Last time we examined word count issues, and if you fell on the too-low or too-high side, you did a lot of work. In fact, if you did, please read this section, but you can likely skip it. For those of you who are proud your word count was just's time for the heavy lifting.


Powerlifting and editing will cause you to make the same face


Today we review the first part of the aforementioned heavy lifting, the most difficult (emotionally) part of your journey as a writer: editing for content. Mark Twain used to read his first draft manuscript aloud to a group of people representing what he thought was the perfect cross-section of his readership.Keep in mind he wrote pretty short stories. You'll have to do this largely alone.

If you took a break, as you should have, you should be of fresh mind, and relaxed. Now, print out your manuscript. If this is your very first book always print out a hard copy. Once you've done the process start to finish the next time you can keep it all digital and save a few trees, because the second time around you know what you're doing. To begin get yourself a soothing drink (tea with honey is great), a quiet workspace, and a pack of red pens. Ix-nay on the TV, phone, children, even your lover. Writers are by nature lone wolves, and this is never more true than during editing. Treat all of humanity as your enemy.


Indeed, this is a perfect example of when misanthropy makes sense


Now to edit for content, first we must identify what you're looking for. The following should be deleted from your manuscript:

  1. Passages with a passive voice that contain no plot point, or any form of conflict. If it sounds like an aside to the camera a BBC newsreader would say during an interview, delete it.
  2. Long, lurid details. Anything that sounds like Lovecraft describing a door should be toast.
  3. Any long, detailed suppositions of POV of physical sensation of the opposite gender. If it sounds like George RR Martin describing how a woman is aware of her breasts every waking moment, scrap it. You will never get it right.
  4. Birdwalking. Any narrative or dialogue that wanders off like an Abe Simpson story should be a goner. However, if your piece is comedic and the birdwalking is intended for laughs, it may remain.
  5. Any heavy insertion of a new character or arc for a planned sequel that takes up more than a page occurring before the last third of the manuscript. If every secondary character is so flushed out you know they're going to have a sequel, you should be reading a Sherrilyn Kenyon novel and not your own.  

So those are the passages you should delete. When you find them (we'll cover how to find them in a moment) strike out the lines, e.g. there is demonstrable talent in these men, dear reader (an example of passive voice). 

Using passive voice is as annoying as a bad date spending all his time on the phone


Now, what about the passages you should edit rather than delete? What are you looking for there? Well, this can be a bit tricky. Before we get to that, let's go over how you'll find the passages to delete and edit.

First, read your manuscript. Not out loud, don't move your lips, don't follow your finger. just read it normally. However, if you reach any awkward part, you know, where it doesn't make sense at first, seems off, or after you think "Dafuq did I just read?" you need to stop. Read the awkward part out loud. You'll recognize these parts by instinct so long as you actually have been following along and have read your grammar books. Basically, if it takes you out of the story, it's awkward, and needs to be deleted or fixed.

Look at the list above, those are the awkward passages to be deleted. But if you can't tell if a paragraph or page should be deleted or edited, read the surrounding chapter/section out loud to a friend. Get their vote. Be sure to find one who avidly reads the genre you're writing in. If after that you still can't decide if it's change or delete, go with delete. Don't linger forever on a single passage, this step shouldn't take you more than 4 days if you can devote 3-4 hours/day to it. So a total of 12-16 hours of work will happen at this stage. Any more than that and you'll go mad and commit suicide like so many other authors have.

Portrait of an over-achieving writer. Perfectionism is literally death for us


Now, what types of awkward passages should be changed?

  1. Passages with passive voice that do contain a plot point or internal or external conflict. - Rewrite these with an active voice.
  2. A complete backstory on a secondary character. It's fine to mention the male shopkeeper has a boyfriend, but we don't need a blow-by-blow of his coming out day. Pare it down.
  3. Passages where tone changes. Did you start writing like Faulker, then took a break, came back, and wrote like Hemingway? If you don't understand that, Google "Hemmingway versus Faulker" and get your ass to the library NOW. Come back, and rewrite any passages where the narrative is markedly different so it fits in with the rest.
  4. Birdwalking back story. Remember the adage "show don't tell"? What they actually mean is don't tell us the castle is haunted by the ghost of the first owner's third cousin's mistress, just write in a fucking ghost.
  5. Overly detailed descriptions of the physical actions of a fight scene. Trust me, you don't know the proper names for the moves, and you will never get the reader to picture it the way you do. So write "they fought long minutes, trading punches until both bloody, but quickly Quinn had Meyers pinned" rather than the blocking for an entire episode of Walker, Texas Ranger.
  6. Unnatural dialog. You'll sense it when you read it. Print up two copies and read it with a friend, each taking one part. See how it flows. Here's a clue: in how many novels do two people having a conversation repeatedly say one another's name? Almost all. But when you're talking one on one you only say the other person's name to get their attention back when it wanders, or to deeply underscore a point like love, lust, or anger.
  7. Repeated detailed descriptions of the same action, different time. The first time the burglar cracks the Smith AAA-51 safe describe it. When they crack another identical safe next year, summarize it.
  8. Long narrative recaps. In an epic or mystery sometimes you have to summarize the previous events to help the reader remember. Try to keep it brief, and whenever possible, put it in dialog. Use this approach when explaining the overriding plot arc in the second or later books of a series.
  9. Detailed descriptions on non-events. Say "She woke, ate her breakfast while reading the paper, and went to work" rather than seven paragraphs describing that boring morning.
  10. Actions that don't jive with a character. Remember how you made that character bio? If you described your protagonist as a Dirty Harry type and have him dancing the funky chicken you either need a damn good reason stated at the time of dancing, or you need to write him doing something else while others dance. 

These passages to be edited should be underlined in red pen, and the proposed changes written in the margins. This is why you should have typed it double-spaced, that way there's more room for editing. If you're really anal, use a red pen to strike through passages to be deleted, and a blue one to underline and notate the passages to be edited. Or use green for delete and blue for edit. Pro tip: if you do that you can save the red for spelling/grammar/punctuation editing notes and re-use the same hard copy.

Pro tip: This isn't marked up enough!


At this time, one very important thing to remember is, don't go hunting for grammar, punctuation, or spelling errors. Don't even run spellcheck before you print. You will do one more content editing session after this one, and the finite editing comes last.If you try to look for these errors now it will eat up all your time, plus any edits you make may have more. So resist the urge to nitpick and focus on getting rid of the awkward passages that pull your head out of the story.

The goal at this step is a story that keeps you submerged in its version of reality. Critics call those kinds of stories "gripping." Let's aim for that. In our next lesson we're going to take a break and research marketing in your genre, which will help you to edit for pacing which is edit #2. Then down the line is the dreaded grammar/spelling/punctuation. For that step you're going to need to stock up on speed and Valium.

So for now stock up on your cigarettes, coffee, tea, and make sure you have a quiet space. Print your story and be ready for some hard work. Pro tip: Writers usually have high libidos. So ever day before you begin editing toss one off, paddle the pink canoe, get it out of your system. Nope, no sex with anyone but yourself while editing. Save it for a reward once you're done with each stage. Good luck, and happy editing!

If you look like this when you start each day, you're doing it right (From The Naked Gun 33 1/3: The Final  Insult)