Today’s guest post is by Marsh Cassady. Marsh has Ph.D in theatre and is a former actor, director, and university professor. He is the author of fifty-seven published books and hundreds of shorter pieces. His plays have been performed in Canada, Mexico and the U.S., including Off-Broadway.
For about eight years I was co-publisher of a small press and learned quickly what to look for in query letters, proposals, and in fiction and nonfiction. Yet I thought of myself mainly as a writer.
The weird thing was that when I wore my writer’s cap, I didn’t think like an editor anymore, and I found I was just as puzzled as any other writer about what would be acceptable to a publisher. Then one day, it was like the proverbial lightbulb exploded inside my head. Hey, dummy, I told myself, you’ve been an editor for a long time and, in fact, still are. So look at your own work through an editor’s eyes.
Seems pretty absurd that it took me so long to realize this and to approach my own writing as if it were a submission to the press or to the literary journal of which I was fiction editor. It’s a matter of roles, a matter of putting on a different cap. Of course, you’re still the same person—at least to a degree. Look at it this way. At work you may be an attorney and at home a mom, two vastly different roles. The same is true with writing and editing, each important but very much different from each other. In your role as an attorney you wouldn’t ground a client for staying out beyond curfew, nor would you threaten to take legal action against your three-year-old. So now is the time to hang up the writer’s cap and assume the role of editor.
What being an editor boils down to is being objective. View your own writing as it were done by someone else. Is this person you’re judging a good writer? What makes her or him good? What don’t you like about the style, the organization, the content? One thing that helps is to put away your writing for a few days or a week. When you take it out again, you have some distance between you and your work. You aren’t as emotionally involved with it now, so it’s easier to approach it objectively. The more you can distance yourself from the work, the better.
I knew a successful poet once who didn’t believe in revising her work. Whatever she wrote stayed the way she’d first written it. There also used to be a columnist for the San Diego Union Tribune who did the same. But most of us don’t work that way. Most of us have to revise our work at least two or three times—sometimes much more often until it meets our goals. In fact, in one of my books on writing I include an excerpt from my nonfiction that is my eighth revision! And still I continued to revise it extensively with handwritten changes from the top of the page to the bottom.
What are the sorts of things should you look for in editing your writing?
Is the piece something you yourself would like to read? If not, why not? Is it that you don’t like the subject matter? Years ago in the writing workshop I used to lead a man came to the meeting one night and said he was writing a film script. He said he didn’t like the subject matter but thought it would be something that would sell. Nope! He was a good writer but not for this. He finally gave up because it was too much of a chore to continue. Of course, it’s possible to do a good job with a subject you hate, but why do it unless it’s part of your job and you have no choice?
Did you make the writing too formal, too dry, too prosaic? It’s important to hook the reader’s attention right away. Did you do that? Assume you’re an editor at a publishing company or magazine. Would you want to read through the entire piece you wrote? When I was a book editor, I knew within a page or two—sometimes less—whether I wanted to publish the book or not. Would you want to publish what you wrote?
Was your lead the most effective you can come up with? How does the rest of the piece hold up? If it’s nonfiction, have you included enough specifics—examples or illustrations or anecdotes to support what you say?
Are there any bumps, any distractions? If so, what caused them? Maybe you need better transitions. Maybe you just need to explain things a little better—more interestingly, more succinctly. Or maybe you have some extraneous stuff that doesn’t support the central idea.
There are many types of organization, from chronological to spatial to order of importance. Have you chosen a type of organization that fits well with the sort of piece you wrote? Have you considered the organization or just written haphazardly as the ideas come to mind? The latter rarely works for a finished piece—whether a personality profile piece, a column, or a how-to article. You need to follow a particular type of organization that is appropriate for what you’ve written? For instance, you probably wouldn’t choose spatial organization for a novel—though it is possible, with one section taking place in New York, the next in Los Angles, and the third in London. However, within each of these sections you’d probably want to use chronological order and maybe even start the first section earlier in time than the next and the next. And you probably wouldn’t use order of importance in discussing a historical event.
No matter what you’re writing, you need to be sure you’ve tied everything together. Each part, in some way, has to relate to the piece as a whole. In fiction this means everything has to be important to the plot and/or theme, either directly or indirectly. All elements need to support the central idea. And generally, the less important a character or a setting, the less space you should give them. However, I did also say “indirectly.” Don’t throw away a scene that points up the character, for instance or explains the reasons behind characters’ actions.
In nonfiction everything also should relate to the central idea. If you’re writing about a candidate’s stance on an issue, you wouldn’t usually talk about his hobby of collecting ceramic mugs from around the world.
