The Mean Editor

As an author I have a split personality. The writer side of me has the imagination and curiosity of a small child. I enjoy putting together the first draft. It’s like taking out a box of building blocks and experimenting until I build something beautiful. It’s fun to try different things, write scenes from different characters’ points of view, invent alternate scenarios, and different endings. When I’m finished I stand back and admire what I’ve created.

Then the editor side of me takes over. If the writer is the child, the editor is the adult. He’s a mean SOB. The editor takes the small child’s wonderful creation and tears it apart. If a chapter is too long, cut it. If a scene doesn’t work, out it goes. If a character doesn’t move the editor, the editor moves the character right out of the manuscript.

Info dumps? Back story? Don’t even go there. Adverbs? Forget it. Cute dialogue tags like “she opined?” Not a chance. Stick with “he said” and “she said.”

Through numerous rounds of editing the manuscript of my first novel, Small Change, it shrank from an unwieldy 126,000 words to 103,000 words. And the paring down process wasn’t just about getting the manuscript down to a publishable word count. There were scenes and chapters that I thought were clever when I wrote them. Upon further review, the clear-eyed editor decided to delete them. I reworked the first page and the opening chapter at least ten times. And then I lopped off the first four chapters after deciding the book started in the wrong place. The opening scene in my final draft wasn’t even in the first draft. I added it because it foreshadowed the first dramatic event in the story.

I cut anything that smacked of telling or rewrote it in a way that “showed” the scene to the reader instead.

What did I learn? These are some of the “big picture” (macro) issues to look at when editing:

  • Pointless dialogue. Dialogue should either reveal something about the character, the relationship among characters, or move the story along. Asking about the weather or how the other person is doing doesn’t belong in a novel.
  • Unbalanced scenes. Readers get bored with scenes that consist exclusively of dialogue. The same with scenes that are non-stop narrative. Writers need to strike a balance among narrative, action, and dialogue. Raymond Obstfeld’s book, The Novelist’s Essential Guide to Crafting Scenes is a great resource on balance in scenes.
  • Subplots that don’t connect to the main plot. Fiction writing experts say the longer a subplot goes on without connecting to the main plot, the greater the chances the reader will lose interest in the subplot, the main plot or both. Bring the two together.
  • Unnecessary scenes. Ask yourself this: what does this scene achieve? Is it really necessary to the story? Does it add anything? If not, it has to go.
  • Research dumps. You’ve heard the admonition against info dumps. Research dumps are just as bad. You may conduct exhaustive research on how a nuclear submarine works, but you will quickly lose your readers if you describe it in every detail. Include only those details that are central to the story.
  • Fantastic coincidences. Dean Koontz warned against this in his book on writing. Here’s one: a guy has a crush on a girl in high school and always regrets he didn’t pursue it. Years later, he finds himself divorced. On a trip to China, he runs into his old crush from high school, they hit it off and get married. Not likely. That’s what the reader is likely to think.
  • Bad endings. This is a broad category that includes the following: So what? endings, Happily ever after endings, Too neat resolutions endings, didn’t you (main character) learn anything? endings.

Often the writer feels so strongly about his prose that he cannot let anything go. That’s when the editor has to step in. You may read this and think to yourself, ‘Wait a minute. I’m the writer. I’m in charge. I make the final decision.’ I respect that opinion, but as far as I’m concerned, the editor side of me is the boss. He makes the final decision.

This dynamic changes when you submit what you think is your final manuscript and your publisher tells you to make some changes. In those instances, your publisher is the boss, though you should stick up for yourself if you feel strongly about your work.

Are you a mean editor? When there’s a dispute between your writer and editor sides, which one wins out?


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2 responses to “The Mean Editor

  1. I am a brutal, brutal editor to myself. For others, I’m cut-to-the-chase, wearing a pink smile.

    • Mari,
      Thanks for your comment. I think we need to be brutal when editing our own copy. As writers we get attached to our prose but we have to be merciless as an editor.


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