Friday, June 10, 2011

A Word, By Any Other Name (guest blog)

by Sarah R. Yoffa

I was having an email conversation with Kat Jordan of Jordan's Croft about writing and editing and we both said, "This should be a blog post!" so here it is, slightly cleaned-up and expanded. Also posted on Kat's blog as a guest blog entry.

One of the most-commonly misunderstood parts of the novel-writing process is what happens after that amazing creative burst subsides, once the story has been disgorged from the AuthorGod's mind. The process isn't finished when you get to "The End," but the fun, creative part is over. No, after all the fun is when the uncreative, hard work of editing begins.

Creative writing and editing are very different activities, tapping into different sides of the brain, but since both activities involve selection and rejection of words, many writers confuse creative "wordsmithing" with actual editing. In addition, there are different levels of "editing" which are actually intended to effect different changes, so it's important to understand the purpose of each level or type of "editing" and treat each activity accordingly. With the possible exception of a class in a School of Journalism, to my knowledge, no literary or creative writing course will teach you how to edit, so let's take a look at the different terms and what they really mean. Or what they mean to me1, anyway.


This is a read-only activity where one used to print out (onto paper) and mark "mistakes" but not actually change anything. Given that computerization's whole point is to eliminate paper waste, this step has become interactive. That doesn't mean you should eliminate it entirely, though, so a word of caution to the novice. Proofreading at the keyboard is much harder to do "correctly" when it's done interactively, as most authors will line-edit while proofreading instead of proofreading as a distinct activity. Proofreading as a reading activity serves a purpose, and making it interactive raises the chances that errors will slip through. In fact, new errors might be introduced through the line-editing process if conducted in parallel with proofreading and these new errors might not be caught at all if there is not a separate and discrete proofreading stage.

Proofreading should be done with a focused mind--focused on the task of simply picking up on typos. That is, typographical errors which the author actually knows are incorrect but, due to typing quickly and with zeal as the story unfolded before them, mistyped or mistakenly typed while so immersed in the creative process. Most of the errors caught during proofreading are related to spelling (transposed letters in a word), grammar (changing singular to plural or using -ed when you meant to write -ing and definitely were not confused as to verb tense), or even simple errors in punctuation and sentence structure.

Note, by "sentence structure," I'm not referring to a well-flowing sentence. That's an editing issue. Rather, I refer to actual mistakes in the construction of the sentence. The author will instantly see these the next time they look at the work. For example, one of my worst typos is moving a word over by 2 or 3 words in a sentence. This is purely a function of my typing at the high speed of about 100 words per minute (wpm) and thinking at about 180wpm. My fingers simply cannot keep up with my brain so the words come out jumbled. Later, when I'm proofreading, even I can't figure out how some of these sentences got rearranged the way they did.

Proofreading functions on the premise that the reader does not know what the words are until they are actually being read; therefore, mistakes will make them "stumble" as they're reading along. A reader's "stumble" can occur for other reasons (e.g., pacing issues) but usually, it's due to a typo, poor sentence construction or some kind of grammatical mistake. The latter two issues will be addressed when line-editing but the typos are straightforward proofreading issues.

The biggest problem a fiction writer faces is that we read our own work multiple times as it's being created. We practically memorize our novels before we finally say they are done and ready to go out into the world. If you're a novelist, at a minimum, you probably read your own work:

(1) inside your head while you're forming the thought and about to type it;
(2) as you're typing it, and
(3) immediately after you've typed it.

Years ago, when I worked as a secretary, and therefore, had to proofread my own typing as soon as possible after typing it, usually within an hour or less, I discovered that the best way to clear my mind of what I'd just typed was to deliberately immerse myself in something else. I'd type ten letters then go back to proofread the first one. For a novelist, just write another scene, then double back to proofread the previous piece. Leap-frog through the day's work, proofing as you go. Proofreading, not editing. For more on the difference, read on.

When you feel like you could recite your book by heart and can't proofread it effectively anymore, even waiting an entire day after typing it, try reading it out loud. Reading aloud allows you to read it "anew," because you've literally never heard the words before; you've only seen them. By forcing your ears to double-check your eyes, you by-pass your brain's belief that you know what the words say.


