Category Archives: Editing

Free Editing Help and the Secret to Great Writing

After I returned from the Northwestern Christian Writers conference in Minnesota, I was inspired and fired up to get back to my book and keep revising. That often happens after a writers conference. I’d taken a bit of a break when summer hit, but the great conversations and knowledgable speakers had me raring to go again. If you’re wondering about attending a conference near you, trust me, it works….

The class I taught at the conference is shared below, a distilled collection of key questions for all writers I called Manuscript CPR. It’s culled from my experience teaching writers how to do macro and micro edits, and it’s basically how to resuscitate a dying manuscript. :) It also just happens to contain the secret to great writing (great editing, duh!), and I believe it’ll help any writer. It did me.

I hope you’ll feel inspired to make significant progress on your meaningful and needed work this week, and all month long. But more than that, I hope you’ll learn to enjoy the process so you can continue writing for years to come.

Keep aiming for the higher purpose,

Mick

Manuscript CPR+

How to Know When You Need an Editor

“Please turn to page 127,” she said.

The word “I” had been circled every time it appeared on the page.

“How many circles are there?” she asked.

I counted fourteen. The page nearly jumped and jostled with circled I’s. But I was not sure what to make of this. Every time I’d written “I,” I meant “I.” Was it wrong to mean “I” so much? Or did the problem have to do with the word itself? Ought I find a synonym–is there a synonym?–for “I?” But no, I suspected the problem ran deeper.

Bonnie Friedman, Writing Past Dark

 

Deliberate is a good word.

As adjective, it means purposeful, the opposite of careless: careful.

As verb, it means to engage in careful consideration.

Deliberate, de-liberate, is to remove carelessness. It’s a good word for clarifying why editors are so feared and often untrusted. Their work is frustrating. Writers need them, sure, but that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t dread their constraining, de-liberating work.

After all, the editor’s job is to constrain the writer, to bind her wandering words to her intended meaning. You recognize the implication here? The blinding light of inescapable judgment? Like a reckoning?

To the extent you’ve found liberation in writing, an editor de-liberates, evaluates, measures, balances, and masters it. Like a dog.

Famous editor Sol Stein talks about writers getting out of the way of their work, the way Fitzgerald said his editor Max Perkins helped him do. All the throat-clearing distraction and unprofessional insertion and interpretations an author tends to give, the explaining and artful hiding they do, it’s not needed, so editors are helpful, if annoying, sort of house elves.

But honestly, professional editing is not required for any author anymore. Only those entering the traditional industry of royalty-paying publishers. It’s only necessary for reaching a broader audience than the author can reach on their own, if that’s what they want. This painful sacrificing of your way–the unconsidered way–for the better way, it requires an uncomfortable humility, a submitting.

And if you’re gonna do it, that’s not optional.

When I was a self-conscious writer just starting out as an evil editor, I used to try and make a case for editing, try to argue for the professional painful poking and proding of editing. But after so many years, I’ve given up. I’m tired of convincing. I finally decided professionally edited books speak for themselves.

But how can you know when you need an editor? Is there a best time to seek editing?

I think, yes. At least, when you’re a beginner, an editor can help right away–although I wouldn’t recommend hiring an expensive one until you’ve got some experience writing and being critiqued by strong readers. Learn from their books, classes, videos, posts, and articles. Find one or a few you like in your genre and enjoy that learning stage. You can gain so much online these days it’s not even funny.

When you first seek out an editor, you’ll need help with structure, theme, and deeper issues than style and craft. Most editors are better writers than you, but it’s because they know how to set up a story, create context, and identify the underlying promise with tangible examples and sensory detail. Their word choices, clarity, efficiency, and sentences are all secondary to satisfying storytelling.

For example, many writers begin by frontloading their story with backstory. We need to care about our primary character first, so polishing the flashback scene doesn’t help. It needs to be moved to later in the book. In nonfiction, the big problem or context for the promise you’re offering readers hasn’t been sufficiently developed. Developmental editing (substantive editing, or content editing) ensures the book feels weighty and important at the outset.

That’s the kind of thing you’ll get once you’ve written the book, so it’s best to simply write and not worry about wasting time and effort. It’s often more easily solvable once you’ve completed the journey.

But if anxiety about having to edit later is derailing you from writing, or if you’ve gotten some strong pushback from readers about fundamental elements–character, plot, setting, theme–an evaluation or consult with an editor may be a good idea.

