Wednesday, March 25, 2009

What Do Editors Look For?

Story arc. Does it have a beginning, middle, and end? Does the protagonist grow and evolve? Is there a sense of narrative that flows smoothly, without gaps or requiring mountain goat-like intuitive leaps on the reader's part?

Point of view. Writer Greg Frost suggests that writers "tell the story from the point of view of the character who hurts the most," and there's a lot of wisdom in that approach. As a writer, you're looking at one of the worst moments in your character's life, and how he or she got through those moments and learned and grew from them. If your character isn't the most appealing person onstage, readers may stop caring about the story you're trying to tell.

Language. This isn't just about grammar. How's the writer's control of sentence structure and pacing? Do too many sentences sound the same? Are there quirky, overused words or phrases? Is the language too passive in places?

Dialogue. Do the characters sound like real people? Does their dialogue ring true in the situations the writer puts them in? Do they have consistent voices? Do characters sometimes say too many words without a response from the person they're speaking to? Does a reader get a sense of the characters' body language while they're speaking?

Info dumps. Is the book filled with indigestible lumps of exposition that need to be dissolved into the narrative before the reader can hope to swallow them? Does a character ever turn to another character and tell her something they both already know, just for the reader's convenience? ("As you know, Bob, we have ten children.")

Organization. Does the story start in the right place? Does it go on for two chapters past the natural ending? Does it flow logically? Are we given key pieces of information when we need them, or does the murder weapon show up two chapters too late? Does anything seem jumbled or out of order?

Characters Do they seem believable? Is the protagonist likeable? Does she fit the way the author describes her? Are these people who can hold your interest for a whole book, or do we need to know more (or less) about them. Are there key details the author doesn't tell us about his characters, or things that just don't seem to fit? Do the characters fit the story, or are some of them still products of wish-fulfillment on the author's part? Are there elements that can be eliminated?

Plot. Does the plot rely on someone acting stupid for the story to succeed? Would the whole book fall apart if the hero and heroine had an honest conversation? Is it too linear, or not linear enough? Is there too much story for one book? Does it feel like a short story stretched beyond the breaking point? At key moments, is there something else that could go wrong to intensify the plot or the mess the characters find themselves in? (One of the key questions to ask as a writer or editor: "What else could go wrong here?") Is there someone who needs to die to forward the plot that the author seems reluctant to kill?

Blocking. Do the physical actions work as described? Here's where the editor needs to pay attention to whether the guns run out of bullets or whether cavalry can really charge over that terrain or whether two people can really fit together that way in zero-gravity.

Tone. Are there abrupt, unintentional shifts in tone? Is the tone appropriate for the level of emotional manipulation the writer is trying to pull off? Are there jarring moments where the language or other factors pull the reader out of the book?

Nagging issues. Do the facts line up? Are there things you're still not sold on? Make sure you pin down any little disquieting things and figure out what's really bothering you. Often it's an undiagnosed symptom in one of the other areas.

These are some of the things you can expect an independent editor to do for you.


A native Montanan, Heidi Thomas now lives in Northwest Washington. She has just had her first novel published, Cowgirl Dreams, based on her grandmother. Heidi has a degree in journalism, a certificate in fiction writing and is a member of Northwest Independent Editors Guild. She teaches writing and edits, and is working on the next books in her “Dare to Dream” series, and blogs.

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  1. A great list of things to consider, Heidi. Writers (and editors) should print it out and use it as a guideline during the editing phase.

  2. My thoughts exactly, Helen. I'm turning on my printer right now.

    Great post, Heidi.

    I especially like the quote about telling the story from the perspective of "the character who hurts the most."

    Do you have any guidelines about shifting from the point of view of one character to the other, if you have two POV characters? And would it work to use the POV of one character who is initially less appealing than the other?

  3. What a great list; I'm familiar with all of them, but I'm taking Helen's advice to print it out and use it as a guideline and reminder.

    And I especially love your phrase "indigestible lumps of exposition." It made me giggle with recognition.

  4. This is definitely a good list to ask yourself when your crafting a story before and after it is ready for the editor!

  5. This is a fantastic list. Great post. It's articles like this that get me motivated again. My main character thanks you!

  6. Super post. I love this sentence:

    Is the book filled with indigestible lumps of exposition that need to be dissolved into the narrative before the reader can hope to swallow them?

    Wonder if that's too long to tweet.


  7. Extremely useful list. I'll be checking it as I revise my current novel.

  8. DEFINITELY related to this post. And I can't say enough about the info dumps. Seems that many writers who manage to rid themselves of pesky POV and dialogue issues can still be guilty of this yawn-inducing prose--especially snooze worthy at the opening of a book. Thanks for posting!


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