Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Self-Editing: Part 11

(This series begins with Part 1.)

XI. Edit After You Write!

Now for a few closing thoughts, and some of my favorite quotes on this subject. I'm big on quotes, I collect them, and when somebody like Hemingway says a thing, I believe writers do well to listen:
"Most writers slough off the most important part of their trade -- editing their stuff, honing it and honing it until it gets an edge like a bullfighter's killing sword." --Ernest Hemingway

Always remember, though, that the editing comes after the writing. Do not try to edit your stuff while you are writing it! When you're writing fiction, especially, you want your creative, imaginative right brain running wild and free. Don't rein it in. Let it go! Let it soar as far over the top as it wants.

But when you're REwriting, when you're self-editing, call on your logical, analytical, objective left brain. Curb your creative excesses. Cut the parts that are overdone. Polish it up. Check the internal logic of your story. Look at the parts -- chapter by chapter, paragraph by paragraph, word by word.

This division of labor is absolutely essential. If you allow your critical left brain to muscle its way into the creative process, you'll bog down. You'll get terribly frustrated, and you may come to believe that writing is just too hard -- when, in fact, the first-draft creative part of the process should be a pure joy.

Here are some more quotes that will, I hope, help you get in touch with the two halves of your brain and learn to harness the talents of each: the intuitive, imaginative right brain, and the logical, analytical left brain:

From Stephen King:
"Downloading what's in my head directly to the page, I write as fast as I can and still remain comfortable. If I write rapidly, putting down my story exactly as it comes into my mind … I find that I can keep up with my original enthusiasm and at the same time outrun the self-doubt that's always waiting to settle in." --Stephen King (On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft)

From Amanda Jenkins, one of the finest writers I know personally:

"Just write it! The first draft will stink." --A.M. Jenkins (Breaking Boxes, Damage, Night Road)

From Anne Lamott, a well-known novelist and writing teacher:
"The first draft is the down draft—you just get it all down. The second draft is the up draft—you clean it all up." --Anne Lamott (Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life)

OK, that's what I have for you. You've been a wonderful audience. Any questions?


Barron's Essentials of English. Barron's Educational Series, 1990.

The Chicago Manual of Style. 15th edition. University of Chicago Press, 2003.

The Grammar Doctor, http://www.grammardoc.110mb.com/

Gross, Gerald, editor. Editors on Editing: What Writers Need to Know About What Editors Do. Third edition. Grove Press, 1993.

King, Stephen. On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft. Scribner, 2000.

Lukeman, Noah. The First Five Pages: A Writer's Guide to Staying Out of the Rejection Pile. Fireside/Simon & Schuster, 2000.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Self-Editing: Part 10

(This series begins with Part 1.)

X. Subtlety & Pacing

I'm going to talk about these ideas together. Everything we've discussed so far will have an effect on the pacing. You cut out those unnecessary adverbs and adjectives, whittle down your prose to eliminate wordiness, tighten and sharpen your dialogue, write in the active voice instead of the passive, and show the moments of high drama through the characters' words and actions, and you'll have a fast-paced bit of writing.

But when we talk about pacing, we're not talking exclusively about a FAST pace. Here's a quote from Stephen King that speaks volumes:

"Pace is the speed at which your narrative unfolds. There is a kind of unspoken (hence undefended and unexamined) belief in publishing circles that the most commercially successful stories and novels are fast-paced. … Like so many unexamined beliefs in the publishing business, this idea is largely bull-- ..." --Stephen King, On Writing

Noah Lukeman devotes a chapter of his book to the idea of Subtlety. He says:

"A writer who is subtle is in no rush; he can pace himself, prolong tension, suspense and even dialogue for hundreds of pages. He can hint, foreshadow ever so slightly, set things up hundreds of pages in advance. He will often leave things unsaid, may even employ a bit of confusion, and often allow you [the reader] to come to your own conclusions." --Noah Lukeman, The First Five Pages

This idea of subtlety requires the writer to walk a tightrope between saying too little and saying too much. You may often hear your fellow writers argue against subtlety. They might not realize that's what they're doing, but they'll tell you to spell it out, to avoid any possibility of confusion, to put it in your writing in black ink on white paper.