Coaching is for writers who need deep encouragement to face their dragons and go into that cave they fear. It’s one thing to know it holds the treasure and you just have to do it, but it can be quite another to keep showing up day after day and struggling to explain why you’re doing this to yourself. But specific editing comments during writing are minor and mainly for reassurance.

The best time to hire an editor in my opinion is after you’ve completed two full drafts and had 2 or 3 trusted readers offer detailed feedback. Building that community is essential and prepares you for professional feedback. Then when major revision or minor recreating is recommended, you’ll have some idea of why and how to do it.

Everyone is different, so you need to consider your personal situation and experience level. If you’re a freshman, senior level classes are going to be hard to apply–and vice versa. What you read and how much you pick up from it are very important factors. If you’re in the writing process, enjoy that and if/when you get stuck, consider a consult if no trusted friends can advise.

While editing is about far more than fixing errors, identifying issues that require some revision is not as painful, horrendous, mortifying, life-altering as most authors tend to think. Take heart, warrior. You’re not the first and you won’t be the last to survive a rewrite.

You’ll be assessed, you’ll be shaped, and you’ll grow. All good things come in good time. Don’t short-circuit the supercharging work your inspirer’s intended to challenge, spur, and revise you. 

I looked at my manuscript in my suitcase, thought about all those beautiful, hilarious, poignant people I had been working with for almost three years, and all of a sudden I was in a rage. I called my editor at home. He was not planning on going to work that day. He was a little depressed, too. “I am coming over,” I said, and there was a silence, and then he said, very tentatively, “Okay,” like he wanted to ask, “And will you be bringing your knives?” 

Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird

 

It’s all, always been, for a higher purpose,

Mick

Why You Must Face Your Shame

“I’m telling you, once and for all, that unless you return to square one and start over like children, you’re not even going to get a look at the kingdom, let alone get in. Whoever becomes simple and elemental again, like this child, will rank high in God’s kingdom.” – Matthew 18:3-4 MSG

How long it’s taken me to understand this. How I’ve resisted the knowledge that to get what I really want, I’ve got to face my shame of being no one.

And it’s such a common story: I just wanted to be strong, independent, a self-made man. How shameful is that? Somehow despite all I knew about following Jesus, I still resisted this very humility that’d bring what I was really looking for.

Being healed, whole, and fully alive meant trying many things before I could give up trying.

Just how much of the whole struggle does this part of it make up? I don’t know. But based on how hard it is to hear, let alone do something about, I’m betting it’s more than many of us want to admit.

Knowing what you really want tells you how to proceed. If you know what you’re after, you know your deepest passion. Passion is what gets the work done, but few people are deeply aware of what their passion really is.

Because it’s really difficult to know! We want many things, we serve many masters. Our desires are all over the place. But that’s the core why of our passion, and uncovering the source of that drive, the why, is what makes the most compelling stories.

The archetypal hero is always really in search of her why. It’s a story you can never exhaust because we all somehow know the real reason is always deeper, and no amount of struggle will reveal it until we’re ready to give up trying.

And most will never stop trying because they’re too hurt, too bent on justice, too proud to admit their own faults, and too ashamed to admit their impotence. No one wants to see there’s a deep pathos at the core of life.

There was once a man who came to Jesus asking for his help to change his life. He didn’t know what Jesus would do, but he knew he needed help, and he knew Jesus could do something. He didn’t much care how or even what he did exactly. The strength of the desire overwhelmed every other concern.

When he found Jesus and made his request, he got the surprise of his life. Jesus wanted to know what the man was willing to do. Somehow Jesus knew the very thing that ashamed him the most, and it became the test of his worthiness to receive help. Faced with Jesus’ embarrassing request, the man thought and decided if Jesus was willing to help him, it was worth any loss of dignity and the man agreed. He did it. And Jesus healed him.

But as the man was walking home, he began to wonder what had really happened. Somehow he knew despite Jesus’ obvious power and ability to heal, he’d wanted the man to realize something more than that. In turning his request around, Jesus had asked for trust, and when the man agreed, he’d shown him how to be healed. And it wasn’t after he’d done what Jesus asked, but in the process of doing it he received the miracle.

