Editing? One Dozen Points To Check

I’m Lea Wait, I’m an author, and I have a confession. I really don’t like writing.

Now, that doesn’t mean never, and it doesn’t mean I’m going to stop. I just mean that for me the most difficult and frustrating part of writing a book is sitting (ass-in-chair) and grinding out the first draft. Assuming that life doesn’t always allow for writing time every day (there is that laundry, and those appearances, and all those holidays …) and that an average adult mystery has 75,000-80,000 words, that’s a lot of sitting and stressing time. On a first draft I try to write 7-10 pages a day. Some do more; some less.

But the reward? Editing. I LOVE editing. It’s like smoothing the edges of a sculpture, or rounding out the depth of a hole, or adding just the right spice to the soup.

Right now I’m editing a manuscript that was rejected several time. It has a fast plot, interesting characters … but I’ve realized it needed a different voice. And more layering. So I’m happily in the depth of editing right now, wondering why I didn’t see those problems before. Usually I catch them before an agent or editor has said “no.”

So how do I edit? I read first for plot; second for character; third for facts; fourth for rhythm; and fifth for grammar and spelling. And then I read for plot again.

Here are a dozen things (big and little) that I check for.

1. Character names. Make them easy to pronounce. And no characters should have names that sound alike, or that start with the same first letter of the alphabet.

2. Time lines: List the dates/days covered by the manuscript (including backstory if necessary) and confirm that all the characters can be where they’re supposed to be given that time frame. That an eight-year-old wasn’t alive during the Civil War. That you haven’t skipped days. And this is a good time to check weather, too … consistency is important. It can rain on a sunny day … but if it does, there should be a reason for it to rain. And have you set the book at the right time of year? Does geography or weather influence the plot?

3.  Voice, Tone and Point-of view. Is there one voice? Two? Is the voice you’ve chosen the best one to tell the story? Is there any “head hopping,” between characters? Can the reader identify characters by the way they speak? They shouldn’t all sound the same. (Rhythm is important here.)

4. How many layers are there in the story? The obvious one (e.g. solving the mystery) is one. But what personal relationship development is there? What have the main characters learned about themselves? Is there a theme to the book as a whole? Can anything be added to flesh this theme out?

5. How does the manuscript look on a page. Are there too many long paragraphs? Too much unattributed dialogue?

6. Search out and kill repeated words. Use new ways to say what has to be said. Eliminate words like “there” and “things” and those words (all authors have them) that are used too often. (Two of my personal over-used words are “just” and “really.”)

7. Look for adjectives and adverbs, too. Adverbs should be used only on rare occasions. Kill them, or replace them with action verbs. Kill long descriptions and strings of adjectives.

8. Edit your manuscript on the screen. Then print it out, take a red pencil to the pages, and input those edits. The print it out again, and this time read it all (yes – all of it) out loud. Amazing what changes you’ll make while reading the words out loud.

9. Fact check. Historical facts, sure. But also little things. If your hero hates squash in chapter 5, he probably won’t order it for dinner in chapter 37. Check food. Clothing. Do they reflect your character’s choices?  Why? If there isn’t a reason for the heroine to wear a purple dress, then why mention it? If you’re poisoning someone … how does the poison taste?  (Yes; I’ve tasted the ones in my books.) If something tastes awful, would it be credible for your victim to eat/drink it?

10. Timing. Action keeps people reading. But a book can’t be a series of car chases. (Pretty boring.) And even if the book isn’t a mystery, tension should be throughout the book — in actions, in dialogue, in relationships, in anticipation.

11. Secrets. Everyone has a secret, right? So should every character. The reader may never know all of them. But you, as the author, should. And if secrets are revealed … to whom? Why? How does that change the dynamics of relationships? Actions?

12. Point to the Hole. Is there any part of your plot that is logically questionable? Any special knowledge your heroine has to have acquired? Acknowledge these … and feature them before they come up in the plot. Your hero learned martial arts as a child. Your heroine speaks Spanish because she was an exchange student. Uncle Max loved to collect books with leather bindings … but couldn’t read small print. That’s why the secret map was found in one of his books, and he didn’t know it was there.

Returning now to my editing …. do you have any suggestions to add to my list?



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12 Responses to Editing? One Dozen Points To Check

  1. Maybe it’s because I’ve been writing for the public since age 13 — in various genre (and I’m now old) — I have discovered your secrets to writing/editing. I have found serious and funny errors in books I haven’t written, and tend to remember when I’m about to make such a mistake. I can’t help but correct as I read others’ books. My ear won’t take the word “that” when it isn’t necessary, and I almost cringe when a writer uses “people that” instead of “people who.” When I review, I do read out loud, and it is amazing how it helps to actually hear the words and the inflections resulting.

