Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Top Ten Things I Know About Editing

We're excited to have guest blogger Alex Sokoloff posting today. Alex is well know in the writing world for her excellent blog and workshop, The Dark Salon, which offers great writing and editing advice. In addition, her debut ghost story, THE HARROWING, was nominated for both a Bram Stoker award and Anthony award for Best First Novel. Her second supernatural thriller, THE PRICE, was called “some of the most original and freshly unnerving work in the genre” by the New York Times Book Review. And her third spooky thriller, THE UNSEEN, is just out.

Top Ten Things I Know About Editing by Alexandra Sokoloff

Great to be here among the savage — I mean, dedicated — editors and authors of Blood Red Pencil!

Before I started writing novels, I worked as a theater director, a Hollywood story analyst, and a screenwriter. All of those jobs have given me some pretty useful perspectives on editing. So for today’s guest blog I’ve put the best things I know into one of those ever-popular Top Ten lists:

1. Cut, cut, cut.
When you first start writing, you are reluctant to cut anything. Believe me, I remember. But the truth is, beginning writers very, very, VERY often duplicate scenes, and characters, too. And dialogue, oh man, do inexperienced writers duplicate dialogue! The same things happen over and over again, are said over and over again. It will be less painful for you to cut if you learn to look for and start to recognize when you’re duplicating scenes, actions, characters and dialogue. Those are the obvious places to cut and combine.

Some very wise writer (unfortunately I have no idea who) said, “If it occurs to you to cut, do so.” This seems harsh and scary, I know. Often I’ll flag something in a manuscript as “Could cut”, and leave it in my draft for several passes until I finally bite the bullet and get rid of it. So, you know, that’s fine. Allow yourself to CONSIDER cutting something, first. No commitment! Then if you do, fine. But once you’ve considered cutting, you almost always will.

2. Read your book aloud. All of it. Cover to cover.
The best thing I know to do to edit a book — or script — is read it aloud. The whole thing. I know, this takes several days, and you will lose your voice. Get some good cough drops. But there is no better way to find errors — spelling, grammar, continuity, and rhythmic errors. Try it, you’ll be amazed.
3. Find a great critique group.
This is easier said than done, but you NEED a group, or a series of readers, who will commit themselves to making your work the best it can be, just as you commit the same to their work. Editors don’t edit the way they used to and publishing houses expect their authors to find friends to do that kind of intensive editing. Really.

4. Do several passes.
Finish your first draft, no matter how rough it is. Then give yourself a break — a week is good, two weeks is better, three weeks is better than that — as time permits. Then read, cut, polish, put in notes. Repeat. And repeat again. Always give yourself time off between reads if you can. The closer your book is to done, the more uncomfortable the unwieldy sections will seem to you, and you will be more and more okay with getting rid of them. Read on for the specific kinds of passes I recommend doing.

5. Whatever your genre is, do a dedicated pass focusing on that crucial genre element.
For a thriller: thrills and suspense. For a mystery: clues and misdirection and suspense. For a comedy: a comedic pass. For a romance: a sex pass. Or “emotional” pass, if you must call it that. For horror… well, you get it.

I write suspense. So after I’ve written that first agonizing bash-through draft of a book or script, and probably a second or third draft just to make it readable, I will at some point do a dedicated pass just to amp up the suspense, and I highly recommend trying it, because it’s amazing how many great ideas you will come up with for suspense scenes (or comic scenes, or romantic scenes) if you are going through your story JUST focused on how to inject and layer in suspense, or horror, or comedy, or romance. It’s your JOB to deliver the genre you’re writing in. It’s worth a dedicated pass to make sure you’re giving your readers what they’re buying the book for.

6. Know your Three Act Structure.
If something in your story is sagging, it is amazing how quickly you can pull your narrative into line by looking at the scene or sequence you have around page 100 (or whatever page is ¼ way through the book), page 200, (or whatever page is ½ way through the book), page 300 (or whatever page is ¾ through the book) and your climax. Each of those scenes should be huge, pivotal, devastating, game-changing scenes or sequences (even if it’s just emotional devastation). Those four points are the tentpoles of your story.

