Let’s Talk Editing! Part 1

While I love writing and cartooning, most of my income comes from editing other people’s work.

I’m not complaining. Being an editor has made me a better writer, without a doubt, and has opened my eyes to the nature of writing. Many of my old prejudices about certain genres (*cough* romance *cough*) were thrown out the window once I realized a simple truth: All stories have value, so long as the author writing them is trying to say something. Doesn’t have to be a big thing, doesn’t even have to be an important thing, but it does have to be something that they feel is worth sharing.

So, my job as an editor is to help find that something (sometimes even the writers themselves don’t know what that something is!) and make it shine.

That said, I’m also here to make sure the prose doesn’t sound clunky and isn’t full of grammatical errors.

But a lot of the burden of editing is still on the writers themselves. I can only suggest changes and point out mistakes. The writer still has to understand why a suggested change is a good idea, or why something is a mistake in the first place.

To help the authors I work with on this journey, I collected a list of common mistakes to avoid. The kind of things that I see crop up over and over again from my authors—and even myself! Some come from my own experience, while others I had pointed out to me by other talented editors or books on editing. I take this list out every year or so and either update it, or edit it again, to make it more clear and concise (remember kids, art is never finished, only abandoned).

So, I’m going to share some of these with you, starting today. I’ll post more in future blogs.

Let’s start with some basics:

Murmured, whispered, etc: These are often used as “said” substitutes, but sometimes writers don’t actually consider them being whispered or murmured. A whisper has no vocal vibration. It’s a breath of air and nine times out of ten doesn’t work in the context I see it used in. Saying something quietly isn’t the same as a whisper. A murmur, on the other hand, is said low and is difficult to hear, not unlike muttering. You wouldn’t want your characters muttering all the time, would you?

As with all vocal attributions, these should only be used when it’s narratively important to get across that the character is indeed using a whisper, murmur, mutter, etc… And it does happen. But most of the time you’re better off with “said,” or some kind of action to break things up. That said…

Smile, grin, etc…: Something to remember about human conversation. Under normal circumstances, when you have a conversation with someone, you’re going to be smiling. It’s a kind of default for human interaction, even if you’re talking about the weather. I’ve noticed writers often use smiling and grinning to bring attention to that, but more often than not, it’s not needed. It would be weird in many situations NOT to picture them smiling, at least a little, while talking. This somewhat ties in with…

Action for action’s sake: Breath: Describing a deep breath, a quick inhale of breath, a sharp draw of breath, etc. If overused, it comes across as something that’s been put in because, well, it feels like something needs to be there. Most of the time, it doesn’t. But there are plenty of other things to describe than bodily functions, or for that matter, body features…

Description for description’s sake: Hair, eyes, clothes etc…: When it comes to the greater population in your story, you don’t need a breakdown of every character’s clothes, eyes, or hair. A general one will often do. It speeds things up, and the reader can fill in the blanks. Remember to trust the reader to a certain extent. If I describe someone as having blonde hair wearing a summer dress, that’s usually enough. Don’t need the eyes. The reader will assume light coloured (probably blue in this case). And if their hair was brown or black, they’d assume the eyes were dark.

You don’t always need the details of the dress, either. Ask yourself, if the summer dress in my head is red and the one in yours is green, does that really make a difference in the story? It depends on the character. For the hero/heroine, I might give the clothing colour and one additional detail—especially if it is somehow iconic to her (i.e. the blue dress for Alice in Wonderland). But for a minor character? Blonde hair and summer dress are more than enough.

As with all things, there are exceptions. Editors talk a lot about killing adverbs, and yet from time to time I’ll actually throw one in rather than take it away. Same thing goes for description. A minor character we see for only one scene still might warrant a lot of description, depending on the circumstances. For example, perhaps the person looking at this minor character is a real horn dog and going over their features helps get across his lusty feelings. But on the whole, I think what I suggest above is good advice.

One other thing that’s important to remember: editors have styles just like writers. Editors will argue with other editors about editing. And not all editing styles are a fit for all writers. But for those who want to keep the focus on storytelling and not poetic prose, I think my approach works.

Until next time!

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