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31 May, 2008

Chronicles of a Lesser-Known Writer: Part III - Want to Make Your Editor Happy? by Shonell Bacon

Hi Fellow Lesser-Knowns,
I beseeched the multi-faceted Shonell Bacon to let me pick her brain about editing, because this is one area of writing that cannot be stressed too much. Thought I'd pass along the perils of wisdom she shared with me, so we could all benefit from them. If you appreciate Ms. Bacon's advice as much as I do, drop her a line and let her know!

Here goes, folks...

Want to Make Your Editor Happy?

Sounds like an interesting question, right? After all, many writers submit their works to editors so that they can receive a clean manuscript back and be made happy. It is very important for writers to hire editors to edit their work for grammar, for mechanics, for story structure, for sentence structure, for layout issues, etc. The publishing world is highly competitive, and you must have a strong, engaging package to submit to agents and editors if you even want to get your big toe into the door of PublishDom. Having said that – you, the writer, should also know a thing or two about editing.

Every year, I edit several manuscripts from writers who are either looking to submit clean novels to agents and editors or who are looking to self-publish their novels. Depending on the stage of editing, I can be editing a work for its story structure to make sure it’s sound, I can be editing a work to make sure that sentence structure and grammatical/mechanical issues are resolved, or I can be editing a work to make sure the copy – in layout form – is primed and ready for publication.

Through these edits and through the general "reads" I do from time to time for writers, I have noticed that there are regular errors that are made that can make an editor’s job increasingly taxing.

It is true that writers should write – that’s what we do. However, good writers…good writers who want to better their craft and style need to also be pretty good editors in their own rights.
Below are a list of those "regular" errors I tend to come into contact with as an editor; this list is by NO MEANS exhaustive; however, if writers take the time to do at least one strong read-through of their work after it’s completed and edit for these errors, it will make them more in-tune with their work…and it will, ultimately, make their editors very happy!

A) PUNCTUATION - (periods, commas, exclamation marks) Periods and commas should be placed inside quotation marks. Many times, I see this in 'scripts: "I cannot believe you said that" Billy said. Or, I see: "I didn't make it to work today", Sam replied. Or, I see: "I'm not going there" -- without a period to end the sentence. It is important to remember that periods and commas should go within quotation marks. It's a tedious job for an editor to make these corrections when it occurs almost every time there is a piece of dialogue. To throw another punctuation mark into the mix, it is also very important to lay off the exclamation mark. I was once told that I could use the exclamation mark FOUR times throughout my entire writing career. A bit extreme, but you do want to make sure you don't SCREAM everything to your reader by dropping an exclamation mark at the end of a sentence. In reality, your WORDS should show a character's anger or excitement. In a way, your cheating the reader and your character to use marks instead of showing, through your writing, how a character is feeling.

B) USING TAG LINES - Tag lines are very important. They tell the reader when a character is speaking. When you have two characters speaking, it is not necessary to have a tag after each piece of dialogue. You should introduce the conversation with taglines so that readers know who is talking, and once that introduction is made, you can remove taglines unless absolutely needed. Readers are smart. They will know who’s talking. Now, if you have more than two characters speaking in a conversation, then it is important to place tag lines after dialogue so as to not confuse the reader. ANOTHER issue that arises with taglines is the use of "said". Some writers worry about using "said" too much in their tag lines, and they end up using tag lines such as he laughed or she sighed. These are action sentences--not tag lines. Tag lines show who said something. A person doesn't laugh a sentence or sigh a sentence; therefore, the statement, "I can't do this," Brenda laughed, is not correct because you are telling the reader that Brenda is laughing the statement. People say, state, respond, answer, ask, yell, scream, whisper. Use "speaking" verbs for tag lines if you get tired of said – and even then, use them SPARINGLY. Let your dialogue – the words you chose – dictate how a reader should interpret the dialogue.

C) IN & OUT OF POVs - I love stories that have different POVs. Some writers, however, attempt to use various POVs, but they begin new POVs in awkward places in the story. I read a ‘script a while back that started in a close third person. It followed, very closely, a male character's thoughts and actions. In the middle of a scene, I went from his POV to a woman's POV, and I was confused. I didn't know why we needed the shift; as a result, the glitch paused me. Later in my read, there was a scene break and the new scene began with a new character's POV. This POV shift was seamless and didn't bother me at all. The lesson behind this story is it's perfectly okay to have POV shifts in your work; however, you do want to try to place them at scene changes or new chapters. Readers are expecting something new to occur with each scene or chapter, so changing POVs will go down more smoothly in those places than dropped in the middle of a scene.

