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Editing: Old Dog, New Trick

I wrote a story at the Rain Forest Writers' Retreat entitled, "Turkey Raptor."  After letting it sit for a week, I was ready to edit it.

Unlike some writers, I enjoy editing.  Editing means that I finished the first draft.  Editing means I have something to work with.  I've written about my editing process before, so I won't get into the mechanics of it here, but, like many times before, I wondered about what, exactly, I changed from the original draft to the final one.  I knew how my word count changed, of course, but short of going through the two manuscripts side by side, I couldn't tell what my changes were.

Wouldn't it be great, I thought, if I had a program that could look at the two manuscripts and spot the difference?  So I Googled it.  Turns out that function is built right into Microsoft Word.  Duh!  Under the "Review" tab, I can hit the "Compare" button, open the two documents, and Word will display the original, the revised, and a third window that shows me all the changes from the first to the second.

Word showed me that I started with 5,193 words, and after a couple of hours of work, turned it into 5,003 words.  This is a shade under a 4% reduction.  But what did I do?  According to Word, I made 243 deletions and 183 insertions.  The deletions were often multi-word phrases that were turned into shorter phrases or single words.  I also combined sentences, reworded sentences, cut redundancies, turned linking verb statements into action verb ones, eliminated passives, and a host of other tweaks.

Everyone has their own writing weaknesses.  For me, the global searches that pay off most are looking for "ly" words, "of," and "that."  I also make significant revisions by searching for "was."  Along the way, I noticed other issues that I fixed on the fly.  The most egregious was that in one of the early revisions of the story, I combined two characters into one.  I noticed yesterday that I'd left one instance of the old character's name in an action sequence.  Whew!  Glad I caught that!

Often, I find in revision that my ending needs reworking, so a new paragraph showed up.  By the time I get to the "ly," "to," and "was" pass through the manuscript, though, most of the larger revisions are done.  This really is just the clean up work.

So, the new trick I've learned: use Microsoft Word's "compare" function.  I've only been using Word for a couple of decades.  Sheesh!


Editing Insights ("in sights"?)

cartoon2Over the last couple of weeks, I've been doing the final line edits for Flying in the Heart of the Lafayette Escadrille (which is still my favorite title, even if it is the kind of thing that someone in a bookstore is likely to say, "Do you have that "Flying" book I've heard so much about?").

Along the way, I made a bunch of realizations.  This has happened to me with my previous collections too: when I see the stories together, I recognize patterns and trends about myself I wasn't aware of before.
  • First, I have to point out what a humbling experience a line edit of a book is for me.  Patrick Swenson, the publisher, sent me his marked up copy of the ARC.  Oh . . . my . . . god!  There was hardly a page where something wasn't wrong.  When I went through his corrected copy, I found even more stuff.  Clearly, I'm not a habitually error-free writer.
  • Second, at least three of the stories in the collection have a man as the main character who is living in a dysfunctional, sexless marriage that is stunting him emotionally.  I can see the stories were written around the time of my divorce.  Hmmm.  I wonder what it means?
  • Next, I frequently use dreams in the stories.  Of course, in my writing classes I warn students about misusing dreams, mostly because there are no real stakes in a dream.  Hopefully I didn't misuse the dreams, because they keep showing up.
  • Despite my efforts to tone down the R to X rating of the stories, I still managed to leave in a description of a woman's pubic region (in a dream, no less), but it was critical for the story's meaning.
  • I used the word "blather" twice in 300 pages.  I don't know why that bugged me, but I noticed it.
  • Also, on the writing/style/editing side of things, I'm inconsistent about what is a compound noun, a hypenated noun (or hyphenated adjective), and things that I write as two-word phrases that are really one word.  For example, "proof reading" is one word.  Who knew? (everyone except me).
  • All kinds of things surprised me in the stories. I often do a lot of research to get details right, but then I forget the facts I learned. When I reread the stories, it's like they came out of someone else's brain.
  • In general, even beyond the researched details, the stories read like they came from someone I knew a while ago, but we've drifted out of touch.  A buddy of mine once compared his writing to animal scat.  He said, "Scat is what you leave behind.  It comes from where you were then.  You can't dwell on it."  Other than the unflattering conotations of scat (compared to writings), I thought he had a good point.
  • Several times I was reading a paragraph, and I thought, "Damn, that's pretty good."
  • Also, I received some really kick-butt blurbs.  Kij Johnson, Nancy Kress, James Patrick Kelly, Carrie Vaughn and several others said very nice things about the book.
  • Brenda Cooper's introduction to the book is touching, and way more than I deserved.  I have great friends who are marvelous writers.  I love that I can go to a bookstore and see their names on the backs of their books.

