Wielding a Red Pen

So they say, the pen is mightier than the sword, don’t they? I think the red pen is mightier than a fleet of pirates and a gang of ninjas (yep, it’s been that kind of day). I’m used to glaring red pen marks on paper, often times causing manuscripts to appear to be suffering an untimely, if not dramatic and gallant, death. This is why, as an editor and a teacher, I shy away from scarlet ink and opt for a less threatening purple or green. Or sometimes I put the kibosh on pens all together and go the techie route. This goes for editing both my work as well as peers’.

I thought I’d give you a little insight on editing, since we’ve got two wonderful give-aways going on. Well, what I do–the processes (procesi?) thrown together in a hodge-podge. I am by no means an expert or propose to be. Nor might this be what fellow writers and critiquers on the site do. This is just what works for me.

I might have mentioned once or twice that I have an OCD-like habit to go on editing sprees every month or so. Translation–I print out a copy of one of my manuscripts and prepare to tear it to shreds. I am not quite as good at tearing my own work apart as helping others, but have been known to rewrite drafts upon drafts.

First: I do a few blind read-throughs, starting from the first drafted chapters (that I might remember more vaguely than others) and work my way forward. I annotate silly spelling and grammar errors that I should know better than to make, or break down some long clunky sentences (which I only know are long and clunky after reading the paragraph out loud…to myself…in my room. Warning: Potentially awkward if interrupted). I see if any immediate inspiration heads my way and scribble that down as well.

Next: I print out any emails, critiques, reviews etc. that tell me others’ opinions of my work. Often times they hit on little things I miss across the board. Sometimes it is a big thing like a gaping plot hole I have to work on building a bridge over or sew up. I return to specific scenes or analyze dialogue my characters speak. This is never as thorough as when a piece has been line edited, but feedback is feedback. I’ll take what I can get. Even in the form of little ego boost blasts that remind me people like the plot and the story is worth it.

Then: After marking up the paper even more, margins all blurring together and drowning white-space on the page, I let it sit. Sometimes a couple of hours, sometimes days, sometimes weeks. And then I repeat the process all over again, rereading and modifying my notes.

Occasionally: Every once and awhile (more so as of late) I have mini meltdowns that morph into deep analysis and productivity. (Every once and awhile they also have me hiding under my covers wishing I was a better writer, but that is a post for another day). Lately I have been borrowing character outlines and interviewing my characters, grilling them on backgrounds and connections, making them come alive and ensuring they have flaws and are realistic. My couples have undergone therapy. My scenes and settings have been researched or overly described. I do more reading out loud conversations to see how they sound or might sound with certain emphasis or accent behind them. An outline might even sneak in. It can be full of good things, time-consuming behind the scenes things but good all the same.

(Okay, not necessarily you, though possible.)

First: I either grab a notebook or open up a blank Word document if I do not physically have the piece in my hand. Or I open the file and go into revision mode (complete with cheerful little colored bubbles). I usually start out with a cursory read through. For example, even if I have a whole book in front of me I start small, like the first chapter. I read this chapter once, maybe even skimming slightly. Then I go back and read it again. This can vary vastly from when I read my own work but it is nice to know where things are going.

*Note: If I have more than one chapter, I do read a whole novel, but usually in stages and sometimes after the first batch of comments (see Next)

Next: On this second read through I read slower, line by line and really think about what is being presented. Is a word totally out of the vernacular of a character? Does a chunk of description drag on? Does wording sound awkward or am I confused. Do I want to know more about a character? Is there something especially gripping? (after all who said it has to be ALL constructive?) I mark each place and scribble (or type) in some comments. I always find it easier to critique others’ work. I am less attached to it and know less about the plot and characters. I’m often honest, sometimes to a fault.

*Note: I try to do this as a blind reader (even if I have read the whole novel, I pretend I haven’t). It is sometimes annoying to authors because they want to yell at me and say, “Wait for it…you will find out that later.” But I am impatient and sometimes things might need to be made clearer earlier.

Then: When I’m all done reading the allotted chunk I read through my comments again and make sure they make sense, or modify them if necessary. For example, if I was wondering what on earth Nathaniel looks like, then bam…there is a paragraph of description. I might also note that this could be worked in a little earlier to feed my curiosity and as Becca notices it, since she’s been half staring at the bloke. Or sometimes I retract a statement (I never delete it, but let an author know they can feel free to ignore it). I should also mention, while I am a grammar person, when I read others’ work I gloss over any errors that aren’t glaring and try to focus on content.

What May Follow: Sometimes writers/friends send me new drafts with my comments taken into consideration and we start over. Other times we chat or bounce ideas about a certain aspect or personality in a kind of round about game of “what if”. Maybe scene reorganization is just what is needed or a switch of emphasis or word choice.

Editing is a process after all.

How do you go about editing (your own work and others’)? What is your process? How often do you do it?

Categories: Writing | Tags: , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

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2 thoughts on “Wielding a Red Pen

  1. After I have a draft, I do a complete read-through, briefly outlining as I go. Then I scan the outline looking for plot holes. They’re easier for me to see in the outline than in the document, because I know the novel too well, but in outline form, I can see just the skeleton and then I know if I missed something. (And, of course, I always have.)

  2. Meredith

    LOVE this Natalie!

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