Thursday, June 26, 2014

Editing Crimes: A Case Study

Identifying facts about the subject of this case study have been changed to protect the author's reputation. 



I recently found myself stranded for four days with only one great story and one poorly edited novel at my disposal. Unfortunately both were found within the same covers. The fact that its issues were easily fixable, yet still evident in a book already published, is such a crying shame I want us all to learn from this case study.

It was exactly my kind of story, the back cover copy suggested. Great title, lush cover. A hardback, with a price of $25.99, put out by a major traditional publisher, by an acquiring editor whose name is known and trusted in the industry.

I opened it with great anticipation.

Problems emerged on page one.

Unfortunate word pairings
At the end of the first paragraph, the author used a phrase such as “ran like a hare” immediately followed by an introduction to “Tad O’Hara.” Like most of the following issues, this is a remnant of the writer’s subconscious mind at work. Such an easy fix to separate these two words! Instead, the conscious mind of the reader will forever see this character as looking “a tad like a hare”—an unwanted result, I am sure.

Overuse of unusual word
The offender: “atop.” Yes, every now and then a word like this seems the only one to get the job done. Because it isn’t used in daily speech it draws attention to itself, though, so use only once or twice per manuscript. While reading I would inspire my husband's laughter by calling out “atop” every time I saw it (every few pages, sometimes in consecutive sentences), like verbal popcorn. Hmm. Do you want people turning your drama into such a game?

Telling and showing
The author would often tell something, then show in scene how it was true—then reiterate, just in case his dull readers didn’t get it. If you’ve shown the summer weather to be variable, for instance, by having a cool rain one day and sweltering heat the next, you don’t need to tell us that temperatures in that part of the world are variable. Repeatedly. A reader wants to feel smart, not insulted.

Restatement
Closely related is the tendency to re-tell something in a subsequent sentence, just in case the first way may not have impressed the reader, as in:
He scribbled his answer on a sheet of paper. The paper lay unresponsive as he scrawled the words she sought.
This is how our minds work as we write: we put something down, then refocus it. That's process. But by the time a reader has purchased our book, we should have said exactly what we meant: once, with confidence.

Unnecessary backstory 
The reader will simply accept many things. That his wife died of cancer is one of them—we know how that typically goes, and that he was greatly tested by it. If at some point you feel moved to go back and describe her final weeks and the death scene, it better add a twist beyond what the reader has already imagined, and in a way that sheds new light on the current story—or she’ll start skimming and look for where the story restarts.

Explaining a symbol
The beauty of a symbol is that it can accumulate a world of heart-warming meaning by book’s end. Anything your character does habitually can become a symbol, even something as innocuous as habitually picking up a wife’s coat from where she tossed it on the floor and hanging it on a peg. At the end, when this character is dead and gone and the man’s grieving son has fought with him and inadvertently knocked the coat to the floor—and the widower picks it up, quietly, and replaces it on its peg—we’ll know what that means. Resist the temptation to explain such actions.

In sum:
Make sure your book is edited well. Even traditional publishers have pressures that can keep them from doing the best possible job editing your book. That's why you always get to see it last. You must be its steward and advocate.

As for this novel, that deserved so much better, I do not plan to review it—or, for that matter, even mention to anyone that I read it. See the problem here? (Or need I state it overtly and reword it, atop all else?)

Learn your lessons ahead of time, folks, and apply them pre-publication—not on your reader’s dime.

Has sloppy editing ever pulled you from a deeply desired fictive dream? What kind of issues were they—and were you able to keep reading?


Kathryn Craft
is a developmental editor at Writing-Partner.com, an independent manuscript evaluation and line editing service, and the author of The Art of Falling, a novel by Sourcebooks. Her monthly series, "Turning Whine into Gold," appears at Writers in the Storm. Connect with Kathryn at her Facebook Author Page and Twitter.

28 comments :

  1. Aargh! You can't do this to us! Now I'm going to be sitting on Amazon for the next hour, searching for $25.99 hardback books by major publishers with a character called Tad O'Hara to see if I can figure out which book this is ;-)

    But, ha ha - great post. "A tad like a hare" is a brilliant pick-up.

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    1. As for vowing to never admit to having read a certain book - one does immediately spring to mind. This one had as a plot point the fact that the protagonist had had a hysterectomy. Unfortunately the "throw the book against the wall" moment came right at the end - when the protagonist "miraculously" became pregnant. Vomit.

