Ten Editing Tips, for Your Fiction Mss.

Speaking of writing, which we did a lot in Tofino: I put these together for a friend, but maybe someone out there could also use them…


1.The beginning. This is the key signature of the book. Sets the tone, introduces the leitmotifs. Are the people in it main characters? If not, how much do the readers need to know about them?

2. Charles Dickens said, “Make ‘em laugh, make ‘em cry, make ‘em wait.” He put “wait” at the end because it was crucial. (In any series of three, the third is the most important.) In terms I’ve picked up by playing with the boys: Drop the hankie early, but make ‘em wait for the opening of the kimono. Are you telling too much too soon?  (Suspense: a good thing, if not done too obviously. Who is this guy? What happens next? Don’t signal too much, too far ahead.)

3. Verbs shall agree with subjects  (singular, plural). That is, unless it’s dialogue or third-person inside-the-character point of view, and the author wishes to indicate that the character has a weak grasp of this principle.

4. Verb tenses. This is tricky. But in general: if something is always true, use the present tense. If it was always true once, use the past, or “would” plus past tense to indicate continuous action in the past. (“Every day, he’d go to the laundromat.”) . If it’s something happening before the time we’re in, use the past perfect (“He’d gone.”) Only the author knows the time flow – an editor can query, but the author must decide.  If tenses are disjunct, there should be a very good reason. (Maybe the character is having a breakdown.) See also the use of the historical present. (“So, he goes, “What’re you doing?” and I go, “Butt out,” and he … etc.) Elmore Leonard is an expert at this kind of thing, and at informal dialogue in general.

5. The gerund mistake. A common one. “Walking along the beach, a pair of boots was seen.” Means that the boots were doing the walking, not the observer. Correct: “Walking along the beach, he saw a pair of boots.”

6. Readers are readers. They are good at reading. They are also post-film, and are used to swift cuts. They will fill in quite a lot. At any point, are you telling/filling in too much? The author needs to walk through the moves in his/her head – like practicing a dance or a military exercise – so that no actual tactical mistakes are made – the character doesn’t go out the door before he’s put his pants on, unless intended — but then the planning steps, the  connect-the-dots steps, are pruned out so that what the reader gets is a graceful, fluid execution. We hope.

7. Dialogue. How do people actually talk? Too much for prose fiction, as it turns out. Dialogue in a novel should: give the illusion of real speech; indicate character; not tell us stuff we can assume or don’t need to know, unless the point is that the character is boring; advance the plot; be funny if intended; not sound too wooden. Look at contractions: it’s, he’s, shouldn’t. Look at use of “that”—in speech, we rarely put it in. ‘The tree I saw,” not “The tree that I saw.”

8. Point of view. Whose eyes are we looking through? A character’s? The author’s? Is the author intruding too much on the character? Does it sound like Character Bob, or like Author Phil/Phyllis?  We know characters in the following ways: What they say. What they think. What third-person narration says about them. What other characters say/think about them. What they do. What they say they do. What they see when they look in the mirror. The tone of the prose about/surrounding them.

9. The second person problem. Applies to letters and journals, for instance when one character is communicating to another or writing a diary or journal. If a letter, A shouldn’t tell B something we already know B knows. If a journal –who is it for? Is it to be found after the character’s death – “Look what a clever boy I was”? Or is it for her to enjoy in private in a gloating or meditative or My Secret Life sort of way? For a sampling of diaries/journals, see the excellent anthology, The Assassin’s Cloak.

10. The ending. Open or closed. Fitting in tone. Makes us say Wow, or I want more. Or it sums things up, or provides a coda. It is, in any case, the last word. For now. Ask: is this how you want to sign off?


Filed under 1, YOTF Tour Blog

36 responses to “Ten Editing Tips, for Your Fiction Mss.

  1. Fantastic. I’m going to use with my students. Thanks for sharing. I love that you’re on twitter and blogging. And that you’re so generous. I loved your speech at The Whiting Awards. You made me laugh and think. That’s my favorite combination. Martha

  2. M. Davis

    Thank you so much for these great tips! I enjoy your work very much. Oryx and Crake made me paranoid although I didn’t have far to go! LOL! Can’t wait to read your latest.
    Best wishes

  3. Great tips! Thank you for sharing a bit of your writing wisdom with us!

  4. Thanks, especially for 2 and 9. And 10. 4…5…actually all of them! Its great to get authentic and practical advice from a real practitioner. Where would you recommend I start reading your work? I’ve not read any of it and found this blog through @magsmackellar.

