not always an easy habit to catch or break, but if you get used to showing vs. telling your readers what’s happening in your story, you’ll already be a step ahead.

Example:
Brian popped the question, “Will you marry me, Sue?”

Vs.

Brian got down on his knee. “Will you marry me, Sue?”

The second version gives more information and is less repetitive.

Often, writers will clutter their sentences with constructions like the following:
Tabitha begged to differ. She said, “Paul, I don’t think you’re telling the truth.”

Or…

Sally enumerated the reasons why she didn’t want to go to school. “But Ma, I don’t have a clean uniform, they’re having a maths quiz and Betty said she was going to thump me.”

The best way to catch this is if you stop yourself before you tell what happens and then go on to describe it, and the place where I’ve seen this occur the most is in dialogue.

5 FILLER WORDS

They’re not incorrect, and there are times when you feel they’re necessary (for whatever reason) but in general, filer words create a sense of remoteness in your writing. (Not to mention that they make your sentences flop about and lead to repetition.) To create punchier construction you can set about searching and destroying those filler words.

Every time you write the following: he said, she said, I saw, Bob smelled etc.

Example:
Daisy thought about Bill’s illness and it bothered her.

Vs.

Bill’s illness bothered Daisy.

See how much more immediacy you gain? Key words to look for would be “thought” or “felt” or “saw” or “heard” … But the list is longer, and most relate to the senses. Brand these words in your mind so that you can immediately question whether that particular construction is even necessary.

While you’re at it, flag “There was” and “There were” constructions to. Cut them and see how you can rework your sentence to avoid them.

Example:
There were fifty acres under cultivation.

Vs.

Fifty acres were under cultivation.

6 CLICHÉS AND JARGON

These are those wonderful little expressions and word choices that roll off our tongue because hey, that’s how we hear people speak. Within reason, I’d say they’re fine in dialogue, because hey, no one talks perfect English. Your characters *should* find new and unusual ways to mangle the English language. However, I’d suggest avoiding these at all costs in your narrative. Why? ’Cos they’re going to make editors and savvy readers eyeroll like cray-cray.

Some of my favourite examples:
A bull in a china shop.
A fate worse than death.
Avoid like the plague.
A labour of love.
A shot in the dark.
As the crow flies.

Jargon crops up in corporate annual reports… Not to mention terms like “each and every” or “utilisation” … Avoid! Avoid! Avoid! You are writing fiction, not a fecking annual report, mkay?

Go online. Entire lists of these things exist. In fact, some are so obscure you wouldn’t even consider them as clichés.

7 DIALOGUE AND PUNCTUATION

You wouldn’t believe how many books are deal breakers for me just when I see how authors mangle punctuation, especially in dialogue. Really, people, it’s not that difficult to take an hour or so to go online and learn the basics of how to punctuate your dialogue. Also, to learn the difference between a dialogue tag and an action tag.

Dialogue tag:
“Susan is full of poo,” said Emma.

Action tag:
“Susan is full of poo.” Emma made a shooing motion with her hand.

Please, please, please… Learn how to punctuate properly. As editor, I spend a large portion of my time with manuscripts, *just* fixing dialogue. I’m not going to go into exhaustive detail. I am not going to spoon feed you. But I am going to beg and plead. Don’t write under the assumption that it’s the editor’s job to fix your fuck-ups. Your job as author is to ensure that your manuscript is as near to perfect as you can manage it.

If you don’t know something, and don’t have a professional on hand, go ask Google.

8 REPEATED OPENINGS AND WORDS

This one should almost be a no-brainer but it’s amazing what you miss with your own writing. Writers often fall into patterns, especially when it comes to pet words or phrases, or repeated openings. Often these tie in with those pesky filler words.

Be on the lookout especially for sentences that being with “He” or “She”. Those are the most obvious. But also be aware of words that you tend to use often, like “like” or “just” or unusual words like “ebon” or “coruscate”. Unusual words are fine to use once in a document but it’s good to scan a scene and see whether any repetitions jump out and get grabby with your eyeballs.

