Thursday, August 13, 2009

Things I have Learned in the Editing Trenches

I now have two finished novels and one almost finished non-fiction book. And I think it is safe to say that I have spent a lot more time editing these manuscripts than I did actually writing them. Though there are times I enjoy editing, sometimes it can be one huge pain in the butt.

However, I have learned so much from this process…mostly from my fabulous critique partners. Things they don’t teach you in writing classes. Things you only really learn when you make the mistake and are lucky enough to have someone point it out to you.

Here are a few things that I have learned while mucking through the messes that are my pre-edited manuscripts:

1. POV –

Point of View…….now this used to be something I was horrible at. Not just mildly bad at with the occasional mistake. Oh no. When I made POV mistakes, they were epic. I literally had four POVs in one paragraph before. And I was notorious for head hopping every other paragraph or so.

My first critique group whipped that out of me. I am now pretty sensitive to POV problems and do fairly well at avoiding them myself. But it took some work. One of my crit buddies told me to imagine a camera on the head of my main character (if that is the POV I am writing in). Then she told me that I couldn’t describe anything that that particular character couldn’t see, hear, feel, think, etc. If I wanted to get in another character’s head, I needed a scene or chapter break. It really helped curb my head hopping tendencies.

2. Getting rid of sentences that start with “I” –

This is something I’ve struggled with lately. My awesome crit partners have been breaking me of this habit. My current novel is the first I’ve written in first person. It’s taken a little getting used to. I start a LOT of sentences with the word “I.” Now, that isn’t always bad. It is in first person, so it’s going to happen.

But I have a lot of sentences that say things like “I felt,” “I heard,” “I saw.” My crit buddies point out that if I reword these sentences to get rid of the “I’s,” the sentences end up much stronger, more active. For example, one of my sentences was:

“I inhaled, breathing in the sandalwood scent of him .”

I changed it to – “The sandalwood scent of him filled my senses, making me slightly dizzy.”

A small change, and the first sentence wasn’t bad or wrong (in my opinion), but the change makes it a little more active…and gets rid of yet another sentence starting with “I.”

3. Telling vs. Showing
This is something I still struggle with. Especially when it comes to emotions. Part of this problem stems from when I write my first drafts. I tend to use a lot of narration and I also use phrases like “I was scared” or “I was mad” as place holders, intending to fill them out more with action when I go back through the second draft. Sometimes I just miss these, but there are a lot of instances when I think what I have is fine on the first read-through, when in reality, I just need to show more and tell less.

Now, sometimes it is actually better to tell than show; you can’t show every tiny thing that happens. But for the most part, if you can show the reader something with your descriptions rather than just spelling it out for them, it will make your book much stronger. (One of these days I’ll get this one down…. :D )

4. The dreaded Adverb

Okay, now don’t kick me out of the writing club, but I actually like an adverb every now and then. One of my dreams is to make it big enough that I can toss adverbs in anywhere I want and not have anyone say a word about them ;-D But yes *sigh* these are technically no-no’s, and in many cases unnecessary.

This was another thing I was horrible with when I first started writing – my first crit group gave me the very unwelcome news that editors didn’t like adverbs. It was a surprise, and not a pleasant one. But I’ve learned to do without them whenever possible. I do like to use them as placeholders during my first draft, but I try to weed them out in subsequent drafts.

Although, to be honest, I left a ton of them in my current book. I like some of them, but I also wanted to see how many I could get away with :D Not many, I’m afraid. My crit buddies have started highlighting them LOL Oh well. Some day :)

5. Repetition –

Again, something I was, and still am, horrible with. Actually, I have gotten much better. But I do tend to repeat words and phrases. And each book seems to have its own group of words that keep popping up. With my first book, it was the phrase “a bit.” I also once had a paragraph where I was describing a table. I used the word “table” six times in that one paragraph. And I was always saying my characters’ names when saying “he” or “she” would work just as well.