D) SAY NO TO CAPITALIZATION - Now, don't get me wrong. Capitalization is good...most of the time. The type of capitalization I'm talking about happens when writers capitalize all nouns even if they are not proper. For example, one might write, "They were entertained by the Stage Play." Or, one might write, "Susan was a Doctor, so she definitely knew what she was doing." Both "Stage Play" and "Doctor" are nouns that are not specifically naming people, places, or things. I can go to the "ball park," or I can go to "Oriole Park at Camden Yards." I can be entertained by a "stage play," or I can be entertained by the stage play, "Mama Don' Burned the Peas." Susan was a "doctor," or Hey, isn't that "Doctor" Susan Sloan? If a noun is just stating something common like doctor, stage play, my aunt, or ball park, you do not capitalize; however, if you are talking about a specific Dr. Sloan, or Mamma Don' Burned the Peas, or Aunt Millie, or Oriole Park, you want to make sure that these titles/nouns are capitalized.

E) SHOW, DON'T TELL - Yep, that old adage. You knew it was coming. It's one we'll hear about for the rest of lives and then some. It is always important for the reader to feel that he or she is experiencing your story. If your main character is angry, don't just tell the reader this. Show it. Many writers, in their need to get the story out, will write EVERYTHING that occurs, which is fine in a first draft. However, it’s important in a revision to remember that 1) not everything that occurs is needed to tell the story you are telling, and 2) you don't want to just tell, point by point, what occurs. Give the reader action. Give the reader emotions. Give the reader a story he or she can immerse him/herself into. SHOW them so that they can interpret the story’s meaning – don’t simply tell them the meaning of the story.

F) CAMPING AND MARCHING - This is something I was taught in pursuing my MFA degree, and it goes nicely with SHOW, DON'T TELL. As mentioned above, many writers, for fear of losing a reader, will explain EVERYTHING in their story. That's how you will definitely lose a reader! When you're in a scene, you have to ask yourself, "Is this scene vital to the understanding of the story?" This, in essence, is the camping and marching question. If a scene is important to your story and readers will be lost if you do not put it in, then you want to "camp" in that scene for a while and show the reader what he or she needs to continue with the story. If the scene is not vital but should still be in the story, then you want to "march" right through it, giving the reader exactly what he or she needs and then moving on to the next scene of your story.

G) ACTIVE VOICE VS. PASSIVE VOICE - In sentences written in passive voice, the subject receives the action expressed in the verb; the subject is acted upon: The boy was bitten by the dog. Or, The brake line was cut by Tony yesterday. Passive voice is not only indirect, it is also wordy. The first example, by changing it to active voice, would read: The dog bit the boy. The second example: Tony cut the brake line yesterday. In a revision, look for "to be" verbs – am, is, are, was, has, have – to see if you can redevelop those sentences and make them more active.

H) PITCHING YOUR STORY – This is not in reference to the actual EDITING of your work, per se; however, if you can do this, it will be a great tool to use as you read your manuscript to make sure that EVERYTHING that’s in it connects back to the overall "point" of your work. It is very important that you create a pitch for each of your stories. The pitch should be 25 words or less (if you have to, go as high as 50 words). Why do you need this? Well, it's easy to remember two powerful sentences about your story than to stutter and look uncomfortable when someone asks, "So what's your story about?" If you go to conferences, having the speed-pitch ready is a great tool. When you're submitting your work to agents and editors, you always need a pitch of your story before you get into your spiel (especially in query letters). Who is your main character? What is your main character's conflict? What is the unique spin that you put into your story? These are three items that you will want to add to your pitch. Just think of it like this--if I came up to you and said, "Quick, make me want to read your story," what would you say? Say it in 25 words or less!

Some writers may ask, "How am I supposed to revise for all of these things (and more) at once?" The answer is quite simple: you’re not. You should actually do multiple readings and revisions of your work before submitting it to an editor. Ultimately, the story is YOURS. You want to make sure that all integral components are in your story. You want to make sure that the story says…and IS what you want it to be. You want to feel confident, as you submit a book for editing, that the book is as complete as you can make it. This means that you may have to make several "passes" through the story, each time looking for one or two things instead of trying to look for seven things in one reading.

