Thursday, July 15, 2010

The Art of Editing

It's Lisa here, with a few ideas about editing your manuscript.

I've spent the last few weeks doing major edits on two books that will be released the beginning of next year, and while it was a lot of work, it was worth every moment. Often, before the long rounds of edits come, your story looks a bit like this flower, dull and one dimensional. But that's okay--for now.

I’ve created a checklist of ten common problems to watch for as you edit and polish your manuscript before sending it to an editor.

1. Every action needs a motivation:

Your characters can get away with doing almost anything if they have the right motivation. There is nothing more irritating, for example, than two characters fighting with each other when there is no valid reason for the dispute. Give them a valid motivation for their actions, then let them go at it. If an editor has to continually ask “Why are they doing that?” there’s a good chance that your manuscript isn’t going to make it out of the slush pile. But with a little added motivation, your storyline can become believable.

2. Check your timeline:

If you’re finding it hard to keep up with which day you’re on in your story, it’s a safe bet that the editor will probably be confused as well. A great solution to avoiding this problem is using a real calendar. List what happens on each day of your story on your calendar. This way you won’t confuse anyone by celebrating Christmas when the rest of the story is set in July! This practice will also help you to remember to write transitions throughout the book, so your reader doesn’t get confused in not knowing how much time has passed.

3. Start in the middle of the action:

It’s not necessary to write in every detail of situation. If your hero has to reveal a chilling revelation to the heroine, skip the long drive across town, pulling into the driveway and the Hello, John, how are you? I’m fine, and yourself? dialogue. A reader only wants to hear the most important parts. And don’t forget to stop before the long string of good-byes. Every sentence, paragraph and scene needs to move the story forward. If it slows down too much, so does the editor’s interest and your chances of a successful proposal with it.

4. Stilted dialogue:

If you’re wondering about how realistic your dialogue will sound to an editor, then try reading it out loud to yourself. This will help you catch any stilted sections. Another idea is to listen to people around you. What makes their words unique? Then look at your own characters. Are they educated or uneducated? Where do they come from? Does the dialogue fit the time period? Does each character have something unique about them so the reader can tell automatically who’s speaking? Attention to little details goes a long way in making your characters come alive to the editor.

5. Smooth POV:

Don’t confuse the readers by skipping from one point of view to another. Make a clear distinction when changing from one person to another. If an editor gets lost, it will pull them out of the story and possibly send your story straight to the slush pile.

6. Compelling opening hook:

You have very little time to catch an editor’s attention. If you don’t grab them in the first few sentences, they’ll probably toss your manuscript. Many new authors spend the first chapter or two setting up the background of their characters with lots of backstory they believe is essential to the storyline. While some of this information might be important, it’s more important to start your book in the middle of the action. You can always go back later and add in details from the past, but keep your first few chapters in the present.

7. End of chapter hooks:

After you send in your proposal, the next thing you want is for the editor to have to read more of your story. So how do you keep them not only interested in your first few chapters, but begging for more? One way is to end each chapter with a strong hook that will compel them to read on. You need that editor to HAVE to know what happens to your heroine who’s hanging on the edge of a cliff about to fall into a river full of piranhas. Hooks can come in a number of forms: life and death actions; internal questions; or simply shocking information. Anything that will force them to turn the page so they can find out what happens.

8. Use appropriate language:

It’s important to insure that your characters dialogue is consistent with the time period your story is set in. Don’t expect your Victorian heroine to speak like a woman living in Texas in 2009. Nor can your present-day hero from New York act like a cowboy from the Deep South. It’s also important to learn as much as you can about your time period so that your characters act accordingly. Research, research, and more research is the key to building believable characters.

9. Watch out for clichés:

You can make your writing unique by using fresh lines, or tired by using overused clichés. Editors will spot clichés faster than a speeding bullet and toss your manuscript into the trash quicker than a New York minute. Get my point?

10. Make a good first impression:

There are certain things, like manuscripts printed on colored paper and wrapped in bows, that will mark you as an amateur. Every writer wants their manuscript to stand out, but “cutesy” isn’t the way. Ask yourself, does your manuscript look professional? Do you even know what it takes to make it look professional? There are dozens of good writer books as well as sources online that show you exactly what editors want. It’s also important to thoroughly check out a publisher’s website, so you only send them exactly what they want. Once again, research, research, and you guessed it, more research.

Try applying the principles on this checklist on your own manuscript, and you’ll up your chances of an editor giving your manuscript a second look!

With hard work, your story will start to come to life as you flesh out your characters, tighten your plot, and develop the sensory descriptions of your setting by adding color and depth to your work of art.

Lisa Harris is the author of twenty novels and novelas, including Blood Ransom, a powerful thriller about the modern-day slave trade and those who dare to challenge it--from Zondervan. She lives with her family in Mozambique where they are involved in church planting and humanitarian aid. Visit her website for more writing tips!


  1. Very helpful tips, Thank you Lisa.

  2. These were some excellent tips on editing and polishing one's manuscript.I just finished a major edit on a new book that is coming out before Christmas and it is so much work, isn't it?
    Tracy Krauss