Thursday, October 4, 2012

line editing - DO judge a word by its cover

The good news: my totally rad editor gave me two thumbs up on the work I did on the "overview" edits (adjustments in major plot, characters, dialogue, and pacing/flow.)

The next step: in-line editing. In other words: making every word count. These words are literally purchased by our readers, which means they have a job to do. It means they've got to toil and sweat - because it means that word beat out every other word for the spot in the sentence. In the paragraph. In the chapter. In the story. Yes, I'm beating the horse. But the horse's job is to run. The horse's job is to win. And if you're riding a dead horse, you've got bigger problems.

On a lighter note, the first advice I ever got about word count was from a writer who I sat next to on a plane. I was a doe-eyed teenager who wanted to be a writer, and he was an adult who said things like "literary agent" and "word count." So I soaked up every piece of advice he was willing to dish, including this: "no publisher will look at your work as a first time author unless your manuscript is done (which is true as far as I know), and unless it is AT LEAST 100,000 words." That's not so true. In fact, depending on your genre, that's as far from the truth as you can get - especially in YA. That was probably the worst advice I have received to date as a writer. Why? Because it stuck with me, and I never questioned it. So I pumped my draft for word count - quantity first - and squeezed every word I could from the bones of my story, all in an effort to achieve that magic 100K count. The result: a plot that meandered from point to point, arriving unceremoniously at an overly concluded conclusion, disastrous dialogue weakened by almost every possible redundancy, and a protagonist whose defining moments were lost in scenes so descriptive tiles on the floor were counted (okay, thankfully that's an exaggeration, but you get the idea.)

So how do you know what to cut? Here are a few tips and words of wisdom that I've learned during this editing process:

1. Look for redundancy. Redundancy can be obvious - using a "real" word twice or more in a paragraph, but it can also happen in some indirect ways. Each new sentence should have a point all of its own, so make sure that pairs of sentences aren't saying the same thing twice. This can also happen in dialogue. Example: "Oh my gosh!" she exclaimed excitedly. See the triple repeat? "Oh my gosh!" works just fine on its own. Several well-known literary agents that blog are big fans of sticking with the tried and true he/she says and letting other versions of speech descriptions filter in as a rare exception.

2. Weak/passive voice. To be or not to be is NEVER the question, if you can help it. Cut out any "to be" verbs that you can and let your characters own their actions. Use words like is, was, are, am, be, been, etc. sparingly. But "to be" verbs aren't the only villains of passive voice. A few of my subconscious favorites: seems to, starts to, and begins to. *yawn.* I'm sorry, what was I saying? Try cutting the fluffy verbs from the action and see if you like the result.

3. Filler words. We all have them. Our go-to words when our creative juices are tapped out or we're trying to force something that just won't fit or flow. My go-to fillers: Just, seems, get, even, as, but, and suddenly. And, as an entire grammatical category: adverbs. Typically (hehe), adverbs fill the space where character-development/showing should happen. I tried to get away with this big time in my manuscript. I thought: if the editor sees this she'll tell me how to fix it. She did see it. You know what she said? "Fix this." Well played, madam. Well played.

4. The best advice I ever got and didn't want to believe: during my querying phase, I stalked more writing blogs than I cared to count, especially once I realized my 100K words bit was about as wrong as a nun at a strip club. I stumbled across a piece of wisdom that made me recoil from the screen and I rejected it immediately. Curious? The blogger's advice was this: find your favorite section of writing and cut it. Sounds crazy, right? Well here's the thing - the second I read it, I knew exactly what section of my manuscript I was most proud of as a writer. Then I read the blogger's reasoning: this section is probably just you showing off, and likely doesn't jive with the flow of the story or really add anything to the work around it. I disagreed with her for weeks. And I kept going back to it, tweaking it, finessing it. Not to make it fit better, of course, because it was my best writing. It fit! Didn't it? Kind of? Nope. Not at all. Finally, I cut it. And the whole chapter read so much better without it.

I hope this helps you avoid some of the mistakes I made. I'll post more soon on this topic. I'm learning so much during through the thoughts of my editor and I'm excited to share. Any other writers/bloggers/editors/whoever - please feel free to contribute your own tips (even if they completely contradict mine) and also please leave a link to your blog/page.

side note: I'm a BIG believer in Anne Lamott's concept of the "crappy" first draft (she uses a stronger word, but you get the idea.) Get your story down. Get your main characters fleshed out on paper. Then worry about finding the right words to do your story and your character justice.


  1. I love your spunk and dedication!
    "Typically (hehe), adverbs fill the space where character-development/showing should happen. I tried to get away with this big time in my manuscript. I thought: if the editor sees this she'll tell me how to fix it. She did see it. You know what she said? "Fix this." Well played, madam. Well played."
    I fell over laughing at this part- :)

    I went through my current MS in progress and did a writer challenge, it will post on blog on Friday, anyways- I had to count up all my 'looks, looking, looked, etc" and then post 3 paragraphs that contained the word- I was shocked I had well over 100 looks in my MS! It has to be my go to word. :)
    Great Post Jadie!

    1. Oops- you asked for blog link:

  2. @ Summer Ross - I'm glad to give you a laugh when usually all I hand you is work :) and pray tell, what IS a writer challenge?? thank you for posting a link to your blog!

  3. Well if you must know- come to my blog Friday Oct 5th- because I tagged you next for the challenge -grins-

  4. Devious + delightful... I'll be there with bells on :)

  5. Great post! Definitely gives me ideas on what to look for in my MS =)

  6. Thank you @K.S. Pendergrass! I just discovered my attachment to having characters nod instead of speak. Tackling that now. Don't forget to post your blog/website/fb URL :)

  7. I tagged you on my blog today Jadie- :)

  8. @Summer - I saw! and i "looked." and then i put my forehead down on my desk and scrolled back to page 1. I'm going to do a full blogpost with the challenge as soon as i get your permission :)

  9. It's always interesting to see how far we've come and what we've learned along the way.

  10. Superb post and advice, Jadie. I am also a believer in getting the story down. If the first draft stinks, it doesn't matter. As long as the story is there you can re-write.

  11. @Ellie - thank you so much! I'm a huge fan of your blog. And I'm a huge fan of the SFD. The SFD of my MS yielded one piece of fruit: my protagonist. Every piece of her story has changed since then. Find the gems, dust them off, and figure out how to string them together.

  12. Hey! Just saw your comment on my blog post (I know- my computer's been dead!), and wanted to come check out your thoughts about editing. Totally agree with that one wise blogger's advice to cut what you love, even if it feels like you're committing hara-kiri (and it does. Man, it does!).
    Thanks for your interest! It is wholeheartedly returned!

  13. Hi Laura! Thank you for stopping by :) I know, it was the hardest advice to follow and it felt like some kind of treason, but in the end it really paid off. Stalk you soon :)


Ramble on, y'all.