But that approach may lead to beating your reader over the head. You may risk annoying the reader by stating the obvious. By being too heavy-handed. An unsubtle writer often has a tendency not only to tell, but to both tell and show. --Thereby leaving the reader in absolutely no doubt about what the writer intended to convey.

This is something you're going to have to work out for yourself, I believe. It takes practice and experience to know what information must be included for your reader to follow the story, and what you can leave for your reader to wonder about.

If you aspire to be a subtle writer, you must have confidence. As Lukeman puts it:

"Achieving subtlety is all about gaining confidence, not only in yourself but in the reader. … Picture the reader as brilliant, perceptive, having a photographic memory, taking everything in the first time he reads it, able to grasp ideas before you even begin to say them, able to see where things are leading before you begin to lay them out." --Noah Lukeman, The First Five Pages

This is hard, and you may not be comfortable with this idea of letting the reader come to his or her own conclusions. A lot of writers are not. But after I read and digested Lukeman's chapter on subtlety, really gave it some thought in relation to the story I was trying to tell, I went back through my novels and cut, cut, cut. I quit spelling things out. I took out the parts that struck me as too obvious and blatant.

I'm happier with the more cryptic version, the tighter, crisper, faster-moving version that leaves some things unsaid. Experience has taught me the truth of that old saying:

Less is always more.

Next post: Part 11

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Self-Editing: Part 9

(This series begins with Part 1.)

IX. Showing vs. Telling

Many writers have trouble with this notion of showing instead of telling. We may fall into the trap of telling because it's easier to do. It's easy to write: "She was angry." It's harder, and it takes longer, it takes many more words, to write a scene that shows her anger, a scene in which the reader sees her shouting, ranting, bouncing off the walls, throwing things.

This is telling: "They held up the store. Then they escaped in the car. They were chased by the police. They eventually outran the police. They spent the night in a cave."

Each of those sentences could be developed into a fully realized scene that shows what's happening. Instead of 30 words of telling, you might need several chapters to show all of those scenes.

Of course you can't show everything. To keep the pace up, and simply to keep the manuscript to a workable length, you have to tell some parts of the story.

How do you decide what to tell and what to show? A good way to think of the relationship between these two techniques is to think of scene and sequel, or peaks and valleys. You show the scene -- the peak -- then tell during the sequel, or valley.

The scenes, or peaks, are the moments when emotions run high, when action abounds, when your characters are engaged. The sequels or valleys are the less dramatic moments, when it's OK to move your characters along in the story without dramatizing each step of their journey.

Even when you're telling, though, don't write in generalities. Use specific details. Here's an example from B.J. Stone's book, Girl on the Bluff:

"Months went by and I helped in the store." If B.J. had stopped there, we wouldn't have the full picture. But she went on to flesh that out with specifics:

"I put up bags of coffee and tobacco. I handed the soldiers their brass polish when they came in wanting to spruce up for a party or inspection. I swept the dirt floor clean as I could with a straw broom."

The sentence about handing brass polish to the soldiers could have been dramatized and turned into a full-fledged scene. But it wasn't a moment of high emotion or exciting action, so B.J. did it justice in the telling, with no need to show, but with crisp details that convey information.

If this concept seems slippery to you, as it does to many of us, I highly recommend the chapter on "Showing Versus Telling" in Noah Lukeman's book, The First Five Pages. He gives some great examples and talks about stating facts as opposed to telling. They are not the same thing.

When a writer tells us something, the writer may be directing us to a particular conclusion. But when the writer just states facts (and here I mean "facts" in the context of the story you're telling, the reality of the world where your story takes places), we readers are allowed to draw our own conclusions from those facts.

(This ties in with adverbs and adjectives that tell, as opposed to precise nouns and vigorous verbs that show. For more about this idea, see my earlier post on Adjectives and Adverbs.)

The examples in Lukeman's book will get you thinking about different techniques that you may have overlooked.

"When you show instead of tell, where you used to have description you will now have a scene." --Noah Lukeman, The First Five Pages

"Don't say the old lady screamed ... bring her on and let her scream." --Mark Twain

Next post: Part 10

Friday, March 26, 2010

Self-Editing: Part 8

(This series begins with Part 1.)

