Editing: Now cut that out!

Issue 61

Editing: Now cut that out!

Six tricks to get you through the editing process

By Loni Emmert

Copyright © 2011, Loni Emmert, All Rights Reserved


I should be used to it. This will be at least the sixth time I've gone through the editing process for novels, short stories and articles that were or will be published so you'd think it would be routine by now. After all, I know how the process works; I know (pretty much) how to make corrections and re-writes, and the relief when it's all done, right?


Wrong. Despite having worked with some great editors in the industry, I still experience several reactions when I see that attachment in my email (or big envelope in the snail mail). The first for me is that gut tightening fear as I open the document that there will be editorial notes from the title to the last page. I call this the Squeamish Syndrome. Then there's the first edit. My first reaction to seeing the very first editing suggestion is always what I like to term The Big Balk. First I mentally justify why that edit shouldn't be there. Then I stop and think "well, okay I can see why you put it there." My last thought is always "yeah, you're right. I see that now." I end up wishing I could put the last thought first every time!


I don't know about other authors, but I'm going to spill my guts on this one. And, considering I'm a crime thriller/mystery writer (among other genre'), it should be easy to blood let a little. Sometimes, the most difficult challenge for me is to just get past that first edit. I tend to get a bit defensive. Okay, more than a bit defensive. This is my baby right? It'll always be my baby whether it's my oldest or youngest and shouldn't I know the story better than anyone else?


Yes and no. Yes, I know the story better than anyone else – heck, I created it. But sometimes you can't see the plotlines for the punctuation…or the contradicting timeline…or the miscalculated age of characters, major and minor. How can I know all this you ask? Because I've made all of these mistakes and they've been pointed out to me by kindly editors who, I am sure, shake their heads as they track changes. Sure you’ve read your manuscript over and over and over again and you still laugh at every witty quip, cry over every sad scene, and get angry over a character's betrayal, but sometimes that's the very crux of the problem. You know the storyline so well that you're literally blinded by that very closeness. I'm not just talking punctuation or incorrect grammar either. I'm talking full on re-writes to make the plotlines make sense. This leads me into another condition: the "OMG I have no idea what I’m doing" state.


So what's the remedy for these maladies of mind and emotions?


Relax. It helps to look at your editor as your friend and realize that he/she IS trying to help you, not hurt you. After all, what exactly is your editor trying to do? Make your writing even better than it is (yes, that is possible!). Don't bristle when you see that first suggestion or edit or cut: instead calm down and walk away for a short while rather than react by getting upset which will delay, or may even derail, your writing efforts. Give yourself a little time to let off that initial steam and then sit back down and open up that manuscript and your mind.


Go to the next edit. If smoke is still coming out of your ears, it really does help to look at the next edit. Slowly, increment by increment, you'll look at the edits and realize that okay, maybe this or that can be changed and then proceed and work on it. It will at least get your creative juices going and you may make better edits than you expect. I often find that my editor does tighten up my storyline, make my dialogue flow better, create more realistic characters and rid my work of unnecessary subplots.


Keep going. Once you've made that first change dive straight in and continue on to the next one while you’ve got a positive surge going. There will be things like punctuation, misspelling, grammar that may seem boring to you, but again, think creatively. Why not use this opportunity to make your sentences and dialogue have an intense impact on your reader? While thinking about your readers think about how you react to major and minor imperfections in other authors' novels and articles. Do you get frustrated by constant or obvious misspelling? Does it invalidate the credibility of the author's writing? It's difficult to take a non-fiction "how-to" book seriously if mistakes pop up that should have been taken care of before final publishing. In fiction, have you ever immersed yourself in a novel or scene only to be yanked back into reality by a spelling error in a character’s name? This can have a damaging impact if you reveal the killer too early because of a typo. These may seem like minor details, but you want to keep that reader coming back don't you? This is where your editor comes in along with your copy editor.


Re-writes can be fun. Even if you think that scene cannot possibly be any better, open up to your editor's suggestions and mull them around in your head for a while. Is it possible you haven't explained an action, time frame, piece of dialogue, or description that is disrupting the logic of your plotline? I've had editors (gently) remind me that "you know what's going on but your reader doesn't." That means look at how the mistake(s) happened. Did you forget to add that bit of information that changes the plot when you had every intention of going back and putting it in on page twelve? Again, this is part of your editor's job reminding you to double check things that may or may not have been clarified during the thrill of writing your novel. Speaking of thrills, once you start fixing your manuscript re-writing can be a joy! You've gotten a second chance to make those scenes and dialogue better and give your reader more enjoyment as well. By the time I get beyond technique and into re-writes I'm usually as or more excited because I get a chance to add, remove, or illuminate those scenes for deeper impact! Lots of times I love my story even more because it's my work made better by not only my editor but me as author as well!


Shoot down the self-doubt monster. Everyone meets the "OMG, I have no idea what I'm doing!" monster. I’ve heard best-selling authors admit there are times when they hate everything they write and experience extreme self-doubt. You do know what you are doing. You've got an editor who likes and respects your work enough to edit and publish it. Don't let self-doubt overtake you. Your work is good and you're only going to get better by practicing not only the act of writing itself but by editing with the people who are trying to help you. It's a collaborative effort for sure but keep in mind that it's your name out there getting top billing and that people are going to recognize and respond to for good or bad. Make sure it's good. The editing process is the chance to do just that.


Ask questions. Don't be afraid of the dreaded dumb question or the need ask for help. The saying is true, there is no such thing as a dumb question. If you don’t know the answer then you need to ask. Editors are experienced professionals and appreciate the opportunity to educate writers. After all, your knowledge and experience makes their job easier. Not only are editors seeing your manuscript with a fresh eye, they will also have fresh suggestions that may answer your plotting queries and even character questions or problems. Feel free to ask for their opinion or ideas on whether your working of a scene or character's personality trait could be improved or reworked to create a semi-masterpiece! At the very least, you'll learn how to deal with situations or problems on your own, both in your current and future work. And in the end, you'll be able to tell yourself to "Now, cut that out!" and mean it.


Loni Emmert is the author of two cozy mysteries and writes articles on writing, reading and related topics. She lives in the Southern California desert and works full time in the entertainment industry.