Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Editing. Or as it's also known, Critiquing

I joined Critters.org last year to improve my writing, help others improve theirs, and learn. I hope so far I've been successful at all of them; I know I've done two out of three.

What I consider editing:
I've learned that what I consider editing (or critiquing) is a combination of copy-editing and reviewing.

I keep in mind first and foremost: It's not my story. Really. I make suggestions about spelling, punctuation, word order, plot tension, all those things I believe will help an author improve their work. But at the same time, it's up to the author to consider those suggestions, and choose which if any of them to act on. Because it's their story, and I could well have read something in a completely different way than the author expected. That's good for the author to understand, so I may have done my job. But specific suggestions may have no validity at all.

There are authors who take exception to my suggestions as a matter of fact. Or whose style I don't care for. Or ignore misspellings or [its/it's] confusions that make my teeth ache. Move on. I'm a volunteer, not paid by anyone, have no special expertise beyond tens of thousands of pages read and years of trying to be sure I was understood as easily as possible.

If you're interested, there are a lot of web resources, at least on copy-editing and proofreading. Start with Wikipedia; these articles don't seem to be fraught with personal agendas. There are similar resources at Critters on the topic of critiquing, which is a different animal than editing.

I start by reading the piece, as much of it as I have, through. During this read, I annotate with bothersome things, almost all in the category of copy-edits (misspellings, punctuation and the like) that take me out of the story by drawing attention to themselves. I don't catch nearly all of them - and never claim to find 100% - just the ones that interfere with that first read. Obviously, the more I like the story, the fewer of these errors I notice. So, I put it down for a day or so, then read it again, again making line-by-line edits and on this pass, comments on wording (choice, order) as seem appropriate. If the story is particularly engaging to me, I may have to do this a third time.

Following this read, I review the story elements using  a short check list excerpted from Victory Crayne's helpful article How to Critique Fiction.

    Point of View
    Show versus tell (many, very, really, great, nice)

In addressing as many of these points as I think useful, I try to focus on my reaction to the piece, which I hope might be typical of other readers, and so useful to the author, giving them an insight to the way the I perceive the writing, how I react to it, do the characters elicit my sympathy, is there a hook in the opening that would draw me to read further even if I wasn't doing a critique, does the ending satisfy me - or in the case of a non-final chapter, does it provide a hook to lead me on?

My goal in making comments and suggestions is to inform the author how this one reader understood and reacted to their work. As a writer, this is information useful to me. I want to know if I've gotten my message through the veil of words to a reader. I want hints about the things I should change to make the reader's job, not easy, necessarily, but easier. I want the reader to invest something of their own imagination and thought processes as they read, but I acknowledge that too much of that will send some readers to a different leisure time choice. Because these things seem important to me, I expect that other authors will similarly find them useful.

Application to my own writing
This is an interesting problem. I find it much easier to copy edit another person's work than mine. (I suppose that's a good reason for copy-editors to charge good money for their efforts.) And it's even more true of the critiquing process.

The wisdom of the web is that this is largely because as the author, I know everything about the story. I am inflicted with the God viewpoint, after all. I know with absolute surety not only what the words and characters are, I know what each of those characters are doing, have done and will do in any conceivable circumstance. I even know why. With all that backstory in my head, it's difficult to read what's actually been written; I read what I already know is there.

Of course, this comes as no surprise to anyone who's been doing this a while. It is far easier to find errors, either of omission or comission, in something you didn't write. The main self-help documents provide tips for improving the success rate; I am trying to put them into practice. Still it is unnerving to read a manuscript that has been read by myself probably fifty times, and by others another handful, and just last week, I found another capitalization error!

One technique I have recently stumbled on: for me, editing is more successful when I change the format of the ms. I write in either Open Office Writer or Word (I tried Pages, but wasn't happy with it in the early version). Most review is done in one of those as well. But when I convert to Kindle (not as easy for me as it seems to be for others, but that's another post), and read in that format, things pop out at me that don't in Word or OO. The same is true of a paper review copy, but to cut page count down, I  print in 6 pt type, making the reading more difficult (for this really old guy), so the Kindle format works better for me, at least so far.

How is your experience? Any tips you'd like to pass along? Comment below, please.


  1. You're absolutely right.

    I'll add that while I do highly recommend Critters and Critique.org to any writer who is starting out and learning, I think that most will eventually outgrow the workshop experience.

    For one thing, those communities, while very helpful, have their problems, the biggest of which is people who are frankly just really bad not only at writing, but critiquing. Of course, those are usually (but not always) the same people.

    We need all that starting out, though, not only because even the bad critters have some good points, but also because we need to see that there will always be people who don't like our work (some for legitimate reasons) and we need to learn how to live with that.

    The thing that really makes Critters worthwhile though is of course the good readers- the ones who know how to review fiction and give constructive criticism. Better yet, some of them will really get our work. They'll appreciate it and understand it in a way that is really fulfilling for author and reader alike. That's not just about ego, either, as that understanding can be helpful in concrete ways.

    I can see why some authors don't think workshops are worth much, but I think they can be an effective initiation into professional writing for an author who approaches them with the right attitude. Like I said though, we outgrow them. that happens when we've developed our own process and discernment more, but also when we build up a good group of smart readers who know what we're trying to do and how to help. Not yes men by any means, but colleagues. It's that community that ultimately makes workshops worthwhile.

    I know that in this case I do consider you (Tony) to be one of my first and biggest fans, and you've been very helpful in multiple ways. I'm thankful for that and I'm glad to work with you.

  2. Have you seen the stuff I edited for Twelve Worlds?!? I'm totally a copy-editor ;)

    It can be hard to edit your own stuff. I think I'm lucky in being inflicted with the Writer's Curse (nothing I write is good enough, I feel like I wrote crap today...) because I forget what I wrote and when I go back again it's not as as bad as I thought, etc.

    If you're the copy-editing type I might want you as a beta reader <3 :3


  3. Great blog post. Editing is one of the hardest things for an author to do for themselves -- it's impossible to get an objective look at what you write. It helps though when you and your book "take some time off" from each other. In my case, it has to be a few months. When I come back, I'm already deep into another project and it looks like some idiot wrote it. Then I remind myself I'm the idiot, and off we go to the editing table. ;-)


    One More Day: A Modern Ghost Story

  4. Thanks to all of you. And Nick, yes, that also works for both me and others. I agree that a fairly substantial time is needed, as you mentioned.

    Thanks for the reminder of an inexpensive tool to assist.

  5. Yes, I find editing my own work hard as well. I never thought about changing font or size-that is a tip I will have to put into use. Helpful post!