7. Do a dedicated DESIRE LINE pass in which you ask yourself for every scene: “What does this character WANT? Who is opposing her/him in this scene? Who WINS in the scene? What will they do now?”

8. Do a dedicated EMOTIONAL pass, in which you ask yourself in every chapter, every scene, what do I want my readers to FEEL in this moment?

9. Do a dedicated SENSORY pass, in which you make sure you’re covering what you want the reader to see, hear, feel, taste, smell, and sense.
10. Finally, and this is a big one: steal from film structure to pull your story into dramatic line.

I’ve compiled a checklist of story elements that I use both when I’m brainstorming a story on index cards, and again when I’m starting to revise. I find it invaluable to go through my first draft and make sure I’m hitting all of these points.


  • Opening image
  • Meet the hero or heroine
  • Hero/ine’s inner and outer desire.
  • Hero/ine’s arc
  • Inciting Incident/Call to Adventure
  • Meet the antagonist (and/or introduce a mystery, which is what you do when you’re going to keep your antagonist hidden to reveal at the end)
  • State the theme/what’s the story about?
  • Allies
  • Mentor (possibly. May not have one or may be revealed later in the story).
  • Love interest
  • Plant/Reveal (or: Setups and Payoffs)
  • Hope/Fear (and Stakes)
  • Time Clock (possibly. May not have one or may be revealed later in the story)
  • Sequence One climax
  • Central Question
  • Act One climax

  • Crossing the Threshold/ Into the Special World (may occur in Act One)
  • Threshold Guardian (maybe)
  • Hero/ine’s Plan
  • Antagonist’s Plan
  • Training Sequence
  • Series of Tests
  • Picking up new Allies
  • Assembling the Team
  • Attacks by the Antagonist (whether or not the Hero/ine recognizes these as being from the antagonist)
  • In a detective story, questioning witnesses, lining up and eliminating suspects, following clues.


  • Completely changes the game
  • Locks the hero/ine into a situation or action
  • Can be a huge revelation
  • Can be a huge defeat
  • Can be a “now it’s personal” loss
  • Can be sex at 60 — the lovers finally get together, only to open up a whole new world of problems


  • Recalibrating — after the shock or defeat of the game-changer in the Midpoint, the hero/ine must Revamp The Plan and try a New Mode of Attack.
  • Escalating Actions/ Obsessive Drive
  • Hard Choices and Crossing The Line (immoral actions by the main character to get what s/he wants)
  • Loss of Key Allies (possibly because of the hero/ine’s obsessive actions, possibly through death or injury by the antagonist).
  • A Ticking Clock (can happen anywhere in the story)
  • Reversals and Revelations/Twists. (Hmm, that clearly should have its own post, now, shouldn't it?)
  • The Long Dark Night of the Soul and/or Visit to Death (aka All Is Lost)

  • Often can be a final revelation before the end game: the knowledge of who the opponent really is
  • Answers the Central Question


The third act is basically the Final Battle and Resolution. It can often be one continuous sequence — the chase and confrontation, or confrontation and chase. There may be a final preparation for battle, or it might be done on the fly. Either here or in the last part of the second act the hero will make a new, FINAL PLAN, based on the new information and revelations of the second act.

The essence of a third act is the final showdown between protagonist and antagonist. It is often divided into two sequences:

  1. Getting there (storming the castle)
  2. The final battle itself
  • Thematic Location — often a visual and literal representation of the Hero/ine’s Greatest Nightmare
  • The protagonist’s character change
  • The antagonist’s character change (if any)
  • Possibly allies’ character changes and/or gaining of desire
  • Could be one last huge reveal or twist, or series of reveals and twists, or series of final payoffs you've been saving (as in BACK TO THE FUTURE and IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE).
  • RESOLUTION: A glimpse into the New Way of Life that the hero/ine will be living after this whole ordeal and all s/he’s learned from it.

