Pearple Prose: Ben Pearce on Editing

So, before I get into this, I’m just going to put forward a quick concession: I’m not a professional at this. Writing – and thus editing by extension – are hobbies for me more than anything, and everything I’ve learned over the years has been through trial and error and collaboration and more than a hint of natural inclination.

But I do know editing. I’ve done a lot of it. I’ve probably edited far more words than I have actually written, at this point, because of friends like the very man who runs this website. So, I’d like to think that what I have to say has some merit. Of course, what I do might not work for you, because every writer works differently, and every editor has their area of expertise. Goodness knows there must be countless different writing circles, schools of thought, writing/editing tutorials on the internet. Try things out. See what works. I really recommend editing for your friends if you have the will or inclination; it becomes a lot easier to see mistakes in your own writing when you go back to edit in future if you’ve seen them elsewhere.

On that note, let’s get stuck in.

 

In my experience, I’ve found that editing encompasses several different spheres, at least in regards to prose. First of all, there’s the “macro”-editing as I call it in my brainspace – when you specifically ask for a pre-reader, this is generally what you’re thinking about. This is the structure of your story, the characters and their believability, the feel of the dialogue, consistencies in tone… etc. etc.

Spotting these kinds of issues is something I had the most trouble with when I was starting out, because it’s a very subjective thing. Pointing out these kinds of issues is also, I think, very awkward for people to do if they aren’t confident in their editing ability, because it’s not like you’re pointing out a grammatical error or a strict mistake – you’re going at something much more abstract and personal.

For example, say you’re looking over a friend’s story, and the protagonist – whom we’ll call Guy Hero for now– goes off on a long, semi-philosophical diatribe about the nature of friendship or morality or whatever. Now, that’s all well and good, but we already know Guy Hero’s moral stance – remember that excellent scene earlier, where he gets into an argument with the police detective about Professor Evil and whether it was worth prolonging his life in the face of his colossally evil crimes?

What I’m getting at it is, there’s this long diatribe that the author clearly thought should be the “key moment” of their story, the crowd-clincher, the Luke-I-am-your-father scene.

But it’s not. You know this. It’s unnecessary. It’s expository. It’s out of character. It shouldn’t be in there. It’s just followed up something that covers the same ground in a much more interesting way, and so it makes the story feel prolonged or amateurish or whatever.

It’s things like this that might make you want to avoid commenting anything at all, because perhaps the author will argue with you about it. But that’s not your problem – part of being an author is learning how to “kill your darlings”, as Stephen King once apparently quoted William Faulkner. Don’t be a dick about it, though, because bedside manner is important. Let them down gently. If you can argue your point well enough, they’ll understand in their little writer hearts.

Two big points I should make before going on:

  1. People are often very good at feeling out mistakes. People are often very bad at offering solutions. I’ve mostly seen Mark Rosewater discuss this in his excellent talk on lessons in game design, and I’m fairly certain it applies to editing just as well. Feel free to point out what seems problematic to you, but any “fixes” you suggest can and should be taken with a grain of salt. Discuss. Collaborate. You don’t necessarily know more than the writer and they don’t necessarily know more than you. 
  2. This part of the editing process is something that you’ll develop your talent at by just reading and writing and editing continuously, at least in my experience. Expand your horizons, and things that you didn’t pick up on previously will make themselves known to you. Does nothing stick out as a serious, easily fixable problem? Don’t go ahead and suggest some arcane solution anyway. Chances are it has a reasonable probability of either overcomplicating, overcorrecting, or just being plain fucking wrong.

So, what should you do if you think there might be a macro-level problem with a story? My personal process begins with going over the scene/passage/chapter one or two more times and asking myself what I don’t like. Sometimes it’s a conversation that sounds vaguely robotic. Sometimes it’s a paragraph that doesn’t actually push the plot forward. Often it’s literally as simple as, “It’s boring.”

If something seems “boring”, then, ask yourself: what is it lacking? Say the above-mentioned Guy Hero story begins with something that, had we just been handed the same premise, we would think is a natural start: Guy Hero, decked out in full superhero costume, jumping from rooftop to rooftop, sniffing out crime with his super-smell. We might see him stand stoically and muse about the life of being both a civilian and a super-powered vigilante, or maybe he ruminates on the beautiful vistas of Neo Olde Tokyo in the moonlight.

