Did you recently finish writing a novel? Or, did you finish one a while ago and now you’re sitting on the manuscript, dreading going into the editing phase? I’m with you, on both counts. I have a few manuscripts that are completed, manuscripts I’m just sitting on until I have the oomph to actually edit them. Which means that I’m also always just about to enter a new round of editing.
So I might be just the person to tell you a bit about what goes into those edits, and the things you should be looking for as you train your eye in the art of editing. All month long, let’s discuss, shall we?
Training the eye to edit (part 1)
I’m going to be talking on two points, today. Not because they go together at all, but because they’re both equally as important, and I thought the rest of my series would make more sense if I got both of these points out of the way from the start.
1. Grammar, Word Usage, and Sentence Structure
Of course, these are the main things you probably already know you should be looking for. We all know one of the biggest pet peeves of readers is finding grammar errors in their favorite author’s books (I don’t know why it bothers them—there’re typographical errors in every document ever written). You can see how much that annoys me, I’m sure.
I’ve digressed. See, grammar and word usage are two of the biggest things you need to train your eye to edit. I know you know the difference between their, they’re, and there, but can you spot them on a page full of hundreds of other words? Can you find the teeny tiny incorrect punctuation mark amidst the chaos of your longest paragraph? I couldn’t, when I started out. But over the years, I’ve trained my eye to find them, wherever possible.
Word usage is another matter. All of us have words we love, specific words we adore and love to use as often as we can—unfortunately, a lot of those words also have tendency to jump off the page, in the eyes of our readers. Take myriad, one of the words I adore. It’s not a word we hear all the time, not a word we’re accustomed to reading or hearing on a daily basis, so when we do read it, it jumps off the page in an instant. That’s not something we want. That’s something that draws attention to the writing itself, and away from the story within the words. We want our readers to be immersed in our story, not in the words we used. Realistically, we don’t even want them to recognize the words at all. What we really want is for them to envision the world and the scenes we’ve created, without ever reading something that pulls them out of that word.
In the same way, we need to watch the way we structure our sentences. And I know this one can be difficult. I have this problem, in all my books, where I tend to write sentences with the exact same structure over and over again. That can get old, and is something you need to train your eye to find. Look at your sentences with scrutiny, searching for ways to vary your sentences. Use fragments. Add run-ons when you think they’re necessary. Remember, you’re writing a book: many of the sentence structure rules you learned in school can be thrown out the window. Just make sure the story is well-written, and that your sentences aren’t a thing that pull readers out of your story.
Because whatever you do, make sure your readers remain immersed in your world. Don’t break the bubble you’re creating on your pages, the bubble in which you’ve made your story take place.
2. Over explaining the simple stuff (and under explaining the complex stuff)
This is something I’ve been working on, too. I have a tendency, in my writing, to go into far too much detail on things that don’t really matter—which breaks one of the cardinal rules of writing. Don’t give it much detail unless it’s important. It’s a good rule of thumb, in general, while you’re writing. And it’s something you can train yourself to get better at while you’re writing, as well. But, if you’re like me and you just want to describe like crazy, then learning to fix it while you’re editing works just as well.
See, sometimes we get an image in our mind and we really want to show it to our readers. We really want our readers to see everything exactly the way we see it, even if that thing we’re describing doesn’t matter in the long run. On the other hand, sometimes we don’t describe things when we really ought to. Our character is using a tool we invented for our story, but we spend zero time to say what it looks like or even what it does, so that our readers has no chance to really understand it.
Either one is a bad option, and therefore becomes something we must train our eyes to look for, both when we’re writing and when we’re editing.
Genre, however, will play a large role in determining how much you describe in your book. For instance, if you’re a thriller writer, you’ll probably only describe very specific things, things to drive the tension forward. If you’re a romance writer, you might focus on the romantic nature of things. But if you’re like me and you’re a sci-fi or fantasy writer, your readers will expect you to add a fair bit more detail throughout. Especially with fantasy, readers want to be able to see everything in the world you’ve made. In sci-fi, they want to see the technological side of things in your world. It gives you license to use more words (which I use with mild abandon, honestly).
And there you have it. Two things for you to start with, things you should be looking for while you’re writing but also while you’re on your first round of edits. Next time, we’ll start to get a bit more in-depth.
Associate Editor, etc.