We’ve discussed editing before, and it can be confusing that the word “edit” can mean so many different things. In publishing, there are three basic types of edit that a book might go through (although the lines can be blurry):
Detailed editing including the nitty gritty of grammar, punctuation, typos, word choice, even fact-checking.
More concerned with the clear expression of your ideas; internal consistency; word choices; believable dialogue; and other mechanics of the craft.
Sometimes known as the content edit, the developmental edit, or the macro edit, it deals with big-picture issues of story crafting, plot, and character development. For non-fiction, it’s concerned with the clear and logical flow of your ideas, your clarity and consistency, and the overall impact of your book and whether it reaches its goal. The substantive edit usually comes to the author in the form of…
I know many authors tremble at the thought of receiving an editorial letter and I think it might be because you don’t know what to expect. So today I’ve lifted a bunch of actual sentences from editorial letters I’ve written in the past… just to give you an idea of what it looks like. (I’ve removed identifying details and changed character names.)
» After reading 1/3 of the book, I’m still not quite engaged with the story. I’m not sure what the major conflict is; I don’t know what’s at stake for these characters; I’m not clear on who the antagonist is and what he wants. Consequently, I haven’t begun to feel an excitement to see what happens.
» POV: The manuscript seems to be a cross between omniscient and deep third person POV. It confuses the reader. It’s not exactly objective, and yet we never get to connect deeply with characters. Connection with characters is what makes a story enjoyable for a reader.
» The writing is wordy—too many adjectives and adverbs. Add to that unnecessarily-fancy verbs, and it makes for an awkward read sometimes. There’s a fine line between being appropriately visual and overwriting it.
» You know how Elmore Leonard says in his “Rules of Writing” that we should try to avoid writing the parts readers tend to skip? Unfortunately, the hero’s dreams are the weakest piece of the book, and I found myself wanting to skip them.
» Setting and storyworld: This is a wonderful story that isn’t grounded in any particular place or time. Most of the time I felt confused about the location as well as the time period. I can’t tell if we’re in the real world or a world of your making; are we in present day or the past or the future?
» Secondary characters: As often happens with secondary characters who are similar to one another, I had a hard time differentiating between these two women. As I was reading, I found myself asking if one of them should be eliminated because they both seem to serve the same purpose—simply being friends with your heroine.
» This opening is overwritten, almost to the point of obscuring your meaning. If you cut half the adjectives, the problem would be fixed. Strong nouns and verbs are always more powerful than adjectives.
» This comparison doesn’t do anything for me. Be careful to use metaphors only when they expand on what you’re saying—when they help the reader visualize or understand. If there’s a chance the metaphor will cloud your meaning rather than illuminate it, don’t use it.
» These five long paragraphs are too much backstory in one place. They impede the forward movement of the story. You can get across what the reader needs to know right now in one paragraph, and drop other bits later, if and when the reader needs it.
» Watch for repetitiveness in both ideas and wording. Characters don’t need to repeat the same idea in dialogue in two or three different ways. Paring it down, tightening the writing, makes it stronger.
» Use contractions. Make sure your dialogue sounds like talking, not writing. You want to use contractions in prose also, not just dialogue, to help your writing sound more natural.
» I’d like you to examine your characters’ motivations in everything they decide to do. It’s really important that they do things out of motivations that make sense—not just because you need them to do something for the sake of your storyline. Your protagonist’s motivation has to be burning, and deep, and drive her and the reader through the book.
» What’s at stake for Lauren if she doesn’t reach her goal? And along with that, what’s at stake for others? For the world? If there’s nothing to lose by not reaching her goal, then there’s no motivation for the reader to follow Lauren through this journey.
» I’m struggling with Harley’s voice being not unique enough, being a bit generic, so that even though there is a ton of internal monologue about her background, I still feel she is a bit cardboard. I can classify her as “spunky heroine who overcomes all odds” and there is nothing about her that would make me want to avoid stereotyping her like that.
» Is the romance too predictable? Is there anything we can do about it given the storyline? Right now, it’s a given from the first chapter that Ben is our hero and we want Angie to fall for him, but nothing really serious interrupts that or gets in the way except for Angie’s internal demons. Should we add a little spice by having Harrison or one of the other guys show some interest in her? It would be fun if there were a hint of doubt that Ben and Angie would end up together.
I hope that gives you an idea of what an editorial letter might look like.
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