Episode 11: Make the Edit, Part 1

Editing is not spell checking. Correct spelling is important, of course, but the biggest part of editing is much more involved than just reviewing punctuation and grammar. So, I want to take a couple of weeks to examine how to re-envision your work and how to make it better through careful revision.

First, let’s define. Editing is the process of evaluting the work as a finished product for effectiveness, utility, artistry, and polish (you can always edit before it’s finished, but the point is still to look at the overall flow). If writing is the paint roller, then editing is the cut-in brush, the touch-up brush, and the fancy finish.

So, when you’re ready to jump in, here are some steps that I find most useful.

Stop: If you are editing your own work, I cannot stress enough the importance of letting it “cool” for a week or so. The reason is simple: you need to be out of the mindset you were in while writing. You need to be past the “this is so cool” mentality, which takes time. If you are editing someone else’s work, I recommend spending a bit of time skimming over the work and doing some research in the area covered (even for fiction and poetry when you know the topic).

Read: The first time through a work, if time allows, it’s best to leave the red pen locked up. You can fix grammatical issues, yes, but concentrate on the work as a whole. Some parts may jump out at you (and I sometimes simply mark them for future reference), but the point of the first reading is to see how well the piece communicates the message. If you spend your time marking unclear sections, you may lose the ebb and flow of the words.

Ask: After I have gone through the work once (as I said, if time allows), I usually try to answer the big questions about what I read.

  • What does the piece communicate?
  • Does that message come through?
  • Am I convinced?

There are a number of more specific questions as well that depend upon the type of work I reviewed. For example, with fiction, I might ask questions about the characters or the imagery. With a journal article, I might make a brief outline of the points covered and examine the references. With poetry, I might sketch out the images. With a play, I might try to remember the main themes and crises. And with technical writing, I might try to summarize the main point in a single sentence. You may also want to do some further research on the topic if something is unclear.

Review: Before you dive in to the revisions or recommendations, take a moment to skim over the work again and review the notes you made while answering your questions. Good editing (and writing) requires that you see on two levels: the trees and the forest. Great sentences or lines don’t guarantee a great finished product, and great vision doesn’t mean the details will be effective.

Next week, we’ll take a look at the actual slashing and burning.

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Episode 10: Make Changes, Not War

My first experience with peer review went something like this: 1) finish “perfect” short story, 2) triumphantly submit story to peer review, 3) hear and read with horror that others didn’t see perfection, 4) disdain comments. This, however, completely negated the whole purpose for finding out what others thought prior to submitting the story to a potential publisher.

And I dare say that I am not alone. As an editor, part of my job has been reviewing content for potential publication and/or sending back to the writer for revision. Couple that with the peer review experiences I’ve had since then, and I find that a resistance to comments is not too uncommon. So, let’s take a moment to focus on the reasons that peer review can be so beneficial.

Go the distance: As a writer you should love the work you do. If you don’t, then the chances of someone else loving it precipitously decrease. However, that love does cause a certain—shall we say—bias to the words we produce. Peer review, however, negates this bias because, hopefully, your peers are writers who also love their words. They may not have such a love for yours, though. And that’s the point. Whether your peers are gracious or not (and hopefully you choose some who are), letting them dissect your wit can help you make your wit that much stronger.

Learn by example: Joining a peer review group also affords you a glimpse into a variety of writing styles. This is something that I have absolutely found true: writing begets writing. What’s great is that you will see things in other writers’ works that will spark ideas for you (just not too close to their work, of course). You may like the style of writing they use, an image, or even find a better way to get your point across in your own writing.

Take the hit: Not all comments you receive will be useful, and you are not obliged to use them all. Let’s face it. We all get an occasional comment that goes against what we want our work to do. However, within every comment, there may be a tiny sliver of something needing a good polish. The comment may not go along with your idea, but make sure that the reviewer wasn’t missing your point because you didn’t bring it out effectively enough.

Remember that the whole point of peer review is to improve the work—not to tear you down. Find a group of peers (whether in a class or community group) who understand that point. Personally, I find the best reviewers to be those who are willing to share their own unfinished work with you. That way, you are all “exposed” to each other. If you can’t find a good group, then consider starting one at the local library and posting a notice there. There are plenty of potential writers in every community. If that’s no good, there are a variety of writing forums on the Internet, though the anonymity of these, to me, is a potential drawback (which is why I’m not linking to any), as the point of peer review is to interact on a personal level.

If all else fails, then ask a trusted friend or family member to review your work. Just make sure that person is known for giving objective feedback—and that any negative comments from them won’t scar you for life.