Not to be confused with actual editing (see below), this process is sometimes called Copyediting. In fact, traditional DTB publishers have a position whose title is "Copyeditor" and that person might be assigned to do this activity for a novel the publisher has under contract.

It is an interactive process where the author (or a Copyeditor) will change individual words to "tighten" a sentence or improve its flow without actually changing its meaning or having any impact on the story's overall plot. Line-editing might include the deletion of an entire sentence to "tighten" a paragraph or the Copyeditor might add those transitional sentences that are needed between paragraphs to improve the flow of a story's plot and pacing. Line-editing will improve, or polish, the flow of a story without impacting the kernel of the story being told. This is not an activity of correction (so it's not proofreading) but can introduce new errors, so be sure to proofread again after line-editing.


And now we meet the Villian of our story. This is the #1 most-commonly visited activity by new or inexperienced writers. It is also an absolute waste of time and effort. This activity will destroy a new or inexperienced author's efforts to polish their work themselves. It is a distraction, not a productive activity. What is it, exactly?

Wordsmithing is what I call it when an author reads along, has an innate sense that something is "wrong" with the sentence (or paragraph) but rather than deleting the sentence or replacing it entirely, he finds himself changing one word here or one word there. He is unable or unwilling to simply delete the sentence or troublesome phrase. Most commonly, a new writer or one who is inexperienced in editing, will get so attached to a word or turn of phrase, they will wordsmith repeatedly polishing "around" the problem without actually remedying the situation. In fact, they might wordsmith to such an extent they end up bloating the story and still not fixing the original problem. These authors must learn to simply murder their darlings, delete those pet phrases or words, no matter how painful it might seem at the time. Once the newbie author gets past the first or second act of "murder," it's an amazingly freeing activity to simply delete things that aren't working. In fact, it will help build your confidence in your ability to write because if you write something different, you'll probably be writing something better. Best of all, you'll see the improvement the next time you proofread!

Wordsmithing can be just the tweaking of words but it can also involve adding and subtracing commas, quote marks, dashes and other punctuation as though they are paraphrenalia instead of serving an actual mechanical function in a grammatical structure. Most commonly, authors who are committed to wordsmithing--rather than copyediting--will change something, then change it back, then change it again, back and forth, repeatedly, ad nauseum. Literally. It will make you sick to watch an author friend spin their wheels trying to fix something when all they're doing is pushing the same problems around on their plate. Like brussel sprouts

(Actually, I really like brussel sprouts but it made a nice simile).


And tah-dah, now we meet the Hero of our story. Editing. This is one of the hardest activities for a creative writer to master. There's a reason for that. Generating the story is a creative process. Editing a story is usually a destructive process. That is, editing involves a lot more deletion than it does insertion of new material. Editing fiction is hard to define in specific, task-oriented terms.

In journalism, or other non-fiction editing, one looks at how quickly and concisely the message of "who, what, when, where, how and why-should-readers-care" can be delivered. Journalism professionals are concerned with using the least amount of column-space to deliver the largest amount of information with the highest level of emotional content so as to hook the reader's attention and hold it. Sound bites work best in a magazine or newspaper article.

In fiction, however, pacing the plot correctly requires that the content of the story be inextricably linked to how the it's being told. You don't want to rush past the climax in three paragraphs and then dwell on a five-page description of a tree. Unless, like Dickens, you're being paid by the word and they don't care how many words you send them. If you know of a job like this, please post a link in the comments! I can churn out 10,000 meaingless words in an hour for you. Let's talk subcontract!

Editing fiction looks at the over-arching "shape" or flow of a story's plot from the beginning, through the middle and to The End. Your editing will impact the readability of your story and the depth to which the reader is involved in the moment of action on the page. If it's a quiet moment, a character reflecting on a major decision she has to make, you might like to go on for five pages. If it's a shoot out or car accident, not so much. Editing is the process that lets you make your sentences shorter for a faster pace or the expositive more vibrant for a richer setting and world-building experience. You might have to change the content entirely but your editing will not simply change a word here or there. Editing will impact the plot and, therefore, the characters.