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    2. Oh no!!! That's really bad, unless it is sic-fi and explained down to the cellular level how this miracle could actually happen! A crying shame if you liked the rest of the book.

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    3. That is quite the accomplishment. I'm certain that character would make medical journals all over the world.

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    4. It was fantasy, there was a "god" involved, and the protagonist had apparently "earned" this "reward" because of everything she'd heroically sacrificed, blah, blah, blah, ugh.

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  2. Great story...poorly edited...traditional publisher...acquiring editor...all atop the $25.99 hardback price...ouch!

    For years independently published books fell into the you-don't-want-to-read-this-garbage category because it was deemed significantly substandard and filled with poor quality, unedited words that left the reader feeling disgusted and betrayed and desiring a "good" book to read. So now what? As Kathryn says, our job as writers includes being accountable to our readers by accepting the responsibility to be "steward and advocate" for the overall quality of our books -- and that includes addressing issues that should have been -- but were not -- caught by our editor(s). And this applies to all forms of publishing, including e-books.

    To answer your questions, Kathryn, yes and yes. I recall one book by a favorite author published by a traditional house that was so poorly edited I almost didn't finish it. I did finally, but I've never read another book by this writer. Another bad experience was a self-published novel fraught with punctuation errors, horrid sentence structure, uneven flow, and a transparent story that lacked even the depth of the paper on which it was printed. I don't remember why I finished it (I may have been asked for a review), but I will never read another book by that author, who despite being self-pubbed has a significant fan base -- which to this day I do not understand.

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    1. "...a transparent story that lacked even the depth of the paper on which it was printed."
      Love your writing, Linda, hate the concept!

      But your summary at the top of your comment—right on.

      You said you never read another book by that writer. Writers might say that's harsh; not every book a writer produces is top notch. But that's another side effect of the indie publishing boom—we have so many authors to choose from, mediocrity becomes much more dangerous.

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    3. (Oops! Sorry about the deletion. Despite my careful [?] proofreading, I didn't see an error until after I hit the publish button. As an editor who's complaining about poorly written books, I couldn't let that one go.)

      True about the upside of indie publishing -- a lot of excellent books have come from that arena. Interestingly, the one by the well-known writer that I no longer read was traditionally published, and the story was good. However, it appeared to have been released without much (if any) editing -- of course I didn't see the original manuscript, so I can't know that for certain. However, I'd read several earlier books by the same author, and they were all well edited. On the other hand, the flow in this one was compromised by frequent repetition of words, awkward sentence structures, and many punctuation errors. At one point, I put it down after exclaiming, "WHERE was her editor?" The obvious editing oversights were so distracting that I was shocked it came from a large, traditional publisher.

      My intent in commenting here was not to be harsh, and a few editing oversights don't bother me. (I also miss things when I edit.) However, a plethora of glaring errors don't create an enjoyable read, at least not for me. Perhaps my years as an editor have made me pickier than the average reader. Most of my reading years were spent with the offerings from the big houses, and the books didn't contain a lot of errors back in those days. It makes me sad to think those great publishers might have lowered their standards. And maybe this one was a fluke -- you're right. I should give the author another chance. :-)

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    4. Our errors in these comments bring up an interesting point, Linda: comments on blog posts are one of the many ways we self-publish our writing, and we should put our best public face forward!

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  3. Excellent article, as always. As an editor, I find reading less and less enjoyable as I encounter this issue with nearly every book I pick up. That includes titles from major publishers who have decimated their editorial ranks in favor of marketing, along with the egregious mistakes found in small pub and indie titles. When I find one that's been properly edited, invariably I include in my review a paragraph applauding the editor! Will that help? Somehow I doubt it.

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    1. I love that idea of applauding the editor though, Diane! It does get harder to enter into the fictive dream as you cross deeper into editing territory, for sure, but it can happen. Informed readers like me will continue to seek such an experience.

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  4. I always hear writers who don't want to learn deep craft say, "I'll let the editors deal with that stuff." I cry foul. If you want to be a writer, you should learn how to craft your words. The editor can catch the few mistakes you don't notice. It isn't his/her job to shore up shoddy construction for you. If you self-publish, it is critical to teach yourself how to edit and revise because you have no safety net. I'm finding major errors in everything these days from botched memes and headlines in national magazines and newspapers, to traditional published books rife with terrible writing. It is a sad turn of events.

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    1. Unless you're willing to pay an editor to guide/mentor you as you learn. It might mean multiple drafts, but at least you have peace of mind.