VIII. Passive vs. Active Voice

Moving on now to a problem I'm seeing more and more: passive voice. In this age of "cover your behind" and take no responsibility for anything, I see writers fall time and again into the trap of passive voice:

It is to be hoped that …
The results were found to be …

Go on. Be brave. Name names. Say WHO is doing the action.

The farmer's wife used her carving knife to cut off the tails of three blind mice.

Write that in the passive voice and we don't know who did the deed:

The tails of three blind mice were cut off with a carving knife.

Using the passive voice can become a bad habit. Take care not to fall into it.

Passive: The leaves were blown by the wind.
Active: The wind blew the leaves.

Passive: There were a great number of dead leaves lying on the ground.
Active: Dead leaves covered the ground.

Passive: It wasn't long before he was aware that what he had done had been an error.
Active: He soon realized his mistake.

Use the active voice to make your sentences stronger, shorter, and more direct. Don't beat around the bush. Don't be a timid writer!


I'm not going to spend much time on pronouns, I'll just emphasize that pronouns need clear antecedents. Again, this is best shown by example. Here are several taken from Barron's Essentials of English:

The dog lost its bone. (Its is the pronoun; the dog is the antecedent.)

Do you want a small cone or a large one?
(One is the pronoun; cone is the antecedent.)

Wilson tried to calm his wife's fears. He found this harder than he expected.
(This is the pronoun; the sentence about calming fears is the antecedent.)

Notice that confusion can arise when you use a pronoun and don't make it clear what or who the pronoun is referring back to. Don't name three women in one sentence, for example, and then expect your reader to know which of the three is meant by the pronoun she in the next sentence. It's not clear.

Mary told Lucy that Alice had stolen the tarts. She left in a huff. ("She" could mean any one of the three women.)

For a few more examples and tips, see The Blood-Red Pencil.

Next post: Part 9


Thursday, March 25, 2010

Self-Editing: Part 7

(This series begins with Part 1.)

VII. Dialogue

Read your dialogue out loud. Does it sound natural? Like real people talking? Or more to the point, like really interesting real people talking? You don't want commonplace dialogue -- characters taking up space saying empty things like "Hi, how are you?" and "Fine, how are you?"

Noah Lukeman writes in The First Five Pages: "The presence of commonplace dialogue means the manuscript as a whole will need a lot of cutting: if there is one extraneous line of dialogue on the first page, by the rule of manuscripts, you will also find one extraneous line on each page to come."

If you're writing fiction -- and I realize that many of the examples I've given you do seem to apply mostly to novelists and writers of short stories, but I hope you nonfictioneers are also getting something out of this. Problems with adjectives and adverbs and overusing commas can be just as deadly in factual writing ...

Anyway, when you're writing dialogue, be especially critical of it. Write it as the natural outcome of the characters' needs, desires, and relationships. Don't use it to dump information on the reader or, worse, use it just to break up long passages of narrative.

As Lukeman says:
"Dialogue is a powerful tool, to be used sparingly, effectively and at the right moment."
I'm a great admirer of Ursula Le Guin. (If you don't know her work, go get the Earthsea books; you'll be swept away.) I'm drawing my example of good dialogue from her collection called Tales From Earthsea. This is dialogue that does what it should. Study the excerpt shown below and see all that it does.

We learn the personalities of father and son. The son is quiet, he doesn't say much. He's subject to his father's will, but he's hoping that his old man will stop pressuring him. The father is obviously conflicted: proud of his son's gift, but disappointed that it doesn't make the boy suitable to follow in his dad's footsteps in the family business. And the father is also a bit in awe of his child's talents. We learn so much from that dialogue, and the whole exchange rings true. Believable personalities are revealed.

Also study this passage for examples of how to punctuate dialogue, and how to break up the speaking with a little action. People move around, gesture, pause. They don't just stand and talk.

The next morning Golden told his son again that he must think about being a man.

"I have thought some about it," said the boy, in his husky voice.


"Well, I," said Diamond, and stuck.

