Edit Your Shit, Part One: The Copy-Edit
Like I said on Monday (“Welcome to Editordome“), it’s best to attack your edits like it’s a layer cake:
First layer: the icing. Attack the surface elements. Edit for spelling, grammar, punctuation.
Second layer: the cake. Time to start attacking the content. The plot, the pacing, the characters, the dialogue. The cake itself has lots of sub-icing layers, so address each in turn.
Third layer: the context. Hey, food is about place and time just as much as it is about recipe. Eating a slice of wedding cake on someone’s lovely wedding day is going to feel a lot different than wedding cake eaten on Death Row in a Maximum Security Prison. And that’s what we’re talking about — feel. It’s time to do a pass to see how it feels. How do the themes stack up? The motifs? The mood?
Let’s talk about that first layer. The icing. The copy-edit.
I generally do a quick first copy-edit just to clean up the draft, then do my deeper cuts before returning to a final copy-edit. Reason I like to copy-edit up front is because it attends to my nit-picky need, and if I do a content edit first, I’ll be tripped up at the starting line by typos and wayward commas. I’ll fall down before the race even begins, like an obsessive-compulsive forced to pick up each grain of spilled rice.
Your mileage may of course vary.
Time to help identify those things you’re going to look for in a copy-edit. Time to put on our roach-stomping shoes and do a roach-stomping dance. Stomp stomp stomp, squish squish squish.
Time to look for typos and misspellings, but also for homonyms — you typed toad, but meant toed. Through/threw, led/lead, and so on and so forth.
Pro-tip? Tell spell check to go fuck itself. Think of the spell-checker as SkyNet — last thing you want to do is make that mad robot active because his first order of business will be to eradicate all life inside your manuscript. It is very easy for you to mess something up and accidentally write over the name of your magical unicorn fantasy town (“Unitopia!”) with some fucked-up corrected spelling (“Uterus!”). I use the spell-checker to highlight words that look off, but I don’t let the robot do it. I do it. Manually. Using my human reason. I might right-click on a word, make sure I get the proper spelling from a list, but some words are meant to be misspelled (proper names, local color, etc).
You need to understand grammar. You don’t need to be consumed by it — it’s not important that you know the technical name for the mistakes you’re making necessarily, but it’s damn sure important for you to know when something looks off. (And often the way to tell if something looks off is if it sounds off — remember, read everything aloud. Or you’ll make Word Jesus cut out his tongue and slap you with it.)
Don’t overdo the commas. Watch your subject-verb agreements, your pronoun-antecedent agreements, your plural-versus-possessive, and so forth. I could spend a hundred posts talking about all the grammatical fiddly bits, but I don’t have to do that because God Gave Us Grammar Girl. If you’re not occasionally flitting over to her site just to bone up, then here, let me hold out the flat of my hand — now, grab my wrist, and jerk my arm toward your face so that you’re making me slap you.
It’s like this:
Every sentence is a path to the next sentence. Your goal is to move the reader forward…
a) without leaving them confused
b) still feeling like it was a compelling sentence.
You must walk the line between clarity and complexity.
If the only thing we cared about was clarity every story would read like a Dick and Jane book. The reader likes rhythm in her sentences, though: she likes the way it sounds, she likes the flow of language and how it carries information as much as the information it carries. But if all we concerned ourselves with was that complexity, a Stephen King novel would read like a 900-page e.e. cummings poem. And hey, I like e.e.’s poetry, but we’re not writing poetry, are we? We’re writing a novel.
Writers tend toward over-complicating a sentence than they do toward simplification, however. This results in one of my most frequently given notes whenever I’m developing someone’s work, and that note is — in big, red, capital letters — “AWK.” It means “awkward,” which in turn means, “I don’t know what the fuck you’re saying.” You’ve thrown too many ingredients into the soup and now it tastes like murky gruel.
You’ll find sentences like these most often when you read aloud. Ask yourself, “What the hell am I trying to say, here?” Every additional word, every additional comma, every additional idea you pack into a sentence means you’re creating a series of speedbumps and potholes for the reader as they travel through your narrative. Worst thing in the world is to have a reader get caught on a sentence and stop there like they blew a tire. I read a bad sentence and I can’t stop reading it — it’s like I’m tonguing a broken tooth even though I know it hurts.
Because writers have a tendency toward florid language and complex constructions, I advise you to err on the side of simplicity. During your edit, you’ll need to find all the awkward bits and straighten them out.
Ultimately, I’d rather you be clear than complicated. Your prose can be as beautiful as a butterfly made of unicorn wishes, but if nobody knows what the fuck you’re talking about, then nobody will care.
Watch your word choice. Once more, err on the side of simplicity. Mean what you say and say what you mean. Words that are complicated or clunky (or just plain mean something different than you hoped) are like rusty nails poking out of a barn wall. Don’t let the reader get caught on them.
Don’t use pretentious “smart people” words. Don’t say “puissance” when you mean “strength.” Don’t say “perspicacity” if you mean “intelligence,” or “insight.” I’m not saying to dumb your language down — but every sentence needn’t be a midterm exam for the reader, okay? If you have the reader running for a dictionary every five minutes, you’re going to lose most of them.
