This month’s nonfiction knowhow is a little bit of a throwback. We’ve spent a lot of time lately talking about how to get writing that appeals to your audience onto the page; for Valentine’s Day we’re gonna remind you how to show your writing a little additional love.
Editing. It’s a task that makes the best of us cringe. I’ve talked about it before, and this month Cindy and I are going to walk you through some specifics with the nonfiction posts and roundups. So what is editing, anyway, and how is it different from writing?
Two kinds of edits
Like ogres, edits have more than one layer. There are all the fiddly little details that your Grade Six teacher insisted you learn, and there are the big sweeping edits that make sure you’re telling the story you meant to tell. I like to call those technical and structural edits, but Cindy likes to dive a little deeper. This month we’ll divide editing into four parts: developmental editing, structural editing, line editing, and proofing.
Four parts plus the short month means we’ll wrap over a little into March but hey, let’s live it up while we can.
This is the place where you look at the big picture. What story are you trying to tell? Have you included enough information to tell it? Why is the story important to you?
The same rules apply to persuasive essays: look at what point you’re trying to make and be sure you’ve included enough support for it as well as addressing any obvious counterpoints.
Developmental editing isn’t the place to get bogged down in details; it’s more of a mile-high view of your story or essay. When you read your work (or someone else’s!) for developmental edits, don’t worry if the sentence structure isn’t perfect or the spelling doesn’t check out. This is the place to look for the essay this essay wants to be, and to note any places it falls short. At this point you should be able to tell what the essay is about and identify key emotional or persuasive ideas that it needs to convey well, even if it doesn’t quite do that yet.
Now that you know what point you’re trying to make, you need to slow down a little and see if you’ve made it. Does the order you’re telling the story in make sense? If you used flashbacks are they flagged well and easy for the reader to follow? If you have an image or theme that you’re carrying throughout the piece, is it used enough? Overused?
This is the point where you organize and reorganize your story. Sometimes it’s helpful to write the key events or images down on sticky notes and arrange them on a wall or desk. If you’re weaving two stories together, this might be the time to break your essay down and tell them separately and then interweave paragraphs again in a way that makes sense.
Remember not to beat yourself (or whoever you’re beta-reading for) up over grammar yet. Right now it’s ok if your story sounds a little bit like a drunk guy at a bar is telling it. You just need to have all the pieces (developmental editing!) in an order that makes sense (structural editing!) to your reader.
Now that you’ve got all the pieces in the right places, it’s time to get down to the nitty gritty. When I first addressed editing I lumped this portion in with “technical edits” and I stand by that assessment. Right now you’re going to go through your piece on a sentence-by-sentence basis and get familiar with all its working parts. Do you overuse words? (My novel characters shrug so much they’re all going to get shoulder cramps.) Do you comma splice and are your participles kinda dangly? This is the pass on which you’ll catch those things.
One useful tip for line editing is to read your essay from the bottom up. It will help you isolate each sentence. Start to worry about whether your sentences are too long, too short, or all the same length. Do you overuse ellipses or semicolons? Right now you want to make sure that all your pronouns and verb tenses are in agreement, and that anywhere you’ve broken the rules of grammar is on purpose.
One word of caution: This step can be where you edit the voice right out of your writing. Don’t do that. Voice is the way each writer breaks the rules deliberately because it’s necessary to how they express themselves. It’s ok if you use words like “kindasorta” or say “welp, same.” Just make sure that you’re doing it because you need to, not because you don’t know any better.
I know you’ve been through your post three times now but don’t skip this step. I can’t tell you how many times a post has missed that coveted editors’ pick because you skipped proofreading. Comments pop up in the staff forum like “I wish I could but…” and “I would love to but in good conscience I can’t.” When you skip proofreading it shows.
This is the step where you run spellcheck. This is the step where you run grammar check. This is where you catch those misused idioms and homonyms and homophones. If you haven’t worked backward through your essay yet, do it now. For me, it’s much easier to do this in hard copy. Some people are great at proofing on the computer. Figure out what works for you but do it.
Get by with a little help from your friends
When you’re getting help with your work, whether it’s developmental editing, proofing, or just an overall beta read, it’s tempting to look for someone whose writing style is like yours. Personally, I think you’ll benefit more from a more diverse editing crew. People who don’t write or think like you are better able to point out ways that you’ve failed to connect or muddled the order to a point where only you (and people just like you) understand what’s going on.
Especially if you’re working on an essay or story involving people who aren’t like you, it’s important to get eyes on that work before you release it into the wild to make sure you haven’t put your metaphorical foot in your mouth. There are a lot of things that we just don’t think of or can’t know when we begin to write, and finding readers and editors who do know those things is crucial to our growth as writers.
Be prepared to compensate your editors. It’s a lot of work. Whether you trade editing, buy them coffee, or knit a hat, make sure you’re not taking advantage of someone’s goodwill, especially if it’s for a piece you intend to sell.
Class is in session
Keep an eye out each week on Monday as Cindy digs deeper into editing techniques, and Friday as I check in for the Roundup. Even if you don’t submit one week, you’ll be sure to learn a thing or two! Good luck, and good editing.