"I'd always counted on your going into the family business," Golden said. His tone was neutral, and Diamond said nothing. "Have you had any ideas of what you want to do?"


"Did you talk at all to Master Hemlock?"

Diamond hesitated and said, "No." He looked a question at his father.

"I talked to him last night," Golden said. "He said to me that there are certain natural gifts which it's not only difficult but actually wrong, harmful, to suppress."

The light had come back into Diamond's dark eyes.

"The master said that such gifts or capacities, untrained, are not only wasted, but may be dangerous. The art must be learned, and practiced, he said."

Diamond's face shone.

"But, he said, it must be learned and practiced for its own sake."

Diamond nodded eagerly.

"If it's a real gift, an unusual capacity, that's even more true. A witch with her love potions can't do much harm, but even a village sorcerer, he said, must take care, for if the art is used for base ends, it becomes weak and noxious ... Of course, even a sorcerer gets paid. And wizards, as you know, live with lords, and have what they wish."

Diamond was listening intently, frowning a little.

"So, to be blunt about it, if you have this gift, Diamond, it's of no use, directly, to our business. It has to be cultivated on its own terms, and kept under control -- learned and mastered. Only then, he said, can your teachers begin to tell you what to do with it, what good it will do you. Or others," he added conscientiously.

There was a long pause.

"I told him," Golden said, "that I had seen you, with a turn of your hand and a single word, change a wooden carving of a bird into a bird that flew up and sang. I've seen you make a light glow in thin air. You didn't know I was watching. I've watched and said nothing for a long time. I didn't want to make too much of mere childish play. But I believe you have a gift, perhaps a great gift. When I told Master Hemlock what I'd seen you do, he agreed with me. He said that you may go study with him in South Port for a year, or perhaps longer."

"Study with Master Hemlock?" said Diamond, his voice up half an octave.

"If you wish."

"I, I, I never thought about it. Can I think about it? For a while -- a day?"

"Of course," Golden said, pleased with his son's caution. He had thought Diamond might leap at the offer, which would have been natural, perhaps, but painful to the father, the owl who had -- perhaps -- hatched out an eagle.

-- From "Darkrose and Diamond," Tales From Earthsea, copyright 2001 by Ursula K. LeGuin

Next post: Part 8

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Self-Editing: Part 6

(This series begins with Part 1.)

VI. Look and Listen

Now for the hard part. You've used your computer to find obvious problems such as too many "ly" adverbs, too many "-ing" words, and overuse of commas. That sort of thing can be done almost on autopilot.

But now you have to engage your brain—specifically, your objective, analytical left brain. You have to try to read what you've written as though somebody else wrote it.

This is hard. To do it, you need distance. Put your writing away for as long as you can. Forget about it. Work on other projects. Take a vacation. Get a new job. Do whatever you can to occupy your brain with other stuff.

I have to admit that I couldn't see my own fantasy novels with any sort of objectivity until I'd put them aside for a couple of years. And I'm an editor by training and experience. But even though I should have been able to call on my workday skills to edit my own work as objectively as I edit other people's, I could not do it until a considerable space of time had gone by.

What can you do to get some distance, if you can't leave your work sitting untouched for years? What I'm about to suggest may meet with skepticism from some of you, but if you'll try it I think you'll see that it does work.

Give It a Fresh Look

Print out your manuscript in a different font than you usually use, and with wider or narrower margins than the typical 1 inch. What this does is trick your brain into thinking it's seeing writing it's never seen before.

When you've worked on a manuscript for ages, and read it again and again, your brain begins to believe that the words it's seeing BELONG in certain positions on the page. The third sentence of the second paragraph ends with the phrase "was strong." That sentence has always ended with those words, since the first draft. Your brain now expects to see those words in that position. It doesn't question them.

The whole point of editing your writing is to question EVERYTHING. How can you do that, if your brain is completely comfortable with the words it's seen on the page, reading after reading?

By using your computer to find and eliminate predictable problem spots, you've already changed your manuscript, at least a little. Now change it further. Set it up in a different font and with different margins, print it out, and it will look much fresher to your critical gaze. Your brain will be jolted out of its complacency. What was old will be new again.