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  5. ...and then I, an editor and author writing a cautionary post, write a sloppy comment—not only using the dreaded "sci-fi" term, which I've heard aficionados detest, but typing it "sic-fi." Already published, no way to edit. Another case study!

    As you point out, Diana, it is easy to publish today—but it can be even more difficult to attract readers. We must be our own best advocates for the excellence of our work! Thanks for being one of those advocates!

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  6. As I'm in the "last edit before my editor gets it" phase of the WIP, this is a timely (and excellent) article. I recently read a book where the author used "halcyon" way more times than a word that's not part of what I think is 'common, everyday conversational' usage should appear, and I noticed every one of them. I've plugged my manuscript into a program called Smart Edit, and it's finding words I need to cull. I like to think I've learned all the lessons you've pointed out, but knowing them, and then noticing when you've failed to apply them... a whole 'nother ball game. I'm counting on my editor to improve my work, but she shouldn't have to deal with so many of the basics.

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    1. Thanks for sharing your experience, Terry. Interesting about Smart Edit—will have to check it out. Because you're right, there's only so much we can catch. But halcyon? Pretty sure the author could have caught multiple uses of that one!

      I'm in an editing phase, too. Thanks for the random flipping through my ms using Word's "find" function for the usual suspects (there, just, even, was, etc.), I happened to notice a lot of "hands"—wringing hands, holding hands, patting hands, rings twisted on hands, etc. So I went through, again using Word's find function, and changed most of them. "Hand" is just a regular word, but when drafting our minds will default to the obvious, and that was clearly one of my defaults.

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    2. Oh, great -- another one to look for! Will see if Smart Edit caught it or maybe I'm clear on that one.

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  7. Excellent post and great tips in the comments, too. Right now I'm reading a book from a small publisher that is so good in so many ways, but has repeats of gestures that make me crazy. I tend to use the same gestures a lot, like Kathryn mentioned about the hands, and I think a good editor can catch those if we don't see them ourselves. I like that we have tools like "find" to help us discover repetitions, but another set of eyes is crucial. I remember when I first started reading Faye Kellerman's series I tired of her main character constantly "blowing out a breath".

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    1. Yes, Maryann, if we took sighs, deep steadying breaths, ragged breaths, and sharp intakes of breath away from some of these characters they'd be so oxygen-deprived they'd suffocate.

      That's why I'm a fan of using setting as much as you can to indirectly suggest emotional states—human beings only have so many biological emotions to tap, but a specific setting offers so many interesting alternatives.

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    2. Peter used to smooth his mustache an awful lot, too ... those identifying gestures can turn into tics so quickly!

      I've found "The Emotion Thesaurus" gets me out of my usual ruts.

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    3. Oh, Kathryn, I'd love to read a post on using setting to suggest emotional state!

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    4. Sounds like a plan, Elle—as soon as I get my edits back to my publisher. Tight three-week turnaround and plenty to do!

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  8. Ahh, this speaks to me, especially as a new author! And one guilty of showing AND telling - but I had an amazing editorial staff point this out to me so I could be conscious of it and correct it (before print!). And so this truly resonates with me "But by the time a reader has purchased our book, we should have said exactly what we meant: once, with confidence." The revising and editing is where our voice should be shaped to shine with confidence. I will stride on to do this!

    And now writing book 2 in a series I am painfully aware of repetition as I put the words on paper. DO NOT re-state! And I think in being aware of this can also flow into the parts of your book where a special moment/revelation/awareness occurs. Pick that ONE moment of revelation and have it shine - otherwise having it shine over and over will make it lose its luster. :) Love the tip on not explaining symbolism as well!

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    1. Donna I struggle of course with the showing/telling balance as well, but hey, writing will never really get easy! It's a challenge we must rise to again and again. The thing is to recognize when we need that outside eye, right?

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  9. Guilty of telling and then showing--although I have gotten much better at catching that tic, since I've had so many people point it out to me over the years.

    And the fact that one "bad" book can turn off a fan is something we all need to remember. Writing is art, but publishing is business. You always, always need to put the best product you can out there. My last blog post over on The Goose's Quill was, in fact, on that very topic. Because every single thing you write can break you---or make your career.

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    1. Yes Kerry I saw your post, and your added marketing sensibility is important. Whether in a blog post, a blog comment, or in an entire book, you don't want to be caught with your underwear showing!

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The Blood-Red Pencil is a blog focusing on editing and writing advice. Some of our contributors are editors, some are authors, and some are writing sheep. Yes, sheep.

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