This, by the way, lies at the heart of why a lot of writing advice will tell you avoid Thesauruses. I fucking love the Thesaurus, though, just not for the reason you think. See, I have a brain like a sieve, and sometimes, I can’t quite think of the word I mean to use. I don’t turn to the Thesaurus to complicate my language. I turn there to remember words that my brain has forgotten, because my brain is a total asshole.
You see a fancy word come sauntering through those saloon doors?
You shoot ’em dead between his eyes, right below his fancy page boy haircut.
Sentence fragments often break flow and hamper rhythm. Not saying you can’t use them — while they’re technically a no-no, they can be used to good effect when used sparingly. Best way to know if a fragment works is — drum roll, please — read it aloud. You’ll hear if it flows or slows.
This is one of my writing crutches, and I see it all the time in the writing of others: junk language.
A little junky language can stylistically lend itself toward a conversational tone, but your best bet remains to chop it off at the knees. Ultimately, very, perhaps, maybe, kinda, sorta, just, really, sometimes, and so forth. Junk language muddies the waters and slows the flow. Cut those words and find yourself with a better, clearer sentence.
Also, you’ll end up with a more confident sentence. Writers must be assertive. Wimpy language is for wimpy writers. If you want your prose to be a limp noodle, hey, that’s on you.
And yes, those truly astute among you will notice that I use junk language here at terribleminds all the damn time. I know. Don’t be “that guy.” You don’t need to tell me. Be advised, however: These are my blog posts, buddy. If I hand you a novel to edit, I hope you’ll chop my work to bits. If I hand you a free blog post, I hope you’ll refrain from picking nit lest I be forced to collapse your trachea.
If you hop from project to project, it’s easy to jump the track and move your tenses around. Past to present, present to past. Watch for it. Fix it. What else is there to say?
So too with issues where you’re screwing up your point-of-view. A first-person limited shouldn’t suddenly leap into third-person omniscient. If you don’t know what these things mean… well, time to learn.
Another crutch of mine: you get caught on a word and use it like, seventeen times in a single paragraph. You’ll catch these most easily (surprise surprise) when your read your work aloud.
I am not necessarily of the camp that says All Adverbs Are Bad And Need To Be Drowned In A Washtub. I’ll just say that 90% of them are crap. And 100% of adverbs attached to dialogue tags are crap.
“I love adverbs!” Tommy said enthusiastically!
“I love adverbs!” Tommy exclaimed, or Tommy enthused, or even better? The exclamation point and use of the word ‘love’ are all the information we need to indicate that Tommy gets a word-boner for adverbs.
Hell, you should probably just ditch the exclamation point.
And since we’re talking about it, “said” is nine times out of ten the only dialogue tag you need (if you even need one). “Asked” is another good, simple one. Don’t stray too far from these two.
Passivity in language is as appealing as wet bread. And not bread sodden with delicious gravy. I’m talking about like when you have a sandwich, but then you also have some steamed vegetables, and the veggie water (aka “veggie urine”) runs down the plate and soaks the bottom of the bread and now it’s just this swampy sandwich? Egh. Puke. Baaaaarf.
Note that I didn’t say, “The bottom of the bread is soaked by the veggie urine that runs down the plate.”
John is not killed by Mary; Mary kills John.
I’m not one of those people who thinks that the “to be” verb kills sentences (is, was, will be), but I do agree that minimizing its use will lead to more evocative, active sentences.
“He was sitting in the corner” is fine.
“He sat in the corner” is a lot better.
In fact, the “to be” construction often lends itself more toward telling than showing, and the latter is always preferable. “Scooter was a cowboy,” well, okay. But I’d much rather you devote a couple more words toward showing me that he’s a cowboy. Lead me to water, but don’t force me to drink.
Also, and this continues to be my crusade, anytime you see the construction “there is,” bury a hatchet in its brain before it bites you and spreads its virulent disease. You can, 99% of the time, say it a helluva lot better if you ditch “there is” and create a more active sentence.
Trust me. Try it out. You’ll see.
Metaphors That Just Don’t Make Any Goddamn Sense
I love metaphors. I would make love to metaphors all day long if it were legal in this state. It’s part of why I adore this blog: I can frolic in fields of swaying metaphors all day long.
But in your novel, you’d better keep an eye on them before they get out of hand. I’m not saying don’t use them. You can make killer literary hay out of those metaphors. You look at an author like Joe Lansdale, well, that guy’s the king of of batshit metaphors. And they always work, even when they don’t.
You don’t have that luxury.
If a metaphor doesn’t really make as much sense as you thought it did when you wrote it and a solution isn’t close at hand, just chop its head off and kick it in a ditch. A broken metaphor (“That pony was as ugly as a three-dollar swing-set!”) does to the reader the same thing I’ve been talking about this whole post: it stops them from reading. They must pause. They must consider. They will scratch their head and mumble.
And then they’ll put your book down.
When In Doubt, Execute
Final comment: when you read over something and you’re like, “Ehhh, I dunno, maybe it can stay?” No. It can’t. If justification doesn’t come easy, then edit that fucker into oblivion.