Friday, April 27, 2012

Tips on How to Edit

Ever had someone ask you to edit for them?

Let's say you have. Now you're wondering, with two hands full of manuscript, just what you're supposed to do. Should you take out every book on writing? Should you describe in detail every piece of advice you've ever been given?

Yes, but no.

When someone asks for an edit, it's important to know what they're asking for. This is big: are they really ready for an edit, do they want proofreading only, or are they looking for encouragement? If it's the latter, disregard all this and tell them it's fantastic. If they actually expect feedback, mention a grammar error or two. But don't tell them it's ready to publish unless it really is.

Proofreading and style edits are for mechanical issues. These are things such as spelling, grammar, and style help, and are very tedious to make. You'll cover things such as adverbscomma rules, and that vs which. I won't say don't do them; they are very useful and will probably put the writer forever in your debt. Just know that you're basically going to be writing targeted grammar lessons, and the work will be very tedious.

'Editing' in the general sense is mostly about the bigger picture. This is about how to improve the manuscript as a whole. Here's my advice on editing the manuscript that means so very much to someone you obviously care about (if you're willing to edit for them!) These are only recommendations, but hopefully, it'll give you someplace to begin.

First off:

Read the story. Unless anything noticeably jars you out of it, try not to make too many editorial notes - focus on writing down your emotional reactions instead. This is helpful to a writer trying to bring forth a desired effect, and will help your writer make sure what you feel is what she wants you to feel.

Okay, done? Have you read from beginning to end? Now go back to the beginning. I bet there are things you'll see this time through that didn't make sense the first time, aren't there? That's why you read the whole story. Now you know what to look for.

Macro edits

Macro: big. As in, storyline. These are the important edits. What is essential to telling the story? Where does the writer deviate - and is it a worthwhile deviation? Here is where you make notes on the big issues, the plot issues.

Make note of sections where you're not deeply involved in the story - maybe the pace is slow, maybe the character is doing something that isn't sensible. It's important to point these things out. As a writer, would you rather have a friend (or trusted beta) call your main character TSTL (too stupid to live), or would you rather have the entire Internet mocking?

Look out for plot holes and time twists, mismatched mathematics and overarching errors. If a writer consistently makes the same mistake (whether it be frequent head-hopping or a character whose hair color accidentally changes every other chapter), note that. Offer advice on how to fix these errors. Macro edits are things that are a big-honking-deal, things that affect the story as a whole or entire scenes, not just a line or two.

Your focus at this point should be on plot, not on mechanics. If there's a style or mechanical mistake that the writer makes consistently, such as misuse of which, you can make a note. Indicate that it applies to the story as a whole; don't waste your time pointing out every instance it happened. (Pointing it out every time falls under proofreading, not editing.)

Note the best parts!

Also make note of anything you really like. This is just as important as noting errors. A writer should know his or her strength. This makes those good sections more likely to reoccur, and tells a writer when she's doing well. Try to have at least one positive note for every improvement note.

Micro edits

Micro: small. As in grammar and style edits, these are actually among the least important edits - although they're still important. They should not be the focus of your edits; these are things the writer needs to fix before publication, but will probably have plenty of time to get to after she finishes her macro edits. Consider the following:

You misspelled "loofa" -  should be "loofah," or maybe "lufah."

I kinda got lost in this section. Why is your character taking a shower when she knows there's a murderer in the castle with a penchant for shower-stabbing? It would be more logical for her to go to the group baths, or get a buddy or a trusted maid to help. Or, you know, not shower when there's a psycho running around.

Then the writer, seeing the sense in the latter advice, deletes the entire shower scene and has her hero go down to the women's public baths in town to bathe (where they only use washcloths) before she gets ready for the ball so that she can pretend nothing's wrong to the oblivious prince, so he won't confiscate her castle.

How important is it that loofah is spelled correctly? Not really. If you take out that scene, it doesn't matter in the least.

On the other hand, it's also possible that the writer might write a maid into the scene to watch the heroine's back as she showers. In this case, there's still a loofah, and you don't want the writer to embarrass herself by submitting a story with obvious misspellings. Don't ignore the microedits. Just remember that it's the macros that will get the story in shape.

Be tactful, but be honest.

"You should rewrite the entire story in 3rd person, and never use parallelisms because you can't do them well" is probably over the top, sorry. "Have you thought about writing in third person? I think it would give you better flexibility" is perfectly acceptable.

Again, don't be afraid to say something that doesn't work. "This scene doesn't make sense to me" or "this dialogue doesn't sound natural to me" are both also examples of decent feedback. These are things the writer needs to know. And if possible, give explanations - "because people don't usually names in dialogue and they keep saying one another's name" or "I thought he had a hammer in the last scene; why is he fighting with a sword? Also, I don't think it's particularly realistic for a 3rd grader to be able to bench press an ogre. Plus, I think the ogre has three feet here." These details help the writer avoid the same mistakes (usually) in the future.

Send it back

Send the edits back to the writer. Either she'll make them or she won't - at the end of the day, it's her story. She might have something different in her head than you have in yours. Don't be offended at any advice that doesn't get taken. If there are things you'd want done differently - well, pick up that keyboard and start writing! It's not your job to write this novel you've edited; that responsibility belongs to the original author, as does the final say in any changes.

Remember, it's not worth losing a friendship over.

Last notes

Be careful about parroting advice. A lot of writers have taken creative writing courses; chances are, they've heard the advice before (I bet you've heard this one: "Never, ever use an -ly word!"), and hearing it from someone else doesn't make it more likely to be followed. Repeating it frequently won't help, either, and might make your writer friend less likely to listen to your advice in the future. That's not to say it's bad advice. Make a note once of a good source for a reader to go to for help, if necessary, but also remember that a creative writing instructor can only teach one thing: how to write like that instructor. There's more than one valid style in the world - take Tolkien and Rowling.  Don't sweat the small stuff - make a note and move on.

Also remember that every writer has his or her own particular style. Don't completely edit out another writer's style if you can help it. There will always be a line or two you think could be better, but that the writer prefers her way.  In writing, it isn't "my way or the highway" - otherwise, Tolkien and Rowling would never be able to both be published. Mark grammar edits that are genuinely wrong, of course! But try to keep an eye out for what's actually an error, and what's just a difference in styles. While a note of "I'd do it this way myself" isn't out of line, chances are structural style notes will be ignored. And that's okay.

And that's okay.
It wasn't a mistake; I meant to spell it as karat.
It shows how much it means to the hero, see?

Ever been asked to edit a manuscript? What advice can you offer other editors?


  1. Nice run-down, Becky. I'd like to add that, on a first read, tracking your questions and predictions for how the story will go is a helpful resource when it comes to showing the author what expectations and questions they've set up in the current text (for some readers, anyway).

    1. Love that idea! If the reader is asking the wrong questions, it might be a sign that the writer needs to reorder and maybe rewrite a couple of scenes. And sometimes it gives a depth to your story you didn't even see when you wrote it yourself that you can develop elsewhere.

  2. Great post! We follow a lot of these in our writing group, at least in theory. But, because we're usually critiquing small pieces of a work, or short stories, it's hard to get the "macro" view when we have a chapter of a novel.

    1. Thanks for dropping by, Alice! You're right; with shorter works, sometimes all you can focus on are the microedits and general macro issues like persistent bad habits and inconsistent character behavior. Short stories are the hardest for me - They're in my opinion harder to write than full-length novels, and it seems like every word has to count for at least 3 purposes!