Tuesday, December 13, 2011

The Hack Job

After wrapping Christmas presents with my four-year-old (she’s my tape girl, and yes our presents look professionally wrapped), I made the mistake of leaving out the scissors while I started a load of laundry.

Three minutes later, she calls to me. “Mom, come look at this.”

I walk in and see her holding a lock of hair out with the pair of scissors positioned to cut. There are a few beautiful dark curls piled on the carpet in front of her.

I did my best to stay calm. “What are you doing sweetie.”

“My bangs are in my face, so I’m cutting them.” The lock she holds is nowhere near her bangs, but she’s doing her best.

Editing or Hacking?

Right now I’m knee deep in line edits. And I feel like a little girl trying to trim the hair out of my eyes, holding a lock of hair ready to cut, but unsure if that lock is even part of the problem.

Editing is tough. There is always the fear of editing out the voice, but I’m not delusional enough to believe that my fingers tap out golden, perfect prose as they masterfully move across the keyboard. I need to clean up my prose: get rid of those pesky words that don't add value, smooth out those awkward phrases, and seek and destroy all needless repetition.

I need my manuscript to be at a professional level without removing all traces of the quirks that make my writing my writing. I believe a strong, unique voice doesn't come from what is done right, but what is brilliantly done wrong.

Striking the balance is tough, and I'd certainly like some professional help. But if I want to be a professional writer, I need to learn how to write like one. So I’m stuck with trial and error.

Time to get out those scissors.

Line Editing Advice From Someone Who is Admittedly Just Learning

Before I edit, I always save an unedited version. So if I hack my voice to shreds, I can always go back to the original with nothing lost but time.

I always trust my instincts. If the word feels like it belongs there, I keep it.

Here are some things I look for when I'm editing. I usually do a "find" for these words or phrases, and read over the sentences a few times trying to decide if the word should be there or just somehow snuck in.

1. Meaningless modifiers like actually, somewhat, kind of, nearly, usually, almost, etc.

2. Adverbs, especially the ly ones. I do an "ly" search.

3. That

4. "There was" or "It was" at the beginning of sentences.

5. If you are doing first person or close third any filtering phrases like "he thought,” "he felt," or "he saw” can usually be eliminated.

6. "Was verb-ing." Usually the "was" can be removed and the verb changed to past tense.

7. Only, really, and still. Sure these may fit other categories, but I use them a lot, so I need to hyperaware of them. Otherwise they will be in every paragraph.

8. Catch words and phrases I seem to use too much like cold, chills, stomach tightening, etc.

At the end of editing, I read the whole thing backwards sentence by sentence to catch grammar mistakes. I’m sure I always miss one or two. :)

I also hear reading it aloud will help identify flow and rhythm problems. I'll be doing that for this manuscript.

Editing Advice from Professionals

SF author David Louis Edelman gives great line editing advice.

This advice from professional editor Lisa Torcasso Downing doesn't have to do with cutting out wordage but are things to look for in an editing pass. "Writing the reaction before the causal action" is one I found a lot in my MS, but all the advice is gold. Check it out.

If you have any other suggestions, please do share. I need all the help I can get.

Come on, give a girl some editing advice before I butcher my bangs. :)


ETA: Freelance editor Kristy G. Stewart stopped by and added a link to some great editing advice. I'm linking it here, cause it is well worth the read. Thanks Kristy. :)


  1. I'm really bad with haircuts, but that doesn't stop me from cutting my own hair.

    It probably should. This post makes me wonder if maybe I should pay a professional to edit my story for me.


    That seems weird to me. I think I'd rather butcher my own manuscript, but know I was the one that messed it up, then have someone else to blame if it isn't picked up.

    If that makes sense.

    Great post!

  2. Now you made the little obsessive compulsive part of my brain want to go count the 'thats' in my story. Make it stop!
    Excellent advice all around.
    Sheena, professional or not, another set of eyes can sure pick things out that I thought were clear and obviously weren't in retrospect.

  3. You'll probably pick it out before we've been friends for too much longer, but I overuse the word 'just' a lot.

    When I edit, I make sure I don't have too many sentences starting in the same way. For example, lots of sentences start with the word 'She'. Too many in a row is annoying.

  4. BUT...I just finished reading one of your links. Great stuff, except he recommends deleting phrases you use over and over again, like if you have characters constantly rolling their eyes or folding their arms before they speak. True, but don't you think that adding quirks helps character development? Having one of your characters who always folds her arms before she speaks isn't necessarily a bad thing, IMO.