Here's a great quote from a therapist that makes the point elegantly:

"Change will lead to insight far more often than insight will lead to change."
-- Hypnotherapist Milton Erickson, quoted in the London Times

Think Efficiency

As you read your fresh, new, changed manuscript, continue to look for unnecessary adjectives and adverbs, anything your "ly" and comma searches didn't catch. Look for wordiness. It helps to read your writing out loud. Your ear will catch some wordy patches that your eye may miss.

Think "efficiency." Be ruthless in cutting unnecessary words.

"Is every 'he said' or 'she said' absolutely necessary? Are three adjectives really needed? How can you delete clich├ęs and create new ways to express familiar actions and ideas? Does each sentence really say what you intend it to say?"
-- Greg Tobin, "Editing Male-Oriented Escapist Fiction," in Editors on Editing, edited by Gerald Gross (Grove Press)
Concentrate on narrative threads and dispose of minor details that hinder strong forward momentum.

"On the re-read, I'm looking for what I meant, because in the second draft I'll want to add scenes and incidents that reinforce that meaning. I'll also want to delete stuff that goes in other directions."
-- Stephen King, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft

Next post: Part 7

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Self-Editing: Part 5

(This series begins with Part 1.)

V. Commas

You've used your computer's Find feature to search for "ly" adverbs and "-ing" words. Now search for commas.

This is tedious. The sheer monotony of it should encourage you to eliminate every comma that isn't absolutely necessary for clarity or grammatical correctness.

As far as the grammar goes, be aware that the "rules," such as they are, can vary with the style. Contemporary writing tends toward a more open style, with commas omitted that might be expected in a formal or literary style. The Chicago Manual, the stylebook most in use in the publishing world, says of the comma:

"There are a few rules governing its use that have become almost obligatory. Aside from these, the use of the comma is mainly a matter of good judgment, with ease of reading the end in view."

So look at all of your commas and remove as many of them as you can without creating ambiguities. Use commas to make meanings clear, but remember that a comma makes a reader pause, if only briefly. The headlong, superheated pace that many editors want to see in today's commercial fiction argues against overusing commas. Any place in your writing where you find commas clustering thickly, weed several of them out.

Using your computer to search for commas has an added benefit: it will find strings of adjectives and adverbs -- those desperate attempts by the writer to convey to the reader exactly what the writer is thinking or seeing.

The "hot, dry, bright and dusty day."
The "big, heavy, metal gun."
The "pale, confused, startled face."
The door opening "slowly, cautiously, squeaking, rattling and shaking."

I didn't make these up. They are examples of overdone writing from Noah Lukeman's book, The First Five Pages. If you're serious about your writing, you must read Lukeman's book. Heeding his advice will put you far down the road toward getting published or getting better published.

The section on commas in the Chicago Manual of Style runs for 16 pages. We don't have time to cover everything. There is one mistake, though, that I see quite often. People tend to put a comma before a verb -- thinking, I suppose, that it contributes to clarity. But it's wrong to write something like:

"Seven kayakers on the Zigzag River
, drowned during yesterday's thunderstorm."

You don't need that comma. Take it out.

But notice: "Seven kayakers, from a party of twelve, drowned in the Zigzag during yesterday's thunderstorm."

The commas in that sentence are setting off a phrase that's located between the subject and the verb. Take out that phrase and it's still a complete sentence: "Seven kayakers drowned in the Zigzag during yesterday's thunderstorm."

In your searching for commas, if you find one before a verb, make sure it's supposed to be there.

Here's a variation on the same theme: A comma should not be used after an introductory phrase that immediately precedes the verb it modifies:

Correct: Out of the automobile stepped a short man in a blue suit.
Correct: In the doorway stood a man with a summons.

You would not put a comma before "stepped" or "stood."

For a good review of when and where to use commas, try "seven easy steps to becoming a comma superhero" from The Writing Center, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Next post: Part 6

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Self-Editing: Part 4

(This series begins with Part 1.)