This revelation was the true healing, the man realized, and as he walked, he began laughing. There was a cosmic joke at the core of life. The master had shown him something that could heal everything in his life, if he could only receive it. Maybe it was always a question of whether he could face the shame of what he feared the most–loss of pride. Only then would he be worthy to receive the thing he needed. That was the key, the test, the secret: the doing it anyway.

Facing your shame may not feel like the way to all you dream. It doesn’t excite me to think of where I might be abased or disrespected today. It certainly doesn’t seem like the reason I wrote a book. But in as much as I came looking for hope of something, and realized even faintly the source of that hope was only in one man, I’d be facing a test at some point to accept my deeper reason and his higher purpose.

The vision for any book of passion is in the shame the writer was willing to face for the true Author. And the doing of it, whatever it required, that was the truest test determining the outcome.

“It is essential to practice the walk of the feet in the light of the vision.” – Oswald Chambers

For the higher purpose,

Mick

What to Do When You Suspect It’s Not Enough

“Doubtless some ancient Greek has observed that behind the big mask and the speaking-trumpet, there must always be our poor little eyes peeping as usual and our timorous lips more or less under anxious control.”
- George Eliot, Middlemarch, 1871

So you’re finally ready to get honest? You’re finally ready to admit that your writing is no good?

Congratulations. Welcome to the club! It’s time you knew the secret everyone else who writes already knows: it’s no good because you’re not good enough to write it.

And you’re not good enough for one, inescapable reason (and it isn’t a lack of trying). You’ve suspected it all along. It’s crept up on you time and time again as you waited for the words you knew wouldn’t be right:

You’re not enough.

You know. Everybody knows. It’s not really a secret at all. But here’s the thing–it’s not that big a deal. Trust me, plenty of people aren’t enough. It’s no reason to give up.

It should give you serious pause though. If more people realized this, there’d be far less junk published every year.

The best thing you can do now is take a moment to do yourself (and everyone else) a favor, and figure out what you’re going to do about it.

The vital question, of course, is what now?

1: Start with what IS working. Despite its shortcomings, your book is honest, insightful, revealing, and even inspiring. It achieved much of what you set out to do. It’s simply not what you should have set out to do. And that’s a tough pill to swallow–you’ll have to develop some discernment to sort out what exactly is good about it–but you’ve got time. And you’ve got the patience and skill to figure this out.

2. Go back to the vision. Reevaluate the origination of this book. What was the inception? What were you really after? If you’re like most of us, this is not natural or automatic. You don’t easily decide to change what or how you wrote simply because you need to. It’s hard to discover what you were really after (Teaching a lesson to prove a point? Affirmation or acclaim? Serving God better so he’d bless you?) 

Hey, welcome to the writer’s process!

Everyone who sets out to write a book finds it’s harder than they thought. Hopefully, you realize you’ve got to edit it, but also, you’ve got to let it be what it wants to be, not what you want it to be. Sadly, I don’t think that is ever easy. But less sadly, this is something your book will teach you if you can slow down and listen.

This is what my book taught me: I was after all those parenthetical things above. So going back to the vision to reevaluate was the only way to improve. The first draft wasn’t a waste–I needed to write it to get it out and see it clearly. But I also needed to accept refining (or redefining) the vision as simply the next step in the process.

Reevaluating the vision is what you do when your goal is the truth.

We’re not alone. And we’re not getting off with a “one-time-and-done” edit. This reevaluating will be consistent, ongoing, and require lots of commitment (motivation!) to see what’s really going on.

I know that’s what writing is, but that’s also what life is. We’re really trying to see things as they truly are.

Yeah, that’s a big, deep concept. And yeah, it was always that big. We just don’t like to see it too clearly–it’s scary.

So let this feel overwhelming for a while. It’s okay. Take it slow. And thank God now you can recommit to this deeper goal and finally stop seeing refinement as a barrier to success.

It isn’t. It never has been. Because the truth is exactly what you always wanted.

3. Recommit to the higher purpose. When I started this little blog experiment in 2004, I was working for a national ministry publisher and didn’t have a clue I’d still be editing 13 years later. I had one goal: keep my core motivation of honoring God. From my first post, the Monday Motivations and the “Higher Purpose” tagline was about establishing and evaluating what we’re really after in writing.

I believed this was what made successful writers.

Letting go of all selfish purposes, and deciding to love the journey. This was the one thing I knew