The Red Pen: Editing Another’s Manuscript – Part I

As a new year is about making resolutions, I realized there are still a couple promises from my November I.O.U. that I haven’t yet fulfilled. So let’s tie up those loose ends!

To start, I owe Milo from In Media Res 10 random things about myself, which can be found at this link (’cause you know he’d send a guy to break my legs if I didn’t make good on that).

I’d also meant to share some of my editing notes on a manuscript that shall remain anonymous, so to the extent that I can do so without giving any specifics of the story away…

On a word level, I provided a list of frequently-recurring verbs/adjectives and noted:

Would be worthwhile to scan and determine how you might replace them with synonyms here and there for variety, or possibly eliminate altogether in the event the characters’ actions and/or dialogue already convey the same idea (thereby making description redundant). They’re great words that make description vivid, but because they stand out, their repetition is less invisible.

Try to reduce use of dialogue tags to when it’s necessary for identifying the speaker. Especially avoid overly descriptive ones – show tone instead through the dialogue itself or the character’s actions. In most cases, “said” is best, as it’s invisible to the reader.

I likewise advised on minimizing adverbs and “to be” verbs—the former “tell” more than “show,” and the latter slow down pace and sound a bit more passive. Where description was concerned, the issues that stood out most were telling-versus-showing, redundancy, and certain physical descriptions that ran too specific and frequent:

While you have an effective way of threading description through dialogue, sometimes that description can be condensed together rather interrupting the flow of the dialogue multiple times. Seeking opportunities for this will enhance the pacing and snappiness of your characters’ great dialogue rather than bog it down.

Just to interject another comment on adverbs and other description accompanying dialogue – think of how certain messages/attitudes/etc. might be conveyed through the characters’ dialogue or actions for the reader to figure out rather than be told outright. [Sometimes] it can make the reader feel like a detached third-party rather than in on the action. I definitely feel pulled into this story, but teeny moments like this can sometimes remind me that I’m reading something rather than “living” it—almost like little road bumps that interrupt an otherwise smooth experience.

And it’s not always about replacing description with description—it can be taking some description away altogether.  Your characters share such witty, snappy banter, that it may at times feel appropriate to just let them talk with minimal interruption. For example, if this first sentence of the paragraph was taken away, I would still catch on to [Secondary Character]’s displeasure and coolness by virtue of his brief first sentence and shift [in dialect].

Reduce level of description for secondary characters that do not recur. This draws attention to [Secondary Character] and makes me think I should know her well, yet she never reappears later.

Sometimes these color and make/model details seem superfluous. We see [Main Character]’s truck play an important role later, but [Secondary Character] and anyone else’s vehicles don’t really matter to the story.

Then there were structural considerations on sentence, page, and chapter levels:

Consider breaking down some paragraphs with embedded dialogue […]. It creates more white space to quicken the conversation’s pace and allows the reader’s eyes to “breathe.”

[T]he description of one character embedded with another’s dialogue sometimes makes it confusing who the speaker is. Sometimes, perhaps, a description like this could skip to the next line, provided the continuing speaker is tagged.

To enhance flow, perhaps join these two [simple] sentences using a semicolon or conjunction.

Section break to accentuate passage of time and shift of focus to [another character].

Basically, I proposed many paragraph breaks to not only help break up clunkier sections, but also separate dialogue from descriptions that didn’t correspond with it. My suggested section breaks not only helped to denote shifts, but also provide a breathable white space and prevent a chapter from becoming the structural equivalent of a run-on sentence. And in a couple cases, I recommended converting a section break to a chapter break—in the case of the very first chapter, doing such preserved the opening momentum as the second section was rather lengthy.

Such are just a few examples, but what all the edits peppering that manuscript boil down to is clarity and consistency.

This has gotten long, so I’ll save my two pence on the more developmental edits I made for tomorrow. Ta!


About thefallenmonkey

Primate that dapples in writing when not picking others' fleas or flinging its own poop. View all posts by thefallenmonkey

16 responses to “The Red Pen: Editing Another’s Manuscript – Part I

  • Eva

    Wow, look at you – thanks for sharing! I like the way you gave that feedback. It must be so exciting and as well somewhat scary to being in charge of another writer’s ms, no? How did you find critiquing? Did it change anything in how you approach your own piece? I didn’t do a lot yet, only for advertising stuff and some friends’ pieces but always found it quite challenging to make sure I staid on the line between the real quality of the writing and my personal taste … and of course how to say I if I really didn’t like something. But that’s the art of editing, I guess. 🙂

    • Eva

      And yes – new blog design, I see. Neat!

      • thefallenmonkey

        Thank you yet again! Can’t take much credit…it’s a straight-up WordPress template that doesn’t allow me much customization, but I was ready for something different…a bit more color and different menu options, etc.

    • thefallenmonkey

      Thanks! It was definitely nerve-wracking at the start as I didn’t want to come across as too bossy, dictating to her how she should write her own story…our editing guidelines help, though, in distinguishing which comments should be conveyed as mandatory and which suggested—and basically, anything that would impact the writing style or character/plot development (stuff that could come down to a personal taste issue) should always be phrased as a suggestion (as opposed to outright errors in conventions or consistency that are black & white issues). So (hopefully) phrasing these as suggestions—and every now and then literally saying something to the effect of, “it’s your judgment call”—help the author still feel in control of the story. I also make a point to express my enthusiasm for the manuscript and highlight what I really like about it so that the edits don’t come across just as everything that’s wrong with it. As I found in teaching when it came to student essays/stories, constructive criticism is better received when balanced with positive feedback as well.

      And yes, it brought me back to my own manuscript with new eyes. It’s so interesting to see how we all have tendencies in our writing that can be a strength, yet a weakness if done in excess, and all of such things I kept tripping over in this other ms made me look for the same sort of thing in mine.

  • Milo James Fowler

    Wait a minute–Ghost Whisperer’s been CANCELLED?! Glad to know you’re a fellow bird-lover. (Despite my last name, I do not hunt the little things.)

    I’m liking the new look of the place, Monkey, and I like the advice to give the reader’s eyes room to “breathe” — I sure do appreciate breaks in long stretches of narrative while I’m reading!

  • Nicki Elson

    You delivered the edit suggestions so eloquently. This is wonderful advice that all authors should follow. And I like how you state nothing as an absolute rule, but rather as guidelines. Critiquing another’s work is a touchy thing, but I’m sure this author can only be grateful to have such a discerning and patient editor.

    • thefallenmonkey

      Thanks, Nicki! My paragraph comments were probably classic newbie overkill :). There were just things I saw all the through and thought could be better nipped in the bud if I just spelled it out from the get-go. As I just wrote to Eva, those editing guidelines we were given on what to state as mandatory vs. suggested helped immensely in how to approach my phrasing.

  • Nicki Elson

    P.S. The new Monkey pen looks great!

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