IV. -ing Words

After using your computer to search for "ly" adverbs, then search for "-ing" words. This can be tedious -- you'll find "thing," "ring," "string" and other perfectly innocent words when what you're hunting for are verb-like words that end in -ing. These "ing" words often cause trouble. You may find you're using them to "back into" too many sentences:

Flipping her hair off her shoulder, Alice turned to go. Reaching the door, she paused. Turning to face him again, she started to speak. Thinking better of it, she stormed out.

A long string of sentences like these will drive a reader nuts. Rewrite to eliminate at least three-fourths of these sorts of "ing" opening phrases.

Also check for "danglers" that don't quite say what you meant:

Being late to work, the boss fired her.
[The boss wasn't late. She was.]

Lying in the hammock, it struck her that Bob was OK.
[A hammock with a temper?]

While walking his dog, the fire alarm sounded.
[Talented fire alarm!]

Every time you find yourself using an "-ing" word to back into a sentence, consider rewriting it in solid subject-verb-object form. The result is usually clearer and crisper:

Running to the stable, he mounted his horse. He mounted while he was running? While the horse was running? It's muddy. Simpler to say: He ran to the stable and mounted his horse.

Reaching for his gun, he fired several shots into the air. Try switching those two phrases and you'll immediately see the problem: Firing several shots into the air, he reached for his gun. Just keep it simple and direct: He drew his gun and fired.

Crossing the stream, she tripped. Problem 1: It's unclear. Did she trip while crossing the stream, or after crossing? Problem 2: It's telling, not showing. This is a weak sentence that describes action that would be better shown: She waded into the freezing water. The current caught her midstream, slamming her off her feet.

Use the Find feature to locate your -ing words, and study each carefully. Recast any sentences you're backing into, any sentences that are unclear. I don't mean that you should eliminate all -ing words. But you should consider the value of each one, and choose carefully which to keep, which to rewrite.

Here's a brief "-ing" opening that works:
Turning, he lifted the blackjack from the low shelf and slammed it on the counter.

With the emphasis moved to the "-ing" words, however, the sentence becomes weak and far less effective:

He turned his head, lifting the blackjack from the low shelf and slamming it on the counter.

Next post: Part 5

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Self-Editing: Part 3

(This series begins with Part 1.)

III. Adverbs

Stephen King says the road to hell is paved with adverbs. Noah Lukeman, an agent whose clients include Pulitzer Prize nominees and American Book Award winners, says in his excellent book, The First Five Pages, that one of the quickest and easiest ways for an editor or an agent to decide to reject a manuscript is to look for the overuse, or misuse, of adjectives and adverbs.

DO NOT think that you can bring your nouns and verbs to life by piling on the adjectives and adverbs. Adverbs and adjectives seldom add vigor, but they are quite good at leeching the life from writing.

Use the Find feature on your computer to search for "ly" adverbs. Just type in the two letters, LY, and hit "Find." You'll catch other words like "family" and "lying," but you'll mostly turn up the weeds, the leeches, like "actually," "really," "fully," "hopefully," "apparently."

Look hard at each of those and cut all of them that you possibly can. Maybe you do need them in some cases, but much of the time they can come out, and your writing will be stronger for it.

Searching for "ly" adverbs will show you if you're prone to sticking adverbs onto identifiers: He said wearily. She said hastily. "Said" is a nearly invisible word to the reader; the eyes skim over "he said," "she said." Don't slow the reader (and the dialogue) by tacking adverbs onto "said."

Sometimes, though, we writers do get mighty tired of "said" and want to spice it up. Do so sparingly, and do it with strong verbs, not with adverbs tacked on:

She snapped -- Not -- She said sharply
He yelled -- Not -- He said loudly

Thin to an absolute minimum "ly" adverbs throughout the text. Replace them with strong verbs.

She raced -- Not -- She ran quickly
He scoured -- Not -- He searched thoroughly


Next post: Part 4

Friday, March 5, 2010

Self-Editing: Part 2

(continued from Part 1)

II. Using Both Sides of Your Brain

But, you say, you're terrible at editing your own work. You just can't see the mistakes. You wrote it, so you think it's wonderful. You can't see anything to change or any reason to change it.

Go Inside Your Skull

I suggest that the first step toward shaking yourself out of this notion is to take a look at the structure of the human brain. This may help you to better understand the resistance that you're encountering inside your own skull. We humans are split-brained creatures.

