Editing: Part 6 – What should I look for when I edit?

You know you have to do several rounds of edits – both content and copy edits. What do you look for each time?

Here is a list of things to look for in all your edits. You can decide for yourself what to focus on each round, and you will look for many of these items each time you edit.

  • Consider the structure and organization of the manuscript.
    • Are the scenes/chapters in a logical order? Your story must happen in sequence (though you may have a flashback to provide needed background). Your nonfiction may depend on following certain steps or building on earlier ideas. Does the story/information flow smoothly between scenes/chapters?
    • Did you include all the points/plot points needed? Your tutorial must include all the steps, even those that seem obvious to you. Your mystery must have enough clues that the solution makes the reader think, “I should have figured it out.”
    • In fiction, do your characters have goals and motivations? If the characters act without reason (not necessarily logic but reasons determined by their characters, personalities, and experiences), your story will fall apart and your readers will lose interest or give up in disgust.
    • Does your fiction include conflict? If the characters achieve their goals without overcoming obstacles or opposition, your story will be over in the first chapter.
    • Do you need to delete superfluous information or condense some scenes or points? You don’t have to tell your characters’ life histories, just what the reader needs to know. You don’t have to describe in tortuous detail in your nonfiction book how you developed your philosophy of life. Detective novelist Elmore Leonard described the success of his books this way: “I leave out the parts that people skip.”
    • Does your pacing move the reader forward at the right speed? Is the pace appropriate for the genre? Your reader should not feel like she’s out of breath because the book moves so fast, nor should she feel bored because the book moves so slow.
  • Correct grammar, spelling, punctuation, and usage.
    • If you used auto-correct while you were writing the manuscript, you shouldn’t have many spelling errors. However, you may have words that are spelled correctly but that are the wrong words. The Guide to Grammar and Writing provides an excellent resource with Notorious Confusables that lists several hundred “confusable” words – everything from your/you’re to aberrant/abhorrent.
    • Look for misplaced modifiers (“he only wanted a horse” rather than “he wanted only a horse.”), noun-verb agreement (“the man and his wife lives in town” rather than “the man and his wife live in town), pronoun/antecedent agreement (“the students gave the teacher their lessons” – their refers back to teacher instead of students; a better way: “the students gave their lessons to the teacher”), and similar problems.
    • Check your sentence structure. Avoid run-on sentences (two clauses separated by a comma rather than a semicolon, comma and conjunction, or period and capitalized next word). “She ate all the cookies, she drank the milk” could be changed to “She ate all the cookies; she drank the milk,” or “She ate all the cookies, and she drank the milk” or “She ate all the cookies. She drank the milk.”
    • Be alert for your own common errors. We all have words that we misspell, trite phrases we overuse, errors we make often. I tend to leave out words – especially not – so I end up saying the opposite of what I mean.
  • Edit for style.
    • Ensure you have followed the appropriate style guide (if applicable) or your own style sheet/information guide.
    • Beware of passive voice. You can’t totally eliminate passive voice, and some things are best written passively. However, you should use active voice as much as possible. “The ball was thrown over the fence” is passive. “John threw the ball over the fence” is active. “It was raining” is passive. “Rain poured from the sky” is active.
    • Show more than you tell. “She was angry” is telling. “She pounded her fist on the table and shouted…” is showing. You don’t have to tell the reader she was angry because you have shown her anger by her actions. Fiction writers often hear, “Show, don’t tell.” While this is generally good advice, sometimes telling is appropriate. For example, following a fight scene, you may want one of your characters to tell someone who wasn’t there. “Sue told Betty about the fight” is telling, but it’s all you need to make the reader aware that Betty knows about the fight.
    • Vary your sentence structure. I recently edited a document in which every paragraph had at least one sentence beginning with a gerund phrase: “beginning at noon,” “running through the dark,” “having won the championship.” Each sentence was fine on its own, but so many so close together became distracting.
    • Make sure you have engaged all the senses. Don’t just say a bouquet of flowers – describe what it looks like, how it smells, the emotions it evokes.
    • Eliminate unnecessary words and purple prose. Let your nouns and verbs stand on their own as much as possible. Rather than “the man with black hair walked slowly,” say “the black-haired man trudged…” Look for overuse of certain words or phrases. Leave out “that” except in those rare instances where it’s needed for clarity.
  • Ensure you have followed the conventions of the genre.
    • A romance without a happily-ever-after ending is not a romance. A mystery in which the murder isn’t solved isn’t a mystery. A how-to book that doesn’t teach the reader how to do something isn’t a how-to.
    • Each genre also has other elements not included here, such as point of view in fiction. You can find information about editing specific genres by visiting Web sites devoted to the genres or searching for “editing <genre>.”
    • The articles listed below include editing tips for fiction, academic papers, and other types of writing.

One of the best resources I’ve found on editing is Self-Editing for Fiction Writers: How to Edit Yourself Into Print. As the title indicates, the book is aimed at fiction writers, but I guarantee you that nonfiction writers will find plenty of useful information as well, especially in the chapter “Once is Usually Enough.”

What is important for you to look for when you edit that I haven’t listed?

For other views on editing, read the following articles:
Barbara Dawson Smith’s Self-Editing Checklist
Editing Fiction by Lee Masterson and Tina Morgan
Jeff Chapman’s Self-Editing Checklist
Paisley Currah’s Writing Guide: Writing is Revising
Self-Editing by Glen and Karen Bledsoe
Self-Editing by Lori Handeland
Self-Editing and Revising Your Fiction by S. D. Farrell

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