After this establishing scene, we move to the villainous lair as Professor Evil puts his evil plan into action–

Hey, wait, whoa, hold on. That first scene? Nothing actually happened there, did it? It made sense to exist – this is a superhero story, and the first thing we think of is the superhero doing superhero stuff.

The key, here, is that the plot was only actually put into motion after the first scene. That first scene was literally just window dressing, getting us in the mood. Maybe the writer was just eager to start with something quite hopeful and stoic and poignant, instead of that first scene in Professor Evil’s noxious lair.

This is where that point about discussion and collaboration becomes important. Talk to the writer. Yeah, it turns out they did just want to begin with that specific tone, and you look back on it and you can appreciate why – it just doesn’t feel right to begin with something so dark and dank as Professor Evil’s sewer lair. What’s the solution? Maybe the plot should be readjusted and the first scene rewritten in order to be relevant. Maybe the first and second scenes should be woven together to give the change in tone a smooth gradient. Maybe the first scene should be longer, or just be a prelude to a whole chapter going over what Guy Hero gets up to – set up his romantic subplot with Girl Hero, his dramatic hot-headed rivalry with the police detective who lost his wife to Professor Evil’s machinations–

I’m getting carried away. But there’s a whole host of solutions to these kinds of issues. Talk with your writer. It’s very fun.

Right. Now that we’ve covered the “macro” sphere, let’s move on to the “micro” sphere.

Remember how macro-editing tends to be the domain of pre-readers? Well, micro-editing is the same but for proof-readers – this is everything from grammatical errors, incorrect spelling, and poor word choice to lacklustre prose, issues with showing and telling, etc. etc.

The front half of the prior list is, to be perfectly honest, extremely superficial – yes, of course, there is literally no reason for you to not make sure your grammar and spelling isn’t shitty, but there’s a reason spellcheck is a thing. It doesn’t require much skill or experience  to notice these kinds of issues.

To go off on a bit of a tangent, I find that less-experienced editors/proofreaders (sometimes even pre-readers) will default to nitpicking grammar/spelling instead of providing much feedback of real substance. The more obscure technical issues aren’t likely to even be picked up on by the average reader, whereas stylistic issues will be glaringly obvious in a lot of cases.

So with that out of the way: what can you do to improve your micro-editing feedback? Well, one thing that a lot of writers and editors don’t consider is that writing prose really is not very different at all to writing poetry, as delineated as the genres often tend to be. Rhythm is what pushes functional prose into good prose, and I cannot stress the importance of this enough.

Thankfully, the reason why people often don’t think too hard about this is because humans have a natural sense of rhythm – everyone hates a bad poet, because an incorrect metre or a shitty rhyme is really, really grating. The same is true for prose. The smallest addition or subtraction to a sentence, even something that doesn’t actually change the meaning of the sentence, can severely alter its rhythm and readability.

I’ll be honest with you, this is something that I’d say is more an art than a science, even though there are almost certainly people who can tell you exactly how it works. Generally, though, it’s something you need to develop an ear for, which is why continually reading and writing is the most important thing a writer can do; it develops your toolbox.

So, uh, since I don’t really know how to explain it in a way that would be useful, I guess I’ll show you?

My father always warned me that, if I were to set out across the moors and ever lose my way, then they would swallow me up whole, and that would be that.

I believed him, back then, for once I had waded with my father through that stubborn shrubbery and looked out and around and back whence we came, all I could see was the moors, and it seemed that they went on forever.

When I asked him why the moors hated men so, he told me that, when men first set out across the hills of the north, there had been endless trees, where now there were only pockets. They had cut them down, taken the timber, built their houses, used them for their campfires. And when they ran out, they looked for more.

These the first few opening paragraphs of a story I wrote quite a few years ago now, and as such is sufficiently distanced from me that I have no qualms about fucking around with it.

