Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Third Draft Editing

As promised when I started this series on editing I have more tips to offer. What I have been posting is taken from an editing workshop that I have given at writers' conferences. I didn't realize I had so much material until I started breaking it down for this blog and realized there are literally pages of tips. Hope you are finding them helpful.

In the second draft I suggested you look at characterization, plotting and story continuity. In the third draft you will want to pay attention to pacing, voice, and style. Is the story going fast enough? Too fast? Is the dialogue natural? Concise? Is the rhythm of the words unique to your writing or does it read like every other book out there in your genre?

Some editing techniques to use:

FISH CLEANING - chop off the head and tail of scenes.
It is not necessary to have characters walk into and out of every scene. In dialogue it is not necessary to have all the courtesy talk, “thank you.” “hello.” “goodbye” You don’t have to set up a character with description or history when you introduce him or her in the story.


From Cold Sassy Tree – Three weeks after Granny Blakeslee died, Grandpa came to our house for his early morning snort of whiskey, as usual, and said to me, "Will Tweedy? Go find yore mama, then run up to yore Aunt Loma's and tell her I said git on down here. I got something to say. And I ain't a-go'n to say it but once't."

In just a few words, the reader gets a sense of these people and the place, because the author used an engaging style to “show” us these people. What are some of the things we know about Grandpa? He’s a drinker. He’s an authority figure. About the story? Grandmother just died. People pay attention to what Grandpa has to say. About the boy? He respects Grandpa. He’s obedient. This is probably going to be his story in his POV.

That kind of writing is stronger than the typical introduction that usually incorporates a detailed physical description and history.

This fish-cleaning approach to editing can be used for the entire book, by throwing out the first chapter – or at least a good chunk of it. Most of the books I have written have started out slow, and I realized after a while that the story actually began about ten to twenty pages in. And sometimes we writers have a hard time letting go of the story in that last chapter and tend to overwrite it.

Time to get out the fillet knife.

The fish-cleaning approach can also be applied to paragraphs and sentences, cutting an unnecessary clause here and there. And it does wonders for improving dialogue. How many times have you read something like: “Are you going to the store today?” “No. I’m not going to the store today.”

Chop, chop, and you get something like this: “Going to the store?” “Nope.”

People don’t talk in full sentences and don’t include every scrap of information that is pertinent to a topic. The tighter you can make your dialogue, the more natural it will sound and it will help keep the pace of the story moving. A master of terse dialogue is Robert B. Parker, who writes the Spenser PI series. His dialogue literally snaps off the page, and I encourage all writers to read one of his books to see how he handles dialogue.

Not that you will want to write exactly like he does. Not all genres call for his kind of terse writing. Depending on the mood of the story and the expectations of the genre, dialogue will be fuller and richer, but it doesn’t have to be ponderous. What a writer can learn from him is how the dialogue flows naturally from one character to the other without extraneous words. And without a lot of dialogue attributives other than "said."

The next post will be more on the third draft editing. Stay tuned....


Maryann Miller is an author and freelance editor. Her latest books are One Small Victory and Play it Again, Sam. Visit her Web site for information about her books and her editing services.

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  1. MaryAnn,

    Thanks for this great advice - especially the examples. I was wondering if, in your next installment, you could include links to all the related posts?

  2. The trick is to write kind of like people talk, but make it more interesting and more plot moving.

    Morgan Mandel/Double M

  3. I like your fish-cleaning metaphors, MaryAnn. They're memorable and enjoyable to read.

  4. I agree about the fish metaphors. I don't think I'll be able to forget that. And when I eat a fish next, I'll think - Mmmm...this is one tasty piece of prose.

  5. Mary Ann, you're so right about dialogue. It has to be believable but not like an actual conversation which is full of pauses, ers, and repetition and is often "on point." Unless a character always rambles, you want to cut. But even with a rambling character, you'll have to cut or readers will get annoyed.

  6. Thanks everyone for the good comments. Char, I will try to get the links in the next time. That is a great suggestion.

    Karen, I laughed and spit almond pieces all over my desk when I read your comment. Not sure I will ever be able to eat fish again without thinking of your comment.

  7. Miss Snark also had some good examples of your Fish Cleaning technique with her "Semi-Regular Crapometer" contests. Almost all her critiques had a terse "Start Here" about half-way through the submission.


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