Editing is the means by which you make characters more believeable, more sympathetic or likeable (or someone we love to hate in the case of a Villian or Anti-Hero). Editing might be how you create a new character when a plot twist isn't believeable and you need to have someone else in the scene to justify the protagonist's choices. Editing is where you delete paragraphs, pages, even whole chapters, to make the overall length of the book better-suited to the story you wanted to tell.

Editing fiction is not just a process for removing stumbling blocks or scraggly plot points. Editing can also deepen a character, expand on a subtext or set up a sequel. The key to editing is to always look at the "Big Picture" or the overall "shape" of a story's plot. The so-called story arc. Some people call it a story's "theme" or "meta-arc" if it is a common line of plotting that connects one volume to another in a series. Editing is done at what I call the 50,000 foot level while Copyediting and Proofreading are down at the ground level, with your nose an inch from the page. Editing is altering the map of the entire book, not the massaging of paragraphs and certainly not the wordsmithing of individual sentences.

I never used to outline before beginning to write, and I usually begin writing a book at The End and work my way backwards, but as I got better at editing, I realized, outlining first meant I could use it as a guide or map to my story's journey. And it made editing later much, much easier.

Outlining first does not have to restrict you. You are the AuthorGod. You can deviate from the outline and take a little side trip if your Muse leads you down the garden path; but having an outline means you don't lose sight of the Big Picture that is the forest while you're creating those much-loved pet phrases that are the trees populating your story.

I hope these concepts delineating the different levels of "editing" make sense to you and that you can see why the different ways of "touching" a story after you've finished writing it are so distinct and not all clumped under one term. They each serve entirely different purposes. Hiring a professional editor should get you more than mere line-editing or proofreading. If they aren't smoothing out your plot, shaping the story's arc to be most effective for the kind of story it is and ensuring that your characters have depth, then they aren't worth hiring. You can find voracious readers on Goodreads, Authonomy or in any bookseller's web site forums who will proofread and line-edit for you free of charge. They'll think they're getting something for free. With the proliferation of digital eBook reading devices, the numbers of readers who are online looking for free stuff to read is literally infinite.

Real editing requires a professional ability to critique at a 50,000 foot level. An author can--and should--learn to do it for herself, but if you're going to pay someone else to do it for you, be sure he delivers your money's worth. If you aren't sure about the quality of an editor (a) request three (3) references of authors they've worked for previously whom you can contact with questions about the editor and (b) check to be sure they are not listed in the Writers Beware database.

1Most of my knowledge of how to polish a document after it's been composed comes from the one-year Executive Secretarial Program of the Katharine Gibbs School, which taught secretarial skills for over 100 years before it changed, in the 1990s, into a web design school. Accordingly, my information is based on "King's English" and not netspeak or prosaic literature or even on the journalistic rules of written communication. I apply executive communication rules of American English to my fiction, mostly complying with the Chicago Manual of Style, but only on rules of grammar, punctuation and spelling. Style, in fiction, is called a writer's voice and no "manual" or "course" can tell you how to find your own voice. Your writing will "sound" different from mine, hopefully, but we should all conform to the the same rules of English language usage--assuming your story is written in English.

Sarah R. Yoffa can be found on Facebook as Sarah, The Webbiegrrl Writer or on Twitter @webbiegrrl. Her debut novel, Coming Home (Dicky's Story), a Romantic Comedy/Jewish Inspirational, is available in multiple eBook formats at Smashwords or through the Amazon US and Amazon UK Kindle stores.


Agnieszkas Shoes said...

Very good and very wise. The very best experience I had with an editor enabled me to completely reshape the whole book because they identified that I'd misconstrued the central conflict of the book

Webbiegrrl Writer said...

Thanks, Dan! One has to wonder what the worst experience was, though *grin*

I only learned how to edit by working on someone else's material--someone who's far more proficient at plotting than I! That was in 2006. If I hadn't done that, I would never have been able to completely change the tone of my inspirational fiction to make it a full-fledged Romantic Comedy without taking away from the inspirational aspect. I would have had to choose one or the other without the skillful editing I'd picked up.

In addition, I'm currently changing a setting (from Earth to some made up planet I have yet to actually make up!) and editing out all of the tiny little ways a setting can (and does!!) influence a character or a plot point. It's definitely an interesting exercise to change a story to fix its known problems without changing it, without destroying the essence of what made it worth saving.