So the first problem I’m immediately noticing is that the first sentence just doesn’t quite work:

My father always warned me that, if I were to set out across the moors and ever lose my way, then they would swallow me up whole, and that would be that.

It sounds about right, and the meaning is clear enough that somehow I just didn’t pick up on it properly until now. But let’s look at those first few clauses. It’s quite long-winded for a hook, and also the multiple nestings of ideas going on makes it difficult to untangle.

First of all, let’s take a minimalist approach and just focus on clearing it up:

My father always warned me that if I were to set out across the moors, and if I were ever to lose my way, then they would swallow me up whole, and that would be that.

There. These slight changes clean up the rhythm of the line by quite a bit. As it stands, I don’t think there’s anything that sticks out at me as something that needs improvement.

I’m normally a proponent for opening lines that are short, sharp, and get straight to the point; this story, however, is intended to be read as if it were being narrated by an old-timey storyteller, and the slow pace of the introductory lines sells that tone to me quite nicely still.

However. I still don’t think this opening line is anything particularly good, so maybe reworking it more heavily will produce something more to our liking? Let’s remove it from the context of the rest of the paragraphs and start with something brief and hard-hitting:

The moors took my father from me years ago, quietly, as if he’d belonged to them all along.

So, with this version of the opening, I’m “spoiling” an event that occurs later in the plot for the sake of a stronger hook, but to be honest it wasn’t really a ‘big reveal’. All told, I like this first line a lot more; it’s practically begging the reader to read on, to find out what happened, to find out what’ll happen. At least, that’s how it reads to me.

On its own, though, this line feels like it’s out-of-place for the story I’m trying to tell here; it’s promising something loaded with suspense, as if the reveal is going to be something scary or suitably intense. So let’s try following it up:

The moors took my father from me years ago, quietly, as if he’d belonged to them all along. Maybe that’s why I never resented them for it. Or maybe I just knew I’d be going the same way.

I don’t know how this reads to you, but I’m finding that this just isn’t quite there, and that the last line is where the problem is. The long-short-short sequence of sentence length means that that final line feels straight-up unfinished, as if there’s another beat or two needed:

The moors took my father from me years ago, quietly, as if he’d belonged to them all along. Maybe that’s why I never resented them for it. Or maybe I just knew I’d be going the same way – eventually. With time.

There we go. The pauses breaking up the last few words gives the paragraph a thoughtful tone, as if the speaker is deliberating over what they mean. That meandering, narrative atmosphere that was present in the original paragraph is preserved.

Now that we’ve gotten a potentially more interesting hook, the thing to do from here would be to rewrite the rest of the opening scene to fit it.

However, instead, I’m going to move onto another example of how I might edit a piece:

“Why is there a screaming hell-portal in our sink?”

“Because the disposal was broken, and Raspberry Pis are only twenty bucks apiece now.”

I really hate my roommate some days.

I run my fingers through my greasy hair. I haven’t trusted our shower for the last three days, either. David ‘improved’ our plumbing, and our hot water now smells… sulfurous. “We talked about this.”

“Yeah we—“ He spins his expensive leather computer chair around, and takes off his gaming headset with a look of genuine confusion. “Wait, did we?”

“Three days ago.”

“Was this before or after I—“

Because of you messing with the hot water, yeah.”

He looks at me, wrinkles his nose. “Woah, is that why you reek? Just take a shower, dude, it’s fine. What’s not okay is your B.O issue right now.”

I’m about to run over to his bookshelf and throw the biggest, heaviest hardcovers I can find on it at him. Debated whether the Turing and Babbage biographies would hurt more because of density, or the occultist textbooks because they made it big to fit the illustrations. I take a deep breath instead. He still pays the bigger share of the rent.

He also cleans up after his damn self, and never leaves a dirty dish in the sink. Aside from the screaming hell portals he leaves in there, he’s still the best roommate I’ve had.

“I’m not okay with showering in water that catches fire.” I retort.

He turns back in his chair, obviously bored by this conversation. In profile his strong jaw is covered in neat black stubble, his hair styled and clean-looking, and his frameless glasses give him the professional look of an architect. Standing in his doorway, I feel like the barbarian hordes invading Rome. “And yet you still didn’t sign my petition on fracking in the local area? I don’t know what more you want from me, Luke.”