If these story elements are new to you, here’s a link to a LOT more detail:
So, anyone have a top few editing tips for me? I’m always looking!
Happy editing!

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  1. Great post. Succint. Concise. The perfect template to keep us on point. Thank you so much.

  2. That was a superb post. I've been finding this blog increasingly helpful, but this particular post is one of the best yet.

  3. Fantastic post.I have saved it on my desk top to refer to often.

  4. You guys are up early! Well, no, you're in different time zones. And Anton is in the different universe of Ireland.

    I am so glad the post was helpful. That thing about cutting? I can't tell you how many times I had to hear it from different people until I finally started to believe it.

  5. Thanks, Lauri! It's funny how putting concepts in a list of ten always somehow makes them easier for me to absorb.

  6. Excellent post! I printed it off and am keeping it for all future revisions. Lots to chomp on this one.

    Thank you!

  7. Fabulous post Alexandra. I've bookmarked your blog and will explore there, as well.

    Congratulations on your books!

    Straight From Hel

  8. Very good advice. Great for all authors.

  9. These ideas and suggestions are terrific, practical and doable. Very good. Gonna print this, bookmark it, and cut and paste it in an email and send to myself so it never gets away. Thanks.

    Best Regards, Galen.

  10. Wow, EVERYONE'S up early this morning. You all make me feel like a slacker!

  11. Galen, you make me laugh. I have to put things in at least three places to keep track of them, too.

    What a relief that I'm not the only one.

  12. Outstanding post, especially the advice to cut, cut, cut. I sometimes read manuscripts for new writers and find wordiness a problem as well as high-tension scenes bogged down by descriptions or explanations.

  13. Patricia, thanks for the backup on cutting! I really think you have to have several scripts or books under your belt before you start to get this one, and you finally get comfortable with cutting.

    These days it doesn't bother me to throw out several chapters at a time. It actually starts to feel good.

  14. Great post, Alex. I like that you included the 3-act structure. Not a lot of novelists (without screenwriting backgrounds) are even aware of it. I often get blank stares when I bring it up.

    But it works just as well with novels as it does with screenplays.

  15. I am going to print this and put it above my desk as I work through my current script. Clear, concise advice as always, Alex. Thanks!

  16. Thanks Alexandra.More than useful!

  17. The story elements checklist is superb. I forwarded this link to everybody in my writer's group.

  18. Rob, you could not be more right that the Three Act Structure works just as well for novels as for scripts. Checking the act breaks is the fastest way I know to bring a draft to the next level.

  19. Alessia Brio, you have the best name in the world! Glad this all helped.

  20. Nice to see you here, Tea Lady! Good luck with the script!

  21. Hi, Paul and Mark!

    (Note to self... have to hang out on this site more often. Very nice percentage of men, here.)

  22. Thanks, Helen, and you're welcome, Christine!

    And Kelly, who is that adorable personage in your avatar? What a star!

  23. Just one modification to the read out loud recommendation.
    The human mind assumes and even if you read out loud you still may miss things.

    Get a text to speech program and run your manuscript through it. The computer isn't going to see missing words where they should be, sentences with incorrect grammar will stand out like flashing neon lights and so on.

    There are a couple of programs that plug right in to Word, allowing you to turn on text to speech in word itself, as well as programs that are stand alones. Get one of the Neospeech or Cepstral voices to go with it so you aren't listing to a computer voice as it reads.

  24. Followed the link from Twitter. As always, an awesome and very helpful post. I'm going to have to copy & Paste so I can refer to it as I (try) to complete my book.

    Thanks Alex!

  25. Crystalwizard, this is an excellent suggestion.

    Also terrifying, for a technophobe.

    I will bite the bullet and try it, though. It would save my voice, anyway...

