Updated November 6, 2018
I’ve read a lot of fiction. A lot of fiction. I was an English major for 3 years, an English PhD student for 7, and an English & Writing professor for 15. Since I started editing full-time in 2014, I’ve worked on four creative pieces: two novels, a memoir, and a collection of personal essays. I’ve also done an aerial view of a novel, which was a comments-only read to give the writer feedback on plot, structure, and characterization; I also flagged some anachronisms and other questionable references. I enjoy editing creative works because it lets me use a different part of my brain.
It takes a slightly different skill set to do this work. Editing creative pieces is fun but labor-intensive. My experience as a professor helps me edit these works because I’ve read so much creative writing and given so much feedback. My ear for language helps me follow your story and look for places to improve it. My eye for detail finds the typos, SpellCheck gaffes, and errors of fact or usage that you might have missed. While doing this work, I’m fixing errors and writing issues while maintaining style, flow, and narrative. I’m always reminding myself that I can’t over-edit or change someone’s style just because I’d write it a different way. “We’re more than track changes on a document,” a friend observed when sharing an experience for another post. She’s right.
Before starting work on a creative project, I’m extra-careful to understand what I need to do. Every writer’s (1) needs and (2) ways of receiving feedback are different, so I always make sure the fit is right beforehand. When you’re done here, check out what these writers and these editors have to say in companion pieces about fiction editing I did a few years ago.
Here are some of the things I look for or ask myself when editing a creative piece:
- Places to trim or cut. This could be a section, a paragraph, or a sentence. Are you needlessly slowing down your story? Are you spending too much time describing a place or scene and forgetting about your characters? Do you have writing tics that are adding verbiage without adding to the story or characters?
- Wordy passages or constructions. Is there (1) a good reason for them that (2) advances the plot and/or deepens a character? Does the writing feel forced or natural in these cases?
- Excessive or unnecessary dialogue markers (“he said,” “she replied,” and so on). Are they helpful in distinguishing multiple speakers? Or are they there just…because?
- Too much story or detail. Can we cut some of the background or subplots? Can we segment a longer work into shorter, more accessible ones (e.g., adding a chapter break)? Or—perhaps more boldly—can we make your project 2-3 books instead of 1 long one? Is there too much setting or process description?
- Suggestions for better sentence or paragraph structure. Are the sentences or paragraphs stuck in a pattern? When can some shorter ones break up the text visually or punctuate a point more strongly?
- Places that seem derivative or too obviously paying homage to something else. Are the references to other writers or pop culture useful? Or, while entertaining or humorous, do they not add much to the story? Are they clever…or showy?
- Dialogue that sounds wrong. This one is tricky because it’s subjective and unpredictable—let’s call it the You Know It When You See It category. Recently, I was editing a novel set in New York. The two main characters were talking about going to see baseball games at “Shea Stadium” when they were younger. This didn’t sound right because I was pretty sure native New Yorkers would just call it “Shea.” I asked a native New Yorker and lifelong Mets fan what she thought, and she said it’d definitely be “Shea.” (The same would go for native Philadelphians of a certain age: they’d say “The Vet,” not “Veterans Stadium.”) Sometimes, small details like this go a long way in engaging the reader, and I never would have expected to need to know this before starting this edit. When in doubt, ask someone.
- More generally: Am I engaged? Am I interested? Am I bored or confused? Where am I saying “ENOUGH ALREADY” and where am I saying “MORE OF THIS PLEASE”?
When editing, I read a lot of your creative project out loud to help you improve both the story you’re telling and how you’re telling it. (Reading out loud also helps you self-edit.) Speaking the words you’ve written helps me catch clunky or confusing language that distracts me from your story. Here’s an example I created to show what I mean:
She looked up at the birds flying in the sky, seeing them through the canopy of leaves up at the tops of the nearby tree. She thought to herself that the way they fly through the air reminded her of a painter’s circular, swirling paintbrush on the canvas.
This version is 48 words. Although the intent for poetic language is there, the effect could be problematic for the reader. The wordy, redundant description can slow down the reader and get them lost in the language. For instance, we don’t necessarily need “flying in the sky” or “fly through the air” because where else are birds going to fly? “Thought to herself” is another editable phrase because we only think to ourselves. (Right?)
Here’s an edited version of the example passage:
She looked up at the birds, seeing them through the canopy of leaves in the nearby tree. She thought that their flying reminded her of a painter’s swirling brush.
This version is 29 words. It’s maybe leaner than it needs to be, but I trimmed the redundant description to sharpen the imagery. We can picture, for instance, a painter’s swirling brush more easily without the excess verbiage. The writer could decide to keep some of the original passage (e.g., “on the canvas”). In this case, I’d offer an edited version, explain why I tightened the writing, and compare the word counts. If the writer was wedded to this particular style, they could reject some or all of my edits. If nothing else, I’m alerting them to some stylistic choices that a reader might find confusing or off-putting, that a house copy editor will fix anyway—or perhaps both.
Typically, a passage like this is the rule in a creative project, not the exception. If the predominant style were leaner, I might just flag the passage because it stands out. There could be a good reason for it—say, that the character is anxious or struggling with language. If so, I’ll undo my edits. When wordy passages or redundant descriptions are the norm in a creative piece, though, you risk splintering the reader’s focus as they’re trying to understand the story you’re telling. You also risk losing the reader with a story that’s too long or stylistically dense.
Ultimately, though, I’m less concerned with ruthlessly eliminating your wordiness than I am with shaping your prose, tightening unruly constructions, trimming excess verbiage, and finding your sweet spot between prose that’s creative or graceful without being overwrought.
When possible, I slow down my edits on creative projects to digest the story and approach it as a reader would any long-form work (i.e., reading in multiple sittings). I’m also looking to add breaking point to help the reader. Sometimes, a simple line break between paragraphs allows the reader to breathe, or perhaps put down the book at a good stopping point. People are likely going to read your work in multiple sittings: say, a bit before bed, while waiting for the bus or train, or for an unpredictable time while a child is napping (#BeenThere). I’m always searching for places where a reader who has to pause for an hour or a day can pick your work back up and reenter the story smoothly.
Have an idea for another post on writing or editing topics? Let me know.