Editor vs. Teacher

A nice thing about being the editor who is choosing stories for a publication is that if the story I'm reading is terrible, I can quit reading it.  It doesn't even have to be terrible for me to quit reading.  I can quit as soon as I see it won't make it into the top ten or however many stories I'm choosing.

A teacher, though, doesn't have that same opportunity.  At least I don't.  I'm grading my college Creative Writing class's short stories.  Some, of course, are pretty good, but, as fate would have it, the two worst writers in the class have given me stories that are three times longer than they need to be, and they read so slowly that they are like a dozen times too long.

As the teacher, I feel obligated to read all of them, every word.  Argh!  I can't just slip a note with the manuscript that says, "Thank you for considering us with your work.  Alas, it does not fit our publishing needs at this time.  Better luck with this elsewhere."

I know I should see a fat manuscript from a writer who has tons of room for improvement as a wonderful teaching moment, but it's late in the year.  I'm a little tired, and the thought of trying to remain alert to the end of these heavy, tree-killing manuscripts has made me feel uncharitable.

The students won't like my efforts either.  After all, they wrote way more than anyone else in the class.  They won't understand why the short story didn't get a standing ovation from me.  Sigh.

Maybe I should take a walk around the block.

Revising Joy

I really enjoy getting to the end of the first draft so I can start editing.  Every editing move makes the story incrementally better (hopefully).

Editing is always at multiple levels for me.  Some of it is macro-editing: cutting scenes and paragraphs (I hit "delete" with trepidation--if I have a failure of nerve, I cut and paste the material into another document), reorganizing, and adding lines and paragraphs.  On the addition side, I may add entire scenes or deepen them.  My tendency, for example, is to make my ending in a first draft too short, throwing off the story's rhythm.  I often double the size of my ending.

My early editing also often involves "completing the daisy," which means that stuff that's important at the end of the story needs to be properly set up at the beginning.  In the story I'm working on now, for example, it's important that a minor character has a son.  He's mentioned at the end, so I had to go back to make sure there is mention of the son at the beginning.

As far as key elements go, and a part of "completing the daisy," I've noticed that if something is important in the story, it needs to come up at least two times before it is used at the end.  This has become my own, private "rule of three."  Since the minor character's son is important at the end, I can't just mention him in passing in the beginning and hope that 6,500 words later the reader will remember him.  I need to get the son in again in the middle.

Lots of times at the early points in editing, I find myself deepening my point of view character's reaction to events.  When I'm in rough draft mode, my tendency is to get to what happens next, but in my rush I short change the character's head.

I also deepen the sensory experience of the story.  This is the time to add in the key appeal to the senses that really anchors the scene in reality.  I call this "enbodying" the character.  The experience of the reader is deepened if I can give my character a fully-sensing body.  Often times this means adding in touch and smell, and finding the perfect, specific details from the other senses.  I think the scratch of a branch against a window, or the grittiness of a stadium seat, or a bit of red onion in a hot dog can elevate a scene to the status of what John Gardner called "the uninterrupted dream."

While I'm hitting the macro editing, I'm micro-editing too.  I notice the repetition of words (I had characters "shrug" three times in 7,000 words--now there's only one "shrug" in the manuscript).  When I'm cleaning at this level, I'm mostly clearing out my silly overuse of  "of" prepositional phrases, wordy helping verb phrases, and bland linking verb constructions.  Along the way I take a close look my worst writing habits, like overusing the words "all," "just," and "only."

Finally, about three edits in, I pull out Ken Rand's 10% Solution for my last edit.

I've written about revising before, so this is just my thoughts at the moment. If you want to see me approach editing from different angles, try "Revising and Editing Manuscripts," "Principles of Revision," and "Revising a Novel: Order of Operations."

This is my second two-hour editing run through on this story.  I'll be ready to take it to readers at the end of the day.  What's intimidating to me about the process is that my story is only 7,000 words long.  Four hours for 7,000 words.  I have a 100,000 word novel that needs editing.  That sounds like 56 hours of editing.  Ouch!

The cartoon comes from Debbie Ridpath at, a very cool and fun place for writers to visit.

Pay It Forward or Run Away?

I received a note from a college professor friend of mine that mirrors ones that I receive a couple of times a year.  I've included his query (with identifying information removed), and my reply, where in the middle I changed from addressing him to addressing the guy in the note.  Do others of you get such requests?  How do you handle them?