Is the writing easy to follow, or would the reader have to struggle to understand what you mean? Do you use language appropriate to your readers? For instance, you’d use different language for explaining what quarks are to a junior high class than you would to an adult education class.
Does the dialogue reveal character? Does it help create the proper atmosphere? If the scene is one of tension, does the dialogue reflect this? Does it help the reader understand the sort of universe you’ve created? Does the dialogue advance the plot? All dialogue should have a purpose; each word should be important for one reason or another.
Does your dialogue sound natural? Although dialogue resembles everyday speech, it is very much different but still has to appear natural. In conversation we change the subject often and abruptly. We ramble. We use a lot of extra words. Your characters can’t do that, unless it’s to point up a character trait, for instance.
Dialogue also has to be appropriate for each character, each of whom speaks in his or her own way. A recent immigrant from Russia would speak much differently than would a surfer dude. A person with a Ph.D. in physics would speak differently than would a short order cook—at least in most cases.
When writing dialogue, you need to consider everything important about the character—background, education, present circumstances, personality, and the emotional content of the scene.
Is the dialogue easy to follow? Even if your character has an accent, don’t make the writing difficult to follow. Readers today probably wouldn’t be happy to read pieces like Joel Chandler Harris’ Uncle Remus stories with lines like: “"One time," said Uncle Remus...way back yander, ’fo’ you wuz bomed, honey, en ’fo’ Mars John er Miss Sally wuz bomed-way back yander ’fo’ enny un us wuz bomed, de animils en de creeturs sorter ’lecshuneer roun’m ’mong deyselves, twel at las’ ’dey 'greed fer ter have ’sembly.”
I’m nearly finished reading a novel by one of my favorite authors, but I was disappointed to see that at several times in the book he used passive voice. So far as I remember, he never did this before. And it yanked me right out of the action. So avoid passive voice. It should be cut. Oops. What I really mean is: You need to cut it out!
You also need to consider if the words you’ve chosen are the best you can come up with, that the work doesn’t sound too stilted, that what you write matches the overall style. An academic piece, for instance, would use a more formal style than a travel article.
Recently, I edited a book for a friend. In one paragraph of four lines I found three instances of the word “painting.” He objected to my editing out two of them. He said I was ruining his style. Uh, uh, uh! Repeating words or phrases calls attention to itself and detracts from the writing. Of course, this doesn’t apply to so-called invisible words like “the,” “an,” “a,” “and”, etc. But any time you repeat words like mouse or quark or sweetheart in close proximity to the original, you are risking alienating the reader. An exception, of course, is when you deliberately repeat a word for emphasis. The same, of course, is true of phrases. Unless there’s a good reason, beware of repeating phrases within several paragraphs of each other.
Is there anything extraneous? If so, cut it. This is especially true in the matter of research. It’s been said that research is like an iceberg—two-thirds should be hidden beneath the surface. In other words, you should inspire confidence in the reader that you know your subject thoroughly, that you know much more than is included in the article, that you are the expert. On the other hand, you shouldn’t expect the reader to suffer through absolutely everything you’ve learned.
To many writers this is the most tedious part of getting a manuscript ready for publication, and it’s more complicated by the fact that when proofing our own writing, we often “see” what we expect to see and not what’s actually there. Also, proofing cannot be rushed. You have to be meticulous in doing it. One trick that can work well is to read the manuscript backward. This does away with expectations of what you think is there because now the material—though it doesn’t make sense—is completely new, and typos and small errors stand out more. For instance: “more. out stand errors small and typos and new, completely is.” When you do this, it forces you to slow down.
When you read the piece aloud, you’ll be surprised at how many typos and other “pickies” you catch. This is because you’re forced to slow down and concentrate on each word. Thus, the little things that elude you in a silent readthrough now become much more apparent. Finally, if you can, put the manuscript away one more time and then back to it again in a day or a week.
Okay, now you’ve done your stint as an editor. Take off the editor’s cap, hang it up, and grab the writer’s cap from the rack. You are not an editor any longer—at least for now. Today you’re a writer. Good luck with the new piece.
Marsh Cassady has Ph.D in theatre and is a former actor, director, and university professor. He is the author of fifty-seven published books and hundreds of shorter pieces. His plays have been performed in Canada, Mexico and the U.S., including Off-Broadway. For about eight years he was co-publisher of a small press and a literary journal. He has also taught creative writing at the University of California, San Diego, and for thirty-five years led all-genre writing workshops.