  5. Misiula

    Apologies for posting off topic, but I’m worried about a mistake on the official US website for The Year of the Flood: on the list of the publishers from different countries, you only have part of the name of your Polish publisher (“Wydawniczy ‘Znak'” instead of: Dom Wydawniczy “Znak” — so it’s Publishing House without “House”) and, unfortunately, the link is wrong–it directs to a website in Hebrew. It would be nice if the links would be fixed for both publishers.

    Thank you very much for this novel and everything that came before it, provoking thoughts, emotions, and firing up imaginations.

  6. Thank you for taking the time and interest in other writers. It’s got to be tiring to be bombarded with requests for advice from struggling authors, like myself. I was impressed how graciously you fielded questions of how to get published when you visited Kitchener this past Autumn. If you find it monotones you don’t let on. I plan to post the link on my blog for my own reference and anyone else who might find this helpful.

  7. Yes, I could use these tips so I thank your friend who needed them first!

    Dialogue is a very tricky component to master and so many newish writers worry about doing it believably. Some advise not to write in vernacular for a character. Others say write as people speak.

    I like to take my notebook and pen to coffee shops or diners and “eavesdrop” on conversations. Discreetly, of course 🙂

    I also thank you for taking the time to share your tips. You are very kind.

  8. These are print-and-post worthy. I’m making a space on my bulletin board at this very moment. Thanks for sharing your wisdom.

  9. Michael Parrott-MacLeod

    Awesome! Thanks for posting this. We don’t often get this sort of insider information! I shall remember it!

  10. Pingback: Linkdump for December 6th at found_drama

  11. Pingback: Quick Roundup @ Tiny Events in Design

  12. Pingback: Ten Editing Tips, for Your Fiction Mss. « Margaret Atwood: Year of the Flood « [art talk]

  13. Thank you for sharing these with us! I posted them on my own site, The Writer’s Den, with a link back to your page so I can share this with all my friends back on Twitter, I hope you don’t mind? Take care, Margaret.

  14. Pingback: links for 2009-12-10 « Unjustly

  15. I’m going to Twitter a link directly to this blog post – it’s wonderful!

    So nice to find a successful writer willing to share so generously.

  16. Such a clear focus on things that matter most. So glad to have this list as I begin revision.

  17. Pingback: WRITING

  18. pls gave me some advice for my blog

  19. ‘The gerund mistake’… also known as the dangling participle, at least in stuffy old England! It’s always driven me nuts and it’s great to see it bugs you too!

  20. Clare Froggatt

    I’m a novice writer so I am bookmaking this page. I know I’ll return here again and again. Even in my first reading I read it three times. So many things to get my head around concerning writing. The passion to write has always been there but to get out of my personal journal and into the great world of blogs and publishing I want to be great. Thanks so much for all the advice. I love your writing.

  21. Pingback: Resources Roundup: Margaret Atwood, Octavia Butler, Ursula K. Le Guin « Sci Femme

  22. Pingback: Resources Roundup: Margaret Atwood, Octavia Butler, Ursula K. Le Guin | Latest News India | Education News | Technology News | Entertainment News | Business News | Sports News

  23. Pingback: Secondo piano » Blog Archive » Spigolature (IV)

  24. How many companies actually know how to prune trees correctly?

  25. Pingback: Author Worth Reading: Margaret Atwood « Books Worth Reading

  26. Pingback: Ten Editing Tips « Misty Dahl

  27. Great, but in the most cases writers do everything in their own way, behind the “tips”

  28. Pingback: Twenty Must-Read Editing Tips

  29. Pingback: How to Edit Your Novel | Dar Writes

  30. Kristen-Paige Madonia

    Thanks for this fantastic list! I’m adding it to my group of resources for my fiction students…

  31. Pingback: Editing, Editing, More Editing « Doree Weller's Blog

  32. I believe the quote is attributed to Charles Reade? Great article. Thanks!

  33. Thanks for some very important points. It’s amazing how much easier it is to write than it is to edit!

  34. Pingback: Tips on Editing A Novel « Writing To Be Read

  35. The tips are great and worthy of contemplation. However, all of them are, or should be, well-known facts to writers. Very basic stuff. Thanks.

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 )

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