We have a creative right side:
  • The right side of the brain is the intuitive, imaginative side. It trusts gut feelings.
  • It works randomly, jumping from task to task.
  • It sees the big picture.
  • It forms mental images or impressions that may be hard to break down into their constituent parts and put into words. If you can see images of your story inside your head and you think it should be so easy to describe what you're seeing, easy to translate those images onto the paper because the pictures in your head are so vivid, but you find yourself having a terrible time capturing that imagery with words, then that's an indication that you may be a strongly right-brained person.
We also have a logical left side:
  • The left side of the brain reasons things out. It's analytical and critical.
  • It works sequentially, doing things in order.
  • It sees the parts, the details, piece by piece.
  • It uses words easily. It's the side that memorizes the rules and mechanics of grammar.

There's a quick and fun Hemispheric Dominance test you can take online. Answer the questions honestly without trying to skew the results, and it'll give you a pretty good idea of which side of your brain is dominant. I answered 11 of the questions as a right-brain thinker and 8 as a left-brain thinker. That means I'm fairly well balanced.

It's that balance, I believe, that's led me down the career path I've had. With a journalism degree, my first job out of college was as a newspaper copyeditor. That's analytical work. Then I moved into magazines, as both an editor and a feature writer. And these days I write long, complicated fantasy novels for fun and, I'm hoping, profit. I've got three nonfiction books to my credit, but my new novels are my first adventures in fiction.

A Bit About Me

Quick aside here: I'd be crazy to come to a writers' conference and not mention my own books. That would be unnatural. So here, briefly, are the books I've had published: two of Texas history for adults, The LH7 Ranch and A Century in the Works; one for young readers, Trail Fever.

And my novel-in-progress, with no cover to show off yet because it's not published yet. But I have to brag on it. Waterspell has done well in contests, it's won me a bit of money and gotten good comments from the judges. Its performance in contests has attracted some interest from agents. My hopes are high.

OK, end of shameless self-promotion. I'm a writer by choice, but to make the main part of my living, I edit. For 25 years I've been a freelance editor for the publishing arm of a national nonprofit organization. And in my editing work, I use my logical left brain.

Nuts and Bolts

Examining the details—the individual word choices, the spelling, punctuation, grammar—that stuff is left-brain work. Notice that the left side tends toward memorizing and applying "rules" of grammar. But the right side says: "Don't bother me with rules. I want examples. I want to see things in context. I wanna see examples of mistakes alongside the right way to do it."

This is how I think. I long ago forgot the rules of grammar. Couldn't tell you what a participle was if my life depended on it. But show me an example of a participle, and I'll say sure, I see those things all the time.

Some examples from Barron's Essentials of English are in your handout.
  • Present participle: "Arriving early, they smiled with embarrassment."
  • Present participle in the perfect form: "Having arrived early, they decided to wait for their host."

Don't we all see sentence structures like these all the time? And don't they usually make you cringe? They may be grammatically correct, but they can be clumsy.

So here's the deal. To follow and understand the editing tips and tricks I'm about to go over with you, you do NOT need to know what the word "participle" means. You don't need to know what the word "gerund" means. I'm going to assume that most of you have long ago forgotten the terminology that grammarians apply to the language you use every day.

It is perfectly possible to know grammar without knowing about grammar. Do you see the distinction? You can know, through your personal experience with the language, that you can't write: "Verbs has to agree with their subjects." You know that sentence is wrong, even if you don't remember some English teacher talking about "agreement of subject and verb."

All I ask today is that you know what I mean when I talk about nouns, verbs, adjectives, and adverbs. If you're attending a writers' conference, you probably do know what nouns, verbs, adjectives, and adverbs are. But just in case, and to avoid embarrassing anyone with a show of hands, I've put the definitions in your handouts

Next post: Part 3

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Self-Editing: Part 1

Self-Editing: Two Half Brains Make a Whole Writer

This month I'm posting the transcript of a program I presented as a guest speaker at a writers' conference held at Tarrant County College in Hurst, Texas. The transcript will take me several postings to present in its entirety. I had a lot to say on this subject.