Dear Jim,

Every fall I teach a writing workshop in ________. One of the faithful attendees is a fellow named Ralph [not his real name], who has written a trilogy of self-published young adult fantasy novels. He's just finished a new straight-ahead fantasy novel that he would like to send around to agents for possible commercial publication. Before he does this, he would really like to hire someone who knows the s-f & fantasy fields to do a critical reading of the book. He brought the first chapter to the workshop, and it is quite solid, though it does need some revision.

Anyway, I mentioned you. I told him that I didn't know if you do such things, but that you might want the extra cash, or that you might know someone else qualified and willing to do the job. (The actual fee to be charged was not discussed, by the way.) So, if you want to take on this project, or you know someone who does, please let me know, or just go ahead and contact Ralph directly at ____________


Here's my reply:

Hi, John (and Ralph),

Interesting question.  I did critical readings of novels for money a bunch of years past, and I decided no amount of money could persuade me to do it again.  I don't have the book editor gene, evidently.  I have read novels for friends to give them first-reader response, or to provide a blurb, but even that is only for my closest friends (or to someone who I owe a favor).  So I wouldn't be a good match for Ralph.  If he doesn't have a reader who is qualified who he trusts, I certainly would not recommend that he goes to commercial services who advertise they will read and comment on books.  They are almost all, as far as I can tell, rip offs.

If the book is fairly solid, and he's let readers he trust give him their reactions (they don't need to be writers, but they do need to be sensitive readers who can be blunt), then his next step would be to shop it around to agents.  He can look at Locus Magazine to see what agents and agencies are actively selling work like he has written, and then contact them.  Also, agents come to some of the Colorado literary workshops, but often times there won't be one who looks at YA or fantasy.  He'd need to investigate who is at the conference before going (some conferences allow authors a chance to meet with an agent or editor as either a "pitch meeting" or to just chat about the book and its commercial possibilities).

I've CCed this to Ralph.  Ralph, I'd be happy to answer questions about publishing, but I'm not looking at manuscripts right now.  Good luck with the project!

Here's three resources:

  • For the most up to date listing of markets, go to  Check the book link.
  • For professional advice, go to the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA) website at  Check the "For Authors," "Information Center" link to start. 
  • Also, the "Writer Beware" link has a lot of info about predatory services, agents and other scams. 
  • For online criticism from other writers, you might check the Critters Writers Workshop at

Good luck with your project!



James Van Pelt
Author and English Teacher
Read his latest collection short science fiction and fantasy stories, THE RADIO MAGICIAN AND OTHER STORIES, or find out more at

Oddness of Editing

Yesterday I posted a question about grammar which included this clear misstatement: ". . . remembering that 'for' and 'but' can sometimes be pronouns."  I was thinking "prepositions" when I wrote "pronouns," but somehow I typed "pronouns" instead.  Even though I proofread the post (if you're an English teacher asking a grammar question, there's an expectation of writing correctness that is reasonable), I missed that gaffe.

After a preternaturally alert jaylake pointed out the problem, I fixed it, and then noticed three other typos.  Sheesh!

My editing process for LJ posts has been that I write the post directly in the editing window (instead of importing it from Word), proofread a couple of time, spell check, and then post.  Once I post it, I reread it again to see if the different format reveals errors I missed earlier, and also to make sure any formatting I wanted  came through correctly. 

Inevitably I'll notice several corrections I need to make after the post has gone live.  I'll hit the "edit" button, make the changes, repost, reread, and fix any other errors I'd missed before.  Sometimes I'll repost several times.  Sometimes readers will read my post while I'm in the midst of that editing cycle and comment on errors while I'm still fixing them.  Good on them for being helpful and bad on me for posting before the editing was done, but that's how my process works.

I notice I do the same thing when I'm preparing manuscripts for publication.  I'll edit and edit and edit, and then print a copy to see what I couldn't see when it was on the screen.  Always there are numerous errors I couldn't see on the screen.  I'll fix them, reprint, and then find new errors.  Argh!

Some editors will send back my original manuscript after they've bought them, complete with their editing marks.  The "argh!" factor is high, because even in my multiple-proofread manuscripts that I've sent to professional magazines, there will be more mistakes.

I'm just a terrible proof-reading editor, and this is after decades of grading student papers where what I'm doing part of the time is error hunting.  You can't say that I haven't had plenty of time to practice the skill.

What process do you follow to do your final cleanup of a post for your blog or for a manuscript you are sending off?  Are you a naturally good proofreader, or is it a struggle?

