Invaluable editing tips by Marti McKenna

Marti McKenna is a writer/editor living and working in Seattle, Washington. Her short fiction has appeared in Tomorrow magazine and More Amazing Stories anthology. A 22-year computer game industry vet, she’s currently busy managing the Writing Team at En Masse Entertainment and writing an urban fantasy YA novel.

I tend to be a fairly seat-of-the-pants editor. I can tell you how to improve a sentence, but I don’t often have a ready technical explanation as to why my way is better than yours. For this reason, I rely heavily on my reference library. But although dense writing style books are useful when it comes to explaining editing choices to non-writers, the single most useful book I ever read on editing is so concise it gets lost amongst those scholarly tomes.

I keep a copy of The 10% Solution: Self-Editing for the Modern Writer by the late Ken Rand (Fairwood Press) at home, and one at work. I give a copy to every writer and editor who works for me. I keep extra copies on hand to give away as gifts. So when the Feckless Goblin asked me for a blog post with editing tips for writers, I knew right away that Ken was going to be my go-to man (and that wherever he is, he’s thrilled to help).

Rand perfected his method over 25 years, but the seeds were planted in the late ‘60s when he was tasked with writing 30-second radio ads and the idea grew as he moved on to writing humor columns. The basic theory is this: your writing will improve greatly if you make it a goal to cut 10% by employing a few ridiculously simple tips. Late author Jack Cady said of the slim 68 page paperback “[it’s] proof positive that effective books on writing need not be long or tedious. This is the best tool for writers that I’ve seen in many, many years.”

Suck Proudly

10% is bursting with useful bits of wisdom…. but perhaps the most important one for writers to remember is the one I chose for the title of this post: Let the Writer Write.

“If I had a hat that said “writer” on it, I’d make sure I had another that said “editor” on it. If you try this, remember: Never wear the two at the same time.”

The writer, to paraphrase author Wil Wheaton, should not be afraid to suck. I’ve been calling myself a writer for almost 25 years and this one of the hardest lessons I’ve had to learn, but it’s finally sinking in. “Just write,” Rand says. “Write fast.” Ignore grammar and spelling, if you can. (Turn off grammar/spellchecking until it’s time to edit.) When you hit a speed bump, such as a term you can’t remember or a name you haven’t invented yet, leave a note for your editor self and move on. (Rand suggests the reporter shorthand “tk,” meaning “to come.” I use [tbd] or [name] or whatever works. The point is, don’t let it stop the writer.)

Yes, it’s hard, Rand admits, to banish the Editor from the room during the writing process, but do it anyway. Then get up, take off that Writer hat, walk around, drink a glass of water, and when you’re ready, put on your Editor hat and get ready to meet The List.

Magic Syllables

If you’re anything like me, the first time you employ The List, you’ll experience pure, unadulterated editor bliss. These syllables and words, taken one at a time, act as a magical map to the potential weak spots in your manuscript. Rand asks editors to type each word or syllable into the search box and examine the instance for possible revision.

Take “that,” for instance.

“Here’s another indication that there may be problems in a sentence. Or: ‘Here’s another indication there may be problems in a sentence.’ Even better: Here’s another problem indicator.’ Or informal… ‘Another problem indicator.” Or, if I decide the modifier ‘problem’ has been established well enough… ‘Another indicator.’ That was easy.”

Or “Said.”

“Phrases like ‘She pontificated,’ ‘He articulated,’…and similar ilk are called “said-bookisms.” Avoid them. Said is intended to be invisible. Like articles: “a,” “an,” and “the.” Don’t fear to use it.”

On the other hand, Rand points out, you don’t have to use it to excess:

“If Bill and Monica are in a room talking, how often must you say “Bill said” and “Monica said”? Establish attribution early (for accuracy and clarity), but you don’t have to do it each time Bill and Monica speak. We got it.”

Then there are the “wishy-washy” words, like “very,” “many,” and “several.” Rand provides guidelines to help you determine whether you need the word, or might do without it.

“Consider: is “very good” good enough? Is “very, very good” twice as good? Then how much better is “very, very, very good?”

Everything Else

Rand goes on to provide a dozen or so additional gems of editing wisdom, including one writers often neglect: reading the manuscript aloud. In bold caps, he writes: “If you take nothing else away from this book, take this…”

I’m pretty sure most writers discover this trick the first time they attempt to perform a live reading in front of an audience. Much as reading a printed copy reveals errors you’ll miss on screen, reading your work aloud can reveal problems at every level–factual, logical, structural, grammatical, and aesthetic–that you might not have otherwise noticed.

Personally, I say if you take one thing away from this book, and from this post, it’s that writing and editing are two completely separate processes. The Writer is the artist and the Editor is the critic. When it’s time for the Writer to write, send the Editor out for a gallon of milk and lock the front door.

2 thoughts on “Invaluable editing tips by Marti McKenna

  1. What a great post! I will agree that one of the HARDEST things is to just actually write. Somewhere locked in our minds as writers we fear that if we don’t produce that Grade A material off the bat, we “lose”. I’m going to share this article on my site – http://www.jimbronyaur.comJim

  2. Terrific advice here. I use “tktk” as a marker for items to be fixed/added later, to make sure it will pop up in a spellcheck.

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