With this book, it is the words “though” and “headed.” Every time I have someone going somewhere, I say “they headed.” It’s horrible. I’m working on it :D

What’s interesting to me is that I am now very sensitive to this problem in other people’s manuscripts, and even in my own. Yet somehow, those words crop up and fly under my radar and my manuscripts end up peppered with them. Good thing I’ve got great crit buddies with awesome eyes :D

How about everyone else? What are some things you have learned since you began writing?


Susan R. Mills said...

Thanks for sharing. These are all things I need to work on!

Eric said...

This is great stuff. I still struggle with the adverb problem, even though I'm aware of it. I'm getting better at the POV and show versus tell stuff though. Thanks for walking through this for us. It's always helpful to be reminded of what we should be doing.

Tana said...

Excellent post! Sometimes I edit so much I get sick of my own story! lol. "I" too try not to start any sentence with the word "I". (Note I began and ended that sentence with the word 'I').

Tricia J. O'Brien said...

I learn so much critiquing/editing other people's work, as well as looking at my own with fresh eyes. I think, like physical exercise, consistent writing and editing will make us stronger.
First drafts are full of place holders and padding, but that's okay because the initial job is to lay out the story, not get distracted by scenery or be halted by grammar. And I'm hoping the more I do this, the cleaner my writing will become. And I really benefit from blog discussions such as this.

Elana Johnson said...

Everything I tell you is stuff I've learned from someone else. So yeah. We all learn along the way. That's the goal, to get better, write better, be stronger. Keep at it! You're awesome!

Rebecca Knight said...

Oh my gosh, you are not alone! I've actually blogged about this a few times, because I felt like there were so many things I was learning as I edited.

My big naughty repeat word was "realized." Everyone was "realizing" things left and right, instead of things just happening, which killed the action.

It's fascinating what you can learn from people calling out your bad habits. Critique partners are nothing short of Godsends.

Cole Gibsen said...

Fabulous advice! One thing my agent ALWAYS busts me on is cliches. So now that's something I'm hyper aware of (smooth as silk, sharp as a tack, ect.)

Shelli (srjohannes) said...

ugh - those pesky adverbs!

Unknown said...

Point #2 is something that lots of folks overlook, I think. Saying "I saw" or "he saw" is an almost invisible way of telling, but it's still telling. Rewording the sentences to *show* what the character is experiencing is eons more powerful.

Kathryn Hupp-Harris said...

Ooh, repetition. That's my big fear. I always feel like I'm using one word too often, but everyone who's read my stuff said they didn't notice.

And I think head hopping is something a lot of newbie writers do. I did, and it bit me in the rear big time.

Roni Loren said...

Great post. I definitely struggle with these as well. I just blogged about my adverb abuse today. And the "I" issue is so hard when writing first person.

worldofhiglet said...

:) it's so good to know that other people are going through the same things!

Repetition is my main fault - some phrases are so delicious they sneak into sentences without you realising it. Apart from reading critiques one thing that has really helped me is reading it all out loud. It gives a very different experience than reading on a page.

I'm podcasting my first novel as an audiobook and although I thought I had finished editing, hearing it read out by someone else has helped me make some more revisions.

Glynis Peters said...

I am retraining myself with the adverb problem. I am also working through my WiP and removing the word 'already',I have found so many they are jumping out at me now.
Interesting post,thanks.

Katie said...

I totally get you with the show vs. tell. That's my biggest weakness. When I started writing, I loved the phrase "she/he felt," which has "telling" written all over it. Showing is a lot harder, because you run out of good ways "show" things. I'm lucky enough to have two good critique groups that help me with this, but it's still difficult sometimes.

And then there's adverbs... *sigh* I'm kind of on th same page as you with that issue. I wish they weren't a taboo; I like one once in a while. I'll slip them in occassionally and hope nobody notices. ;)

Deb said...

I found your link over at b.j. anderson's. Great post! I can relate to all of these editing headaches. I'm on a 'really' and 'definitely' kick this week..