Taking Out and Putting In

The revision process for me with fiction is mostly about four processes, taking out, rewording, reorganizing and putting in.  Of the four, although they're equally important, the last one almost always requires the least time.  Mostly "putting in" means inserting a line more of description here and there (often touch and/or smell sentences), a line here and there of introspection (how the character is reacting to what's going on), and, occasionally, more action, which might be as little as a line of dialogue to give a conversation an extra beat, or as much as a new scene.  Still, the putting in is almost always more a matter of tweaking the story rather than remaking it.

The story I'm working on now, though, is presenting a new challenge for me: the insertion of a new major character who will be a part of every scene and integral to the meaning of the story.  Although I've rewritten stories by removing a character (or letting another character absorb him), I've never added one.  Since I haven't done it before, I'm not sure how to proceed.  My first thought was to bring up the first draft and then make additions to the current text.  I don't think that will work, though.  I think what I have to do is to consider the first draft a kind of warmup exercise, but to not look at it as I rewrite the story. 

The advantage of doing the process this way is that I already have the shape of the story in my head, so it ought to write faster, but I won't be tied to old language to do it.

If I remember rightly, this is how my friend, Daniel Abraham, told me he writes his novels:  He slams through a first draft, and as soon as he finishes, he puts the entire manuscript away and rewrites the book.  He doesn't consult the first draft while doing the second.  I remember when he told me his process that I was horrified.  All that work!  But here I am, planning on doing exactly that technique for this short story.

I'll let you know how it goes.

Perfection Deception and Editing

I finished reading The Hobbit last night, which is my springboard into rereading Lord of the Rings.  I've read the trilogy every year or two since I was twenty, which means I've gone through the book at least 17 times.  I've read the entire trilogy out loud four times (twice to my oldest son, and once each to the two others).

As I finished my reading last night, I thought with a pleasurable sigh, "This is a perfect book."  Which immediately made me think, "There's no such thing as perfection." 

There is, though, perfection that is, if I define perfection as "every word in exactly the place I remember it being."  That's the joy of rereading, isn't it?  That all the parts fall into their expected spots, recreating in a small measure the initial charm I found in the story?  I always see new things when I reread, but they're not really new--I did read them before--they just reveal themselves in the new light of who I am now instead of who I was when I read it the last time.

I realized that my definition of perfection, "every word in exactly the place I remember it being," is a big part of the problem writers have with editing their own work.  When we reread a piece, particularly when we reread it multiple times without changing it, we fall into the rhythm of our own drafts.  The words are where we remember them being, and their placement starts to feel "right," to feel inevitable and proper.  After all, the words are just where we left them the last time, and they were good then, so they must be good now.  Some writers have trouble hearing the words in any other way, so they don't edit them.  They are seduced by their own drafts.

So, how can we avoid the rhythm and "rightness" of our own words in a draft?

The way most books suggest is to put the draft away for a while, to give it a cooling off period.  That way, when we reread, the memory of the last time we read it won't be so fresh.  We'll see mistakes.  Another way is to read the draft out loud.  Sometimes you can hear mistakes or clumsiness you can't see.  A variation on reading your own work out loud is to have someone else read it out loud to you.  If the reader is a good one, any place where she stumbles or has to go back is a place you should mark.

A third technique is to use Ken Rand's excellent 10% Solution strategies.  His book is about cleaing up word choice and syntax issues, but because you are using the computer to find specific words (like "very" or words ending in "ly"), you are also breaking sentences out of their context.  The problem is that a normal rereading of a story starts you at the beginning and then pulls you through to the end, you will see the same rhythms and choices in the same order as you saw them the last time.  Every word will be in exactly the place you remember, so changing can be difficult.  Using Ken's method, though, breaks the rhythm.  A sentence that read perfectly fine when couched in the other sentences you wrote, may have startlingly obvious problems when you read it by itself. 

I'm looking forward to the next few weeks as I accompany Frodo on his long walk to Mount Doom.  I'm expecting the same perfection in the writing that I experienced with The Hobbit.  I'm also editing some of my writing tonight.  I need to remember that my own work is not published yet.  It's not "perfect."  It can change.

Mellow Writing/Editing Music

Depending on my concentration and engagement level with what I'm writing or editing, I need anywhere from complete silence to the cacophony of a busy coffee shop. I'm editing today (my deadline is coming up), and I need just a step removed from dead silence. For that, nothing is better than the Cowboy Junkies. They've released a revision of their debut album, Trinity, and it's just as cool as the first effort. They sound like what I imagine a talented group of musicians who'd taken extra-special Prozac would sound like.

Their official website lets you stream or embed all of their music, which strikes me as very generous, so if you like them, buy them.

For your diversion and listening pleasure, I give you "Blue Moon."


Saturn Ring Blues

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