In the end, the question to ask yourself should be, "How important is it for me to have a well-polished story that shines – not only in storytelling but also in grammar, mechanics, sentence structure, etc.?" If it’s important, then you owe yourself and your manuscript your undivided attention in the revision process.

This, ultimately, will make you…your manuscript…AND your editor happy.

Shōn Bacon is an author~editor~educator~everywoman. She is the author of two novels published through Strebor Books/Simon & Schuster, and she was a contributor to the highly successful anthology, Chocolate Flava, published through Atria Books/Simon & Schuster. Though writing is Shōn’s first love, academia is a close second. She received her double masters in English and creative writing (fiction) in 2004 from McNeese State University, where she serves double duty as an English Specialist (teaching freshman composition) and a mass communication lecturer (teaching Introduction to Mass Communication, Writing for TV/Radio, and Media Writing). Writing has also followed her into academia as she has contributed and co-edited three published textbooks on freshman composition within the last three years.

There are a million and one places where you can learn more about Shōn; here are the top four:
1) ChickLitGurrl: High on LATTES & WRITING – (http://chicklitgurrl.blogspot.com) – her blog where she interviews women writers
2) MySpace – (
3) The Nubian Chronicles Magazine – (
http://www.tnc-magazine.net) – a quarterly AA lit e-zine that Shōn co-founded in 1999
4) SisterDivas Magazine – (
http://www.sisterdivasmagazine.net) – a quarterly multicultural women’s e-zine that Shōn runs with best friend-biz partner, Tonya Howard

Shōn can also be contacted via e-mail at sdb6812@hotmail.com.


Anonymous said...

I luv luv lvu your blog this was the 1st time that I visited ans I learned so much. Got to go the bus is calling me I'm on my way to Mercy,GA !! lol NinaTreas HOLLA

Terra Little said...

Get with me when you get back, we can gossip about what's going on in Mercy, GA! I know it's a hot little mess down there right about now, since Pam returned... Thanks for stopping by. Glad you enjoyed your visit!

GENESIS said...

Wonderful blog. This is very valuable informations. Thanks Shon and Terra.


Terra Little said...

Thanks for stopping by, Darnetta. Glad you found something useful. You come back now, y' hear?

Anonymous said...

This is great great great! I'm the other anonymous who said you were stingy with feeding us crumbs of "Jump".

This is truly invaluable advice. I was reading a new book from an author who has written six or seven novels who still hasn't figured out the show don't tell thing and had sentences like "she said with love in her voice." OOOOOOOOOOOO! That will kill a story for me every single time! I can take one or two of these, but all through the book? I'm thinking where did her editor learn to edit?

Thanks Shon and Terra for sharing I wish that you could put this on super blast all through cyberspace so that all writers-both aspiring and seasoned could learn this!

Chick Lit Gurrl said...

i'm glad you guys got something out of the blog....i'm constantly reminding myself of things IIIIIIIII need to still focus on in my own writing! :-)

Terra Little said...

Hi! Feel free to send folks on over here to check out Shon's article. I'm glad it's coming in handy, 'cause that's the main purpose of the "Chronicles"; to entertain, but also to help fellow lesser-knowns have a smoother ride. I'll try to keep the useful information coming, so stop through every now and again. Thanks!

Yasmin said...

Excellent blog and great advice. Stick with Shonie not only is she an excellent writer but sis has some editing skills to boot!

JC Martin said...

This was a great blog. I'm always learning from Shon. I hope I tackled all these things (I'm sure I didn't) when I finally have an editor looking at my manuscript (that's new too. It's a manuscript until it is binded and in between a cover.)

Tee C. Royal said...

Wonderful, wonderful post Shonie! Thanks for bringing it to us Terra.


Anonymous said...

Shon edited my second book and taught me so much that helped make it a better publication as well, especially the marching versus camping technique.

Chick Lit Gurrl said...

Aww, thanks for the kudos, ladies. It's so funny - when I first started writing, I couldn't run away from these types of errors. As I've grown, the errors have lessened...others are removed after SEVERAL edits, but I'm always reminded that every day there are new writers cropping up and those writers STILL need to know these basics, every day; reading great works and editing humbles me a lot as a writer; they show me that there's still so much to learn and to "master".

Anonymous said...

Hi Terra!

I sent you a friend request on myspace and so I will be anonymous no more! (on myspace at least!smile)

Terra Little said...

Hi right back at 'cha. One of these days, I'm going to figure out who you are...LOL.