9 PRESENT PARTICIPLES

I’m not going to go all technical on your ass and delve into gory details as to what exactly a present participle is. Um, hello, Google. Use it. But what I will say is watch out for using verbs or relying on verbs (unless they denote a continuous action) that end in “-ing”. Especially try to avoid sentences that start with present participles. Not only can this become repetitive, so far as authors’ quirks can be, but you can also end up with the dreaded dangling participle (otherwise known as a misplaced modifier). The latter can lead to unintentionally hilarious results.

From time to time you might also hear editors bandy about the term “gerund”. This is when a verb behaves like a noun. Sounds confusing, huh? Well, consider words like building, painting and singing. Depending on how they are used in a sentence, illustrates when a verb.

Example:
I like building. (verb)

Vs.

I live in that building. (noun)

But enough grammar. Google is your friend. If you’re ever in doubt about something, ask Google.

10 IFFY WORDS

Iffy words exist on my permanent “search and destroy” list and my authors often laugh about my tabbed comments that are simply KILL THIS WORD, without any further explanation. These killable words include like, just, actually, practically, literally, suddenly, very, really … there are more, I’m sure, but these are the most common. Nine out of ten times when you remove these words from your sentence, you won’t need to do much to recast for clarity, and your sentence construction will be that much punchier.

By the same measure, you might also find that you have developed pet phrases or adapted pet words that you use far more than any others. Learn to identify them. Burn them with fire.

(For instance, one of mine was “I was certain” – which one of my editors called me out on quite recently, and I’ve now given that a mental red flag every time I catch myself using it.)

It’s not to say that you’re never going to use these words, but when you do, make absolutely certain that it’s for the right reason.

IN CONCLUSION

While I’m not going to give piles and piles of instructions on punctuation and other really terribly dull grammar stuff, I am going to tell you that as an author, it’s your business to learn these things off your own bat. Work to improve constantly. If your spelling is the shiz, find ways to improve it. Ditto for any other aspects. Keep working at it.

There are dozens if not hundreds of fantastic “how to” books and resources out there. You really have no excuse. Not to mention the fact that there are hundreds and thousands of authors, editors and agents out there who can help you on your journey, so long as you ask for help. Educate yourself.

You also don’t need hundreds of dollars for some fancy, weekend-long writers’ course. (They’re nice, but you could spend a fraction of that money on a decent “how to” book rather.) People ask me what they should study, and I’d like to emphasise that while a BA in literature and languages is nice to have, you shouldn’t let the lack of a tertiary qualification keep you from writing.

Wonderful resources exist for free (many universities offer free, online courses) not to mention hundreds of websites and blog where well-meaning professionals share their advice. The only cost is the time and patience on your part to invest in exploring. Join online writers’ communities. Find out whether there’s a writers’ circle in your town or city. If not, start one. See whether your local library will help. Immerse yourself in your craft. Writing is a lifelong journey.

No matter how much money you throw at an editor, they can’t make your writing into an overnight bestseller. The onus remains on you to be a little sponge and absorb all that advice then find ways to apply it. Your first novel may not be a masterpiece. Neither your second nor your third, but so long as you can see a marked improvement, you know you’re on the right track.

There are no guarantees in the publishing industry. It is the bastard child of passion and precision. You are the one mining your dreams and then refining that raw ore into literary gems. Thank goodness we don’t all have the same taste in what’s pretty and glittering. Find your own niche, carve it from the bedrock if you have to. Understand also whether you are writing for your own edification or if it’s for a commercial success. Ask yourself, what do you want? Some are happy writing their weekly blog updates. Others are willing to put in the elbow grease to churn out a romance novel every two months. And another will sit for a decade on a work of literary fiction. It’s not a cookie cutter process.

Congratulations, you’ve reached the end of this essay. My last word is that you don’t need to follow all these rules. In fact, write what you like, but be aware of conventions, and bear in mind why they exist. If you’re happy writing for yourself, that’s fine. No one’s stopping you. But the guidelines are there for a reason, especially if you wish to give yourself an edge over the others in this crazy salmon stream called publishing.

Feel free to mail me at nerinedorman@gmail.com to enquire about my editing rates.

2 Responses to The Editor’s Scalpel Blade

  1. Katrina says:

    Thanks, Nerine. This is one of the most useful posts I’ve ever read on self-editing

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