I. Intro: Why Self-Edit?

Why self-edit? If there are editors working at publishing houses who are paid to edit what writers write, then why do we need to worry about editing our own work?

Let me read you what a couple of highly successful authors had to say during a panel discussion sponsored by the Authors Guild
in New York. This was in their quarterly bulletin.

"There's not a whole lot of editing going on in the publishing world these days. Editors are very, very busy and they're strapped for time, as we all know. I'm lucky that I have a very good editor now, but in previous projects there just wasn't time. So you either hire someone to do it or you do it yourself." —Hampton Sides, author of Ghost Soldiers

"I definitely agree with Hampton that there is precious little editing going on, and if you're lucky enough to have an editor who will rip your book apart and tell you why, that's a very good thing." —Dava Sobel, author of Galileo's Daughter and Longitude

The Exception: Children's Publishing

Children's book editors sometimes tend toward the other extreme. Instead of neglecting to edit, they may rework a story with such total abandon that the book that finally gets published bears little resemblance to the story the author set out to tell. I know of a couple of instances of children's books coming out quite different from the authors' originals. Not necessarily better, mind you, just different. Covered with the editors' fingerprints.

The Ideal Editorial Philosophy

I'm both a writer and an editor, I make my living doing both, and on neither side of the editorial desk do I have much use for that kind of invasive, heavy-handed editing. I'm a follower of the Betty Ballantine philosophy. She was a legendary editor known by everyone who wrote or read in the science fiction field. She said: "To me, the essence of editing lies in helping the author say what he wants to say in the way he wants to say it." That's my approach when I edit the work of other writers.

The Reality: A Case Study

Anyway, children's books are pretty much the only genre in which editors are still heavily involved in actual editing. In other genres, particularly mass market these days, the work that gets published is what comes off the writer's hard drive.

I carry
around this book [a paperback that I won't identify here] as a horrible example of what happens when both the editor and the author care so little about the work that neither of them bothers to edit it. This is a fantasy published by [big-name NY publisher]. I've blanked out the title and the author's name, because my purpose here isn't to embarrass the writer. This is his first book, and his newness shows.

Essentially what [big-name NY publisher] did was to publish this fellow's rough draft, without editing it. But when I bought the book, I didn't realize it had never been edited. I was interested in reading it, at first, to get insights into the kind of fantasy that [big-name] would publish.

Well, let me set out for you a typical example of the writing in this novel. We see our hero preparing to climb a tree. As he stands at the foot of the tree: "He unbuckled his scabbard and started to climb." Up the tree he goes. At the top, the hilt of his sword gets snagged. At this point: "He unbuckled his scabbard and tossed the sword up onto the bank."

I ask you: how many scabbards was our hero wearing? How can he unbuckle at the foot of the tree, and then unbuckle yet again, with the author using the exact same five words, at the top of the tree?

That's just sloppy work. In the space of a single paragraph, the writer should have kept track of what his character was doing with that scabbard. It's a goof that the writer should have caught, and if any editor had actually laid eyes on this story before publishing it, the editor would have caught it.

Four pages later, we find this: "Though he had on a heavy woolen shirt, he was sweating after only a few hundred yards."

Huh? "Though he had on a heavy woolen shirt"—in spite of wearing a heavy woolen shirt—"he was sweating." Lapse of logic there. Any half-decent editor would have changed that to "Under his heavy woolen shirt, he was sweating."

I threw this book across the room at page 104. Piled on top of the uncountable errors of punctuation and grammar that had come before, the goofs about the scabbard and the woolen shirt just finished it for me. I wasn't going to waste time reading a book that the author and editor hadn't taken time to edit.

So there's the proof. You cannot necessarily count on getting any editing, half-decent or otherwise, from a publisher, even a major house. If you don't want somebody like me going around to conferences holding up your book in a brown paper bag as a horrible example of bad editing, then you must be prepared to edit your work yourself.

And of course, if you clean up and polish your manuscript before submitting it, you'll have a much better chance of catching an editor's eye in the first place. Editors want to know that you care enough about your writing to make it the best that you can, before they ever see it.

Next post: Part 2