Editing is not about understanding the semi-colon and similar arcana

Write drunk; edit sober. - Ernest Hemingway
Write drunk; edit sober. – Ernest Hemingway (Click to embiggen)
Now that National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) has come to an end for another year, a lot of people are looking at large piles of words which they have assembled and are contemplating the task of editing. At least I sincerely hope they are1! Editing can be a daunting task. And let’s be honest, it is hard work.

But, getting the rough draft together is no mean feat. And it’s whole lot easier to revise something once you’ve got a rough draft than it is to create the first draft to begin with6.

Now, some people operate under the mistaken notion that by editing we mean going through the story line by line to correct spelling and get the punctuation right. No, that’s copy editing. And you do that at the very end. Which isn’t to say that you oughtn’t fix any spelling errors, typos, and so forth that you notice during the first editing pass, but that isn’t what editing is. It’s not even the most important part of editing.

Storytelling isn’t about creating perfectly structured sentences with perfectly spelled words and having every comma at just the right spot. One reason why that isn’t nearly as important as many people think is because there are a lot fewer rules of grammar than most people believe. There are wrong ways to use a comma, yes, but there are an infinite number of completely different but still right ways to use (or omit) one as well. A lot of the “rules” that people have learned aren’t rules at all. They aren’t even, often, good guidelines. They are preferences in some case—and outright myths in others.

Writing isn’t a simple algorithmic function. A story needs to live and breathe. A story has a mood, sometimes that mood changes as the tale moves along. Some parts of a story move more quickly than others. You may have a rapid fight scene with a lot of angry posturing and taunting between the opponents, followed by a more leisurely description of the aftermath, when the conquering heroine comforts the person she rescued. And you control pacing by varying things like length of sentence, length of paragraphs, choices of punctuation, and so on.

No style guide, no matter how good, can tell you how to structure a sentence to be brassy and defiant. You have to let the context be your guide.

But before you get to copy editing, you need to revise, restructure, and clean up your story. In my day job as a technical writer we have several terms for different types of editing. And the one you need to concern yourself with first is what we call a developmental edit. This is where you look at things such as the structure of the story, the plotting, the pacing, the characterization, the tone, and the overall reading experience. This is something that is very hard to do to your own work if you haven’t been writing for a long time, but it’s something you can learn, and just like writing, you learn it primarily by doing. But you also have to study.

Pick up some good books about structure and narrative7, and read at least one all the way through before you pick up your manuscript at start the edit pass. I admit, at least half of the reason I give this particular piece of advice is to give you some time away from your story. You need some emotional distance in order to look at your work objectively8.

Then you need to look at the story first as a whole. What is your central conflict that drives your main character’s actions? Does this conflict run like a thread from the beginning to the end of the story, or does it get tangled and cut off midway through, and another conflict entirely take over?

What about the emotional arc of each of your characters? This is another way of looking at the theme of the story. Why should the reader care about the things that happen to your leads and supporting characters? What is at stake and how do they feel about it? In what way do they change? Or what prevents them from changing?

Does the order of events make sense? Are you missing connecting scenes? Do you need to have a few characters spell out their motives a bit more?

Is the pacing of the story overall consistent with the plot? Does the pacing of individual scenes match the mood, purpose, and context of that scene?

Do your sub-plots compliment the main plot, or are they distractions? Does each sub-plot line up with the emotional arc of at least one character?

There’s a lot to work on. And at some point you’re going to have to let someone you trust (and by trust, I mean, they will give you their honest opinion) read what you’ve got to see how they react to it. So long as you remember Neil Gaiman’s advice: “Remember: when people tell you something’s wrong or doesn’t work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong.”

Before you do that, you should try the trick of reading it aloud in an empty room. You will be amazed when you read a scene aloud to yourself at all of the things that are wrong with it which you never noticed while reading it silently.

Editing is work, but it has rewards. There will be moments during the editing process when you’re just sloughing through, and start wondering if it’s worth it. And there will be other moments that inspiration will strike and you’ll find yourself writing new bits or revising existing bits that feel as exciting as the best moments of the first draft.

Just remember: the goal is to tell the story the best that you can. Never forget that.

“Write drunk; edit sober.”
—Ernest Hemingway


1. A writer I follow on Twitter re-tweeted another writer who said, “An agent recently told me that every December 1 she receives hundreds of unsolicited, awful, unedited manuscripts. Don’t be that person.” So, obviously, there are people who don’t realize that a rough draft needs edit and re-write passes2.

2. This shouldn’t surprise me. As the editor of a non-profit amateur publishing project for more than 20 years I frequently received unsolicited manuscripts from people who were absolutely aghast when we asked for re-writes. “Can’t you do that?”3.

3. And I’ve written before about people who have never written a thing in their lives and are convinced that their life experiences would make a great book—and then find out that I’m a writer. They are always shocked that I’m not willing let them tell me their anecdotes so that I will write it up for them for a promise of a small percentage of the proceeds?4

4. Though my favorite was still the woman who, after listening to my explanation of the project at our table in a Dealer’s Den of a sci fi convention, asked if we she could dictate her stories to us and we just write it down. I referred her to services that will do that and she was appalled that someone would actually charge to type her stories for her. “I’m doing the hard part! I thought it up!”5

5. See, it isn’t just artists who have to contend with this!

6. Even though there are times while working on the rough draft that you probably despaired of ever finishing, there were also times when the words just seemed to fly from your fingers. You didn’t always know what was coming next, but right that moment, inspiration was driving you, and it was fun.

7. Building Fiction: How to Develop Plot and Structure by Jesse Lee Kercheval is an excellent place to start. The Art of Fiction: Notes on Craft for Young Writers by John Garder is excellent. The 38 Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes by Jack Bickham is very good. Steering the Craft: Exercises and Discussions on Story Writing for the Lone Navigator or the Mutinous Crew by Ursula K. LeGuin is very good. There are a lot of other excellent choices. Lots of people swear by Stephen King’s On Writing, and it’s an excellent book, but I found it more useful in terms of thinking about the writing process than looking at the structure of a finished story.

8. Or as objectively as anyone can look at anything.

6 thoughts on “Editing is not about understanding the semi-colon and similar arcana

  1. Yes yes yes yes. Copy edits are line edits, which are very different from editing for structure, tone, style, etc. A good editor is worth his or her weight in gold.
    I wish I could say I can’t believe that people ask you to rewrite their work, but unfortunately I can. 😦

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