    I have been told I am too picky. (Here is an example of losing the “that.” Many writers would say “I have been told that I am too picky.”) When teaching at the grad level, I have been accused of being heavy-handed with a red pencil, but I do it for my own writings, as you do.

    I have only one question which comes up often: when to use italics for inner thoughts when two characters (or more) are thinking silently and then one says something out loud. I spend so much time revising and re-typing what will be italics and what shouldn’t. How do you manage such a book with italics or other means of differentiating what is thought and what is to be heard by others? It takes such concentration! After an hour or so, my neck is stiff from the actual muscle tension of trying to focus on just one part of editing/re-typing. (Do you have such a reaction and use a method for relaxing muscles? I use a small ice pack on the back of my neck in the summer and a heating pad in the winter!)

    I find Maine authors tend to write mysteries more coherently. I have wondered why. Maybe it’s the (usually) fresh air not found in cities or maybe it’s the more casual or healthy lifestyle. I always felt more clearheaded when writing near the ocean. I suppose I just like the aroma of seaweed and lobster pounds/shacks. If I could afford to move permanently, I would return to the area I prefer: Pt. Clyde. Unfortunately, it isn’t a place for year-round living unless one can snow-shoe for miles just for groceries….

  2. thelma straw says:

    Lea, this is an excellent piece. I plan to make a copy and study it often. Thelma Straw in Manhattan

  3. Lea Wait says:

    Marjorie, I share your thinking abut “that” — I usually kill it. I want to write colloquially, even in historicals …although the words I use there are often different from those in contemporaries. So — yes — grammar is important. But not as critical as smooth, even lyrical, sentences, especially in dialog. I don’t use italics for inner thoughts. (Or “”She thought”.) If you’re writing in first person, that’s clear. In third person personal, which I use for my Shadows series, I have to play around a little sometimes …but usually eliminate all the words around the thought and am careful about the context. Good luck!

  4. Jule Dupre says:

    Lea –
    A practical and useful list! Thanks for sharing. I would only add one more item to the list. What is the moral of the story? The big Philosophy. The core. At the end of the day, and at the end of reading the book, and years and years and years after a reader had read it, what is it that you want them to not only remember, but, more importantly, not be able to forget.
    I find that as I get older and older, and I think back and remember my favorite books, few of the specifics surface in my conscious mind. But the over-all philosophical lessons sink in so deep that forgetting them is impossible.
    As writers, whether to ourselves, to potential readers or to imaginary playmates, we are ‘talking’ to someone in our head. Why? Because we have something to say. Something important. This something is supported and constructed by the details. Yet the details are not the core. The core is that indefinable magic. It is who we are at heart.
    Thanks again – an enjoyable read…
    Jule Dupre

  5. Barb Ross says:

    Great list, Lea.

    I know my repeated words are “that” and “just” and that they just have to go! (See what I mean).

    I discovered a new one in my last ms. “All” which is very hard to word search for, since it’s embedded in so many other words.

  6. Thanks for the editing checklist. I plan to tape it to my monitor!

  7. Great advice. Editing right now. Appreciate your take. Thanks!

  8. Check consistency of “non-standard” words: I need to go through my proofs to make sure characters aren’t wearing tee shirts, tee-shirts, t-shirts, and Tee-shirts. And when realizing something is wrong, they don’t switch from “uh oh” to “uh, oh” to “uh-oh.”

  9. Great list, Lea. I have 75 words/phrases on my list of words I check for. It’s amazing to me how these slip into my writing. Yes, “That” and “Just” are at the top of the list. I print the list of words and laboriously search the ms. I write how many of each word I begin with and how many I end with. I write 3rd person multiple POVs. Gives me a sense of accomplishment to take the word “feel” from 45 to 4 or “felt” from 37 to 2. Puts the reader much more into the POV character’s head to eliminate as many as possible. Reading out loud is a powerful too. Makes it easier to catch repetitions of words and sound alike words.
    Love Jule’s comment about what is it we want our readers to take away. The trick is getting that across without pounding them on the head with the message. Thanks again for great post. I’ll be sharing.

  10. Lea Wait says:

    Thanks for all of your great comments! And — yes — there should be an underlying truth to the story … one trick I’ve used is to have some physical object in the story symbolize that “truth” … perhaps something the protagonist owns, or remembers, or touches when he or she is sad or happy or confused …. that symbol can also be used for marketing the book, cover art — and etc.

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