These are the opening paragraphs to a friend’s older piece that they’ve generously donated for this article, in the pursuit of education and also because I enjoy reading their things.

So, first off, my immediate response is to say that I adore the opening lines – the dialogue is funny, sharp, and goes a long way to establishing both the idea behind the story and the two main characters. That’s some efficient goddamn writing, is what that is.

My first main issue with the prose can be found in the following paragraph:

I’m about to run over to his bookshelf and throw the biggest, heaviest hardcovers I can find on it at him. Debated whether the Turing and Babbage biographies would hurt more because of density, or the occultist textbooks because they made it big to fit the illustrations. I take a deep breath instead. He still pays the bigger share of the rent.

This paragraph stood out to me just because of its relative size, which isn’t really an inherent problem, but it’s the sort of thing where, if you notice, it’s a red flag. The second sentence stands out to me as being very clunky, and I don’t like the full stop preceding it. Starting a sentence like that isn’t necessarily wrong in a story using a more casual, conversational narrative tone like this one, but it still stands out.

Let’s tinker with it:

I’m about to run over to his bookshelf and throw the biggest, heaviest hardcovers I can find on it at him – debated whether the Turing and Babbage biographies would hurt more because of density, or the occultist textbooks because they made them big in order to fit the illustrations. I take a deep breath instead. He still pays the bigger share of the rent.

Hmm. This feels smoother, but I dislike just how long and breathless the sentence is as a whole. Let’s try a deeper rework:

I’m about to run over to his bookshelf and throw the biggest, heaviest hardcovers I can find on it at him. The occultist textbooks were huge thanks to all the illustrations, sure, but those Turing and Babbage biographies had density. I take a deep breath instead. He still pays the bigger share of the rent.

I personally like this version a lot – the use of the italics for humour feels a lot stronger when it’s putting an end to a thought instead of placed in the middle of it. However, I feel like the last two sentences should be separated out and moved into the next paragraph, so let’s see how that looks:

I’m about to run over to his bookshelf and throw the biggest, heaviest hardcovers I can find on it at him. The occultist textbooks are huge thanks to all the illustrations, sure, but those Turing and Babbage biographies have density.

Instead, I take a deep breath. He still pays the larger share of the rent. He always cleans up after himself. He never leaves a dirty dish in the sink. Honestly, aside from the screaming hell portals he leaves in there, David’s the best damn roommate I’ve ever had.

This is how these paragraphs look after the aforementioned edits and some additional rejiggering, including fixing some small technical errors. I also rewrote the second paragraph into a list-like format, because the sequence of short lines followed up by the longer final sentence lends it a nicer rhythm.

Generally, when it comes to micro-editing and the problems aren’t immediately obvious, I simply recommend reading the text multiple times, in different ways, and then making small changes based on how you feel it should be read. Making larger changes often isn’t necessary.

In fact, the quickest and best solution I’ve found in a lot of cases is to just try deleting it. If you don’t miss its presence when it’s gone, chances are it just wasn’t necessary to have around.

So, that’s a general overview of what to think about and what to try doing next time you’re editing a piece, whether it’s your own work or someone else’s. I’ve mentioned before, as well, the idea of “bedside manner”, in regards to editing a story.

Writers should absolutely be fully capable of handling criticism, if they’re expecting at all to take their work with a level of professionalism. But that doesn’t necessarily mean the editor’s job is to be the bad guy. I’ve heard stories from editors of conflicts between the writer and their editor(s) making the work far harder than it needs to be, and keep in mind that writers (and artists in general) are often their own worst critics.

Take the time to talk, and experiment, and see the different ways a work can be changed. Try to preserve the writer’s intent. These are the things that I and others value, and so that’s what I thought I’d pay special attention to today.

One thought on “Pearple Prose: Ben Pearce on Editing

  1. Thank you for this; it was very helpful. I have tried being an editor a couple of times, and I was always struck by the question, “Wait, am I editing, or proofreading?” On top of that, I was always concerned about changing an author’s “voice”. I wish that I had read this essay first; it would have helped.

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s