What I Do

On a normal day, I have anywhere from two to ten manuscripts in some stage of the editing process. I keep the which-manuscript-is-at-which-stage problem all neat and tidy in a huge, conditional-formatting color-coded Excel spreadsheet, but that’s a subject for a post of its own. The spreadsheet usually tells me which project I need to work on next, so I open up that particular file and get started.

Let’s say the go-to project is a work of fiction.

I give most fiction manuscripts two deep passes before I return the markup to the client. In the first pass, I’m reading for content and looking for plot holes. Anything that makes me go “Wha??” or makes me roll my eyes (exposition by dialogue dump; crazy character names or spellings; male leads who speak like pageant contestants; guns or cars or cans of tuna that appear out of nowhere; lengthy descriptions of peoples’ hair, secondary sex characteristics, or eye color; villains who won’t for-the-love-of-Mike shut up, just to name a few) gets a note in the margin. I’m also checking for head-hopping and POV mistakes (you can’t see what’s behind your head unless you’re looking in a mirror, and people don’t generally think of their own hair as ‘soft tresses’). I pick apart the dialogue to make sure each person speaks like he should. (I encourage every author to eavesdrop, to really listen and internalize how people talk to each other… because most of the time, it isn’t in long, complete, gramatically correct sentences. The way people talk conveys emotion, every single time. If your dialogue isn’t doing that for you, then half of your story is missing.)

At the end of each scene, I’m asking myself two questions:

  1. Does this scene move the plot forward?
  2. Does this scene reveal anything about the characters in the story?

The best scenes will get a ‘yes’ answer for both questions. So if the answer to both questions is ‘no’, then the scene can be cut, and I add a comment.

If the author’s mechanics are good, with few grammar or punctuation errors, then I’ll correct those as I’m going along. If the mechanics need more attention than that, then I’ll do them as a separate, second pass. I’m a stickler about semicolons: with me, there’s no debate. Use ’em correctly, or they’re gone. For em-dashes, as with semicolons, moderation is key. A safe rule of thumb is to use em-dashes only to show interrupted dialogue. I wish there were some federally-funded study to prove that everyone’s writing is tighter and better without dashes. In many manuscripts, I spend a great deal of time fixing dialogue tags (she enunciated, he guffawed) and re-formatting dialogue to the correct punctuation. (Frankly, this baffles me a bit because dialogue is one of the few places where the rules haven’t changed, in like, ever.) And I have a slew of Word macros set up to help me find all the extra and missing punctuation bits, and the its/it’s, your/you’re and their/there/they’res.

Then I send it all, the markup and the comments, back to you.

And I know exactly how you feel when you open that file, because my work gets edited, too.

It’s painful. If you’re anything like me, you’ll feel your face go hot over one of those dreaded your/you’re mistakes, or the fact that you did indeed write it so the sergeant who just caught his wife in bed with his best friend had walked in through a door that had been carefully double-locked by said best friend. If you’re like me, you will hear yourself scream (inside your head) that all your characters totally do not all sound alike, and yes it is too possible for a person to be both a Krav Maga expert and a top-ranked, nationally known pastry chef, all before her 24th birthday (because how else is she going to defend the line cooks when the assassins burst into the kitchen?). And your heart will start to pound if there are cuts, even if you knew they were probably coming.

So if that’s happening to you, maybe I can share what I do when I’m on the receiving end of an edit: I try to remind myself that the writer and editor share the exact same goal. When we are doing our jobs right, we both work in service to the story.

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