  26. Terry, there is no TRY. Just DO it! Dare to be bad.

    Once you're finished, anything can be fixed. Just get to the end.

    As I have posted before (sorry, LJ!) - Your first draft is ALWAYS going to suck. Mine sure do.

  27. Hi Alexandra -- loved your seminar at RT and love this post, too. I'm in the middle of an agent requested Ruthless Revision and I have to laugh. EVERYTHING I ever thought "should I cut this" during all of my draftings is now going. If only I'd heard your advice sooner! (I know, I know -- I wouldn't have listened...)

  28. Jeffe, believe me, we ALL need to get to that point that we actually listen to the cutting advice.

    You're there now, that's all that matters. Great luck with the Ruthless Revision, and very glad to have been of some help.

  29. You win two awards today.

    1. Best Blog Name Ever.

    2. Most useful post I've read in days!

    This is my first time at The Blood-Red Pencil, but I think you just taught me everything I learned in my semester-long screenwriting class.

    So thanks!

  30. Marie, you're welcome, and thank YOU, how great of you to say.

    Yes, unfortunately, the people who end up teaching screenwriting often have had zero experience actually doing that completely insane thing that professional screenwriting is.

    But it does have its moments... and OH, does it have its lessons.

  31. Excellent advice. Thanks for sharing :)

  32. Wow, this is an excellent post - packed with great information. I really appreciate such a comprehensive list of ways to view my work when doing editorial passes. I've never thought of some of these before, and I think I'll get a lot out of this.

    Thank you!

    Elle Parker

  33. Great stuff, Alex. Reading the ms aloud is a great tip. Even better is having someone else read it to you. Hearing the dialog really helps. And when they stumble or hesitate, you know there's a problem.

  34. Read aloud. Absolutely great advice. I'm going to have to lock myself in the bathroom this weekend!

  35. Alex, thanks for stopping by! I'll be back again later.


  36. Wonderful! I have it bookmarked and will refer back on a regular basis. Cut? What a concept. This post is invaluable.

  37. Really enjoyed your blog, Alex!

    I think I enjoy everything that comes after the first draft. First drafts are work, the subsequent drafts and passes are much more fun.

    For things I don't want to cut/lose totally I drop into a file for later. Recycling. ;-)

  38. Lots of great tips to remember. Thanks a bunch.

    Morgan Mandel

  39. >>>I think I enjoy everything that comes after the first draft. First drafts are work, the subsequent drafts and passes are much more fun.<<<

    Cat, I couldn't agree more. I love rewriting! That first draft is just something to survive, as far as I'm concerned. After that, it's cake.

  40. Hey Christine and Joe! Oh YEAH, reading aloud is the best. It's astounding what you catch.

    I'd rather do it myself than have someone else do it, though.

  41. Thanks for having me, Morgan and Dani! I love this blog.

    Lone Cowgirl, it's cut cut CUT. ;)

  42. Thanks for the advice. :) I wrote a blog post of my own on editing my novel. It has some similar ideas to yours, but people who liked this post might be interested in visiting my list of revision questions:

  43. Thanks for your worthy advice. Not sure how I'll use all of the tips since I write from page one on without a clue what the ending will be until I get there.

  44. What a really useful post; I particularly liked the advice to go through your t/s again with a view to pumping up the various elements that your reader will be expecting. Thank you.

  45. Really great advice. Thank you so much!

  46. Thanks so much for this, especially the specific elements to look for on each pass. I've always done a continuity pass, a cutting pass, but never an emotional or genre-specific one. Terrific things to keep in mind!

    The checklist of story elements is extremely useful, too.

  47. Ah, the link at the bottom as dead! I was looking forward to reading it; is there any way that I might be able to?

    But thank you so much for this article! My editor is a script-writer, and it made me laugh that everything you said here is EXACTLY what she's always telling me. She loved the article as well!

  48. Thank you for a great post. Very helpful. Love the template and will do an edit to check if I've covered all the elements of it.


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