  5. True, Melanie, but I think it can be overdone. I read the link as him recommending that we vary our descriptions of such things. So if a character is always folding her arms, mention it looking like she has permanent indentations in her shirt from all that arm folding, or have her friend smack her in the wrist before she folds her arms one more time.

    On one recent occasion, I had an editor send me back a story with every single 'to be' verb highlighted. It was... kind of embarrassing. But it also highlighted a few occasions where I thought, 'no, I really did want to say something like "she was watching the bird when she tripped", because tense is important there rather than verb choice. So it made me more aware of when the "wrong" words are appropriate.

    I'm a big fan of the idea that you have to learn the rules before you break them... because it implies that those rules can be broken, just as long as you know what you're doing.

  6. @Sheena. I agree with you about preferring to do the edits myself rather than hiring someone. If the editor doesn't like my voice, they might try to remove it. I think it is different when an editor buys your work because they obviously like it otherwise, they wouldn't have bought it. So I think they would help you enhance your voice instead of edit it out.

    I could be wrong. I don't know much about editors. But I'd rather learn how to polish my own stuff up anyway.

    @Susan. Sorry about that. Those little thats can be quite pesky.

    @Melanie. Do you mean like how Nynaeve from Wheel of Time always tugs on her braid? I do think those quirks add to character development, but can be overdone. Like everything else, there is a balance.

    Oh and I overuse just too. Thanks for the reminder. I'll add it to the list.

    @Sabrina. I'm a big fan of that too. :) There is a big difference between breaking the "rules" on purpose and breaking them in ignorance. And I think, in most cases, it shows.

  7. Sabrina, I completely agree with you about learning the rules first, so that your choices to break them deliberate.

    Melanie, I think there's a big difference between giving a character a quirk and relying on old standby gestures because you can't think of something better. My characters sigh, shrug, turn, look/gaze/stare/glare/meet eyes/etc., so much that my writing starts to read like a parody of the earlier chapters. :) Readers know the difference between character development and lazy or insufficiently inventive writing.

    I had a professor in grad school who took out extraneous uses of "the" obsessively. The results were always amazing - of course this was writing scientific papers, in which the sentences are already a mouthful. But a LOT of articles are actually not needed, and we use them out of habit. Sentences really are smoother without them. (Within reason. A lot of articles are absolutely required, too!)

  8. Sarah, I never thought about "the" and other articles. That is definitely something to look for.

    Thanks for sharing.

  9. MaryAnn - I'm glad you're trying to figure out how to become a better writer on your own. There are some editors who will try to take over your writing for you, but many (me, for one) prefer to help writers learn how to do a better job on their own. Most of them also offer cheap or free sample edits so they (and you) can figure out if your styles mesh. A sample edit will normally reveal if your voice and their editing don't jive.

    I have a post on my blog that gives some brief advice on line editing. The advice I give is closer to what Lisa Torcasso Downing recommends, but it may be useful to hear it put in another way:

    (The tips for doing the editing yourself are in the last section of the post.)

  10. Thanks for sharing, Kristy.

    I never thought about hiring an editor for a few sample pages. That is a great idea if I ever decide to go that route.

    Your advice on line editing was awesome. I put the link in the post, so it doesn't get lost in the comments.

    Thanks for stopping by.

  11. MaryAnn, you've called out some really excellent examples of what to look for on a "search and destroy" run through your ms.

    When I worked as a freelance editor, I wrote a six-page report on these to give to my clients to help them self-edit. It included items such as: finding alternatives to words ending in -ing and -ion, and sneaky filler words like "like," "very" "about" "just" "then" (double demerits for "just then") "started to" (began, managed, proceeded, decided to) "was," which can weaken the strongest verb, and about 30 more, all found in abundance in troubled manuscripts.

    Fear of what editing will do to one's writing is usually born of confusion between the story and the manuscript. They're not the same thing. When we get rid of these sorts of mistakes in our manuscripts, our stories have a chance to shine.

    And if reading aloud makes you self-conscious (it certainly does me!), read into a recording device (MP3 player, phone app), put the recording away overnight, and listen to it. Problems will leap out and beg to be fixed.

  12. Great advice Bridget.

    I think I'm guilty of a few begans, managed, and proceeded and many of the others you pointed out.

    My problem is that sometimes I like the way the sentence sounds with a just or an only or whatever word that usually weakens the writing. But I'm not sure if I'm right about keeping the word or not.

    I'm just not sure if my gut is right or not. That is my big struggle with editing.

    Recording my voice is a great idea.

    Thanks for commenting; it was very helpful. :)


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