Levels of Editing
Editing can be done at three levels.
- Structure Edit
- Copy Edit
- Line Edit
The last, line edit, is what most of us probably think of. This is where commas and spelling get fixed. And it’s usually the last edit before checking the galleys that will go into print.
Structure edit, the first kind, looks at the ebb and flow of emotion and action. Does the story start with a bang and hook the reader right away, or do they have to suffer through long paragraphs of yellowing leaves and chill winds before figuring out who the main character is and what problem he or she faces?
In the middle is the copy edit. It may include some of the other two, but is primarily focused at the sentence and paragraph level. Are they all necessary? Which ones can be cut to remove things that would tire or distract the reader? What needs to move later–often this will be background information–in the story to accentuate the early action? Are the climaxes really climactic or do they need some sprucing up?
Case in Point
My story, Maulball, is undergoing a rewrite, from first person POV, Point Of View, to third. This enables the moderator, the voice telling the story, to comment on a character’s feeling, something that the main character may feel, but not understand. The narrator can tell us why someone is feeling what they feel even though the character doesn’t know the root of his fear.
Recently out for a copy edit, here are a couple of the editor’s remarks1.
Capitalization of Pronouns
Here’s one of the editor’s corrections. In my draft, I capitalized “Mom” but, because it’s not at the beginning of the sentence, it shouldn’t be. 2
Someone who’s nit-picky about such things would interrupt their reading at that point.
“That shouldn’t be capitalized,” they’d think before resuming.
Generically, I call those kinds of things “bumps in the road.” They take some readers out of the story; they interrupt the flow. So, as much as possible, I want to get rid of them. (I call this kind of change, “smoothing.”)
The words like and as often signal that a metaphor is going to be used.
When I was writing the draft, I wanted to show the boys as a rough and tumble bunch. Everyone always had scrapes and bruises. So I thought that comparing the three little kids to “parts of an old, cracked clot” could do double-duty.
But, with the editor’s flashlight focused there, I have to agree. It’s an odd metaphor and will stop the reader to ask, “Like a what?”
I’ll smooth it over by having the tykes stick together, but without the metaphor.
“Too Many Notes”
In the movie, “Amadeus,” Mozart is told that one of his compositions is too long, that it has “Too many notes.”
And it’s too much for the reader to remember.
As the editor points out, this is Teddy’s story. The others are there to provide his education. While the actions of each character are significant, that’s only to the goal of teaching an important lesson. Who teaches it is not important. The lesson matters, not the teacher.
The number of players can’t really be reduced–the story needs a gang of kids to work–but only a few of them need names.
Teddy, Bebop, John, and Jim McKnight will remain, but the trio will lose their individual names. And Shark and Butthole, the captains of the two teams, will be relegated to their titles. Everyone else will disappear into a nameless fog to make it easier for the reader to keep track of who’s who.
Who Is the Main Character?
“Since Teddy is the main character in this story, start us with him rather than Shark and Butthole.”
The “Did,” “Did not,” “Did too” opening is in the old, first-person telling. I’m used to it that way, and frankly never thought anything of it.
But I see the editor’s point. As is, the reader gets to ponder Shark and Butthole and wonder how those names came about, before seeing Teddy which, in comparison, isn’t particularly interesting.
Surely, he can’t be the main character?
But he is. And his placement in the story needs to tell the reader as much.
Fortunately, all that’s need is a little shuffling of paragraphs. The one starting with “Teddy stood to the side …” will move to the very beginning.
Then, to shift the focus for the upcoming dialog, “Shark and Butthole, their ten-year-old chins jutting out …” will become paragraph number two, and their “Did,” “Did not,” and “Did too!” exchange will follow and be ended by Shark’s bellowed, “Well, … we don’t want him.”
Having been edited several times (and over several stories), I’ve learned something about myself: I don’t like being criticized.
I suppose that’s true for a lot of people, but if we’re smart, we take it in, evaluate the words, and decide if it’s correct or not. And when the criticism is accurate, we can decide how to change.
For me, that means when I receive an editor’s comments, I start down a path that I’ve learned will take a couple of days to traverse. On my first read of the editor’s comments, I will immediately agree with some. For the most part, these will be in their markup of punctuation and simple word choice.
But there will also be some comments that make me feel a pulse of annoyance. My first reaction is anger. “They don’t understand,” I might say to myself at that point. And if that were as far as it went, the editor’s words would be dismissed. I wouldn’t implement that suggestion.
But I’ve learned to leave things alone for a few days. And more often than not, a more rational part of my mind will appear and say, “You know, the editor is right. Changing it like they say will make the story flow better. The reader will stay deeper in the experience if I do it their way instead of what I wrote at first.”
So, when I get an edit back with markup, I do this:
- Read their comments and suggestions but do nothing;
- Wait a couple of days;
- Re-read the markup and Accept3 the simple changes, and then re-import the changed text back into Scrivener;
- Wait another day or two;
- Re-read the suggestions that raise my blood pressure–not as much now as before–and look at ways to implement them, and then finally decide if the new arrangement is better or worse; and
- Make any final changes (in Scrivener).
My editor’s suggestions really do make the story better.
I just have to let my ego cool its jets.
The screen captures are from Microsoft Word. It allows the author to see what’s being suggested, and for the editor to leave additional comments. Although I use Scrivener to write and maintain my fiction, shifting to and from Microsoft Word is a de facto industry requirement. And for the purpose at hand, seeing my original text versus what the editor thinks and suggests, it works quite well. ↩︎
Chicago Manual of Style, Seventeenth Edition, section 5.40. ↩︎
That’s a button-press in Microsoft Word. ↩︎