Episode 9: A Tough Habit to . . . Start

Writing is about the process as much as it is about the skill and creativity. This is not to belittle raw talent, of course, but talent unexpressed does no good in the process of writing a novel (or anything else, for that matter). Developing healthy habits can make the difference between potential and published. So, what habits are useful? Glad you asked.

Let’s take a look at some of the habits that can greatly benefit your writing, why they matter, and how you can develop the habit.

Taking note: This is almost inevitable. You’re lying in bed, and suddenly the greatest idea ever for a novel hits you. You turn the idea over and over, think about your soon-to-come fame, and fall asleep. The next day, that perfect idea is gone or you keep forgetting to write it down.

The beauty of the time we live in is that cell phones are perfectly equipped to keep ideas. Whether through audio recordings or typed notes, you already have the tools you need to make your ideas, thoughts, and observations stick. That may not help you at night, but it will help you keep the best creative moments alive (or the worst, depending on what you think when you read over your notes later).

Planting the bottom: You have probably heard this many times. Being a good writer means that you have to write—often. Yes, that is a tautology, but I could never stress this point enough. If you aren’t writing something creative—anything—at least once per day, then it is almost impossible to improve (keep in mind that non-fiction can be creative, too). If you are working on a novel, knock out a page or two. Or describe the water dripping in your bathroom. Or toy with an acrostic. Or map your mind. The choice is yours. You will likely not use most of what you write, but you’d be surprised how many ideas come from this. The main benefit, however, is the improvement that practice makes.

Hacking away: If you aren’t editing your work, you aren’t really writing. I have mentioned this before, but it bears repeating. Good writing depends on revising, re-envisioning, and re-interpreting the words. Make it a habit to revisit the work that you have done. Better yet, have someone you trust take a look at it and make suggestions—or even join a writing group. Whatever works best for you. Just remember that it is very rare that a work is complete the first time through.

Going for the gold: Once you have the other habits going full throttle, the next part is to do something with the writing. There are many ways to get your writing out there—whether you choose a blog like this one (or even in comments), a website, or a magazine. The point is to make goals for yourself. Decide what you want to achieve (e.g., to be published in a magazine), set goals (e.g., to complete a story, revise, and submit it), and then move on to the next goal (e.g., to finish a novel). Having purpose and direction is essential if you are serious about writing.

Episode 8: Passive Agressive Behavior

As promised beforehand by the author, passive verbs will be covered by this blog entry. Now stop for a moment and examine that opening sentence. Does it sound like I’m trying to cover up something, to hide the person who really made such a pronouncement? Is it all a conspiracy of the PEople of Thought for Passive ExpErimentation of VerbiagE (PET PEEVE)? It may well be, but the point is actually to show the good, bad, and ugly of passive constructions.

Put succinctly, a passive verb means that an object, person, event, or thing is being acted upon. That is, the subject of the sentence (usually the main noun before the verb) doesn’t perform an action and, instead, has an action performed to it. Many times, you’ll know a passive construction when you see the word by following the verb—and less often, other prepositions. (You can also look for modals and forms of to be, but we won’t cover that here.)

The brilliant report was done by me.

However, this is not always the case. Passive clauses may not always use any signaling words.

As was mentioned, the report was finished.

In the sentence above, we have two passive constructions, though neither has a prepositional phrase tagged onto the end. Instead, the person who performed the action is simply implied but anonymous. We don’t know who mentioned this fact or who completed the report.

This anonymity is both the strength and weakness of passive verbs. There are times that either the agent of action is unknown or the agent is unimportant. In these cases, a passive construction may be preferred (and yes, I used it here as an example). The problem with removing passive verbs entirely from our repertoire is that there are times when they are more appropriate. For example, using indefinite pronouns when the agent isn’t known can make for a more confusing or less precise sentence.

Some unknown mystical person performed these calculations to come up with these astounding results.

If such a sentence were in a formal paper, it would weaken the credibility. If the agent isn’t known (like here), then you may have to use a passive construction.

On the other hand, passive verbs can also make the writing become unwieldy. A few passive clauses carefully sprinkled throughout can get around some difficult situations, but a paper or story filled with passivity strains the reader. This is mainly because either the reader questions the integrity of the writer/narrator (why aren’t they telling us who did what?) or because overusing passive verbs makes the reader notice the prose more.

That said, there is no need to seek and destroy all passive verbs from your writing. In fact, for those of you who have studied the Classical languages, you may know that ancient orators used passive verbs quite effectively. However, English does not have a passive form of the verb and, instead, requires other auxiliary words to show passivity. Because of that, passive sentences do not have the same punch that they once did. Use them when you need, but many can be rewritten. Um, well, that is, most writers can find ways to rephrase passive sentences into active ones.