Monday, May 16, 2011

Editing Tips: Telling Your Story Your Way

by Libby Sternberg

Before putting on the Editor-in-Chief hat at Istoria Books, I edited books for a couple other publishers. I still edit for one of them on a freelance basis.

My editing experiences run the gamut from full-blown line editing, where I make substantive suggestions for changes, to copy editing, where I correct grammar, check facts, and straighten out continuity problems and the like.

Here are some random observations on how to edit your own manuscripts in order to ensure your readers "get" your story, told your way. These suggestions include both the substantial and what might seem like the picayune (and, yes, I, as a writer, have made some of the mistakes mentioned myself):

1. Heed the red lines: When I first typed the line above, I misspelled "picayune." Blogger was helpful enough to underline my mistake in red, alerting me to my error. Most, if not all, word processing programs do the same. Don't ignore these--fix them. You don't need to fix them during your first pass when you're on fire with the passion of creating something wonderful. But surely you can and should correct these mistakes during revision. Often, you'll find these red lines showing under compound words that aren't really compounds -- "voicemail," for example, is not one word, and the little red line tells me so. Why is this important: a few misspellings here or there aren't going to sink your chances of having your manuscript acquired if you've written a gangbusters story. But once your precious work is in the hands of editors, you want them to catch the important stuff--maybe when you said Sally's eyes were blue on page 5 and green on page 75, or maybe where you inadvertently put eight days in a week or forgot that your protagonist's mother is deceased so she can't make an appearance late in the story. The point is, the more you ask an editor to fix, the more chance there is that the editor will miss something important while catching all the little problems. Sure, it's the editor's job to capture all those mistakes, but do you really want to take a chance on having something important slip by because you've left so much to tidy up?

2. Keep track of time, characters and family relationships: This rule is important for the same reason as the one above. The more you ask an editor to fix, the more chance there is she'll miss something else important...or the more chance there is she'll change something in a way you don't like. Sure, you'll probably have an opportunity to okay the editor's changes, but why set yourself up for the back-and-forth with editors that might create tension as well as more mistakes (the more keystrokes, the more possibility for error)? When you are in the revision stage, keep a notepad handy and jot down things such as how many days you account for in the book, whenever you mention a specific day ("on Saturday, he would go into town..."), and character descriptions as well as the preferred spelling of their names (unless you want the editor to choose among several different spellings you use). It's far better for you, the author, to fix these things the way you want them fixed, rather than having an unknown editor suggest changes when deadline pressures allow for little flexibility.

3. Don't clutter the manuscript with names your readers don't need to know: Unless you have a compelling reason to do so, you shouldn't find it necessary to name all characters in your book if they don't play a pivotal role in the plot. So, for example, if your heroine goes for a haircut, you don't need to tell us her hairdresser's name is Sue unless she has a conversation with Sue, (all those "the hairdresser said" lines would get tiresome) or unless Sue is going to show up in some way later. When you name characters, readers subconsciously try to remember them, not knowing if they'll be crucial to the story later on. When you clutter the manuscript with unnecessary names, you clutter the reader's mind with unnecessary information. Keep them focused on the story and the characters you want them to care about.

4. Similarly, don't throw in a bunch of back-story about secondary characters unless it's critical to something in your story: Does your reader really need to know that Sue, the hairdresser, is married to Al, who owns a shop on Main Street that sells custom-built cabinetry? Not unless this info relates to the plot or the tone in some critical way. Sure, it's good for you to know secondary characters' back-stories if you're writing dialogue for them or having them interact with your protagonist. It keeps them real in your own mind, and you're more likely to write them as real people and not caricatures. But your reader doesn't need to know all that information.

5. Avoid the info dump: If you're writing a historical, you might get excited about all the interesting factoids you're coming across concerning the time period and characters you're dealing with. It's a great temptation to write long paragraphs that begin something like this: "In the year blah-blah..." -- sharing those fascinating facts with readers but not in a way that advances the story. It's okay to sprinkle these facts throughout the book, but be careful not to slip into a nonfiction approach to writing fiction.

6. In historicals, be careful of your language: Not every word we use today was in the lexicon back in the day. You might be surprised, in fact, at how many words and terms we use regularly today simply weren't around or in common usage even 80 years ago. There was a wonderful scene in the BBC television series Downton Abbey, set in 1914, when the Dowager Countess mentions a character saying something about his "weekend." Weekend, she commented, what on earth is that? For members of her class at that time, it was a foreign concept. If in doubt, look it up. You don't need to be a purist--after all, you're writing fiction, you will be using contemporary spellings of words, and you are setting up an artifice where characters might express themselves in contemporary terms so today's readers understand and sympathize more easily--but some words jump out at the reader as anachronistic.

7. Do you really need that accent? Having a French character continually use "Z's" for the "th" sounds is not only tiresome, it's a bit lazy. It means you've not tried any other way to communicate the different tone of that particular person. I once edited a book where the author included a Central American woman whose "voice" was vividly conveyed. Every time she "spoke," I could hear her gentle accent. Yet not once did the author use a wrong spelling to convey her accented pronunciation. He did it with sentence structure and word choice. Someone for whom English is a second language might use more formal words--for example, automobile for car, occasionally. If you can convey an accent with these techniques, it keeps the manuscript cleaner and more readable.

8. If you put a gun on the mantel in Act I, someone has to fire it by the end of the story: I'm paraphrasing the great Russian playwright Anton Chekhov. What he means with this advice is that if you include something or someone that is capable of having a dramatic impact on the story, your readers will keep waiting for that impact to occur. They'll keep one eye on that gun on the mantel, in other words, throughout the story. So, for example, if a secondary character appears whose ex-husband is about to be released from jail after serving time for domestic abuse, the reader will reasonably expect that sinister character will have an impact at some point. If you're not going to use that big "gun," don't include it unless you want readers distracted throughout their read as they wait for the "big bang" that never comes. They might even feel cheated if they don't hear it.

Okay, those are my "rules" in a field where there really are no rules. But these are suggestions that might help your story have the impact you're hoping it will have, without readers distracted by small mistakes or big disappointments and without editors changing things in ways you don't like.
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  1. I thought of another suggestion:

    If your plot meanders into areas that strain credulity, acknowledge this to the reader: The reader is along for a good ride. He or she will forgive a lot if you just acknowledge their intelligence. So, if your police detective handles evidence in a way that even sporadic viewers of CSI know is wrong, tell the reader you know it's wrong: "Yes, Rob knew what he was doing was not standard procedure, but he'd used this technique before, avoided trouble and gotten the job done..."

  2. Don't overly describe your characters. Let them do it themselves with dialogue as the story progresses. The Harvard grad is unlikely to say "ain't", but the lowlife ex-con is

    A good way to keep track of characters is by sketching out a family tree, whether they're related or not.

  3. Good ideas, Gary. I also thought of another--try to avoid starting scenes at the END of the scene. Sometimes writers have a tendency to jump to the conclusion of a scene and then do a strange kind of "flashback" to describe the scene. I can understand this technique might sometimes be necessary, but often it happens because the author realizes she wants to capture some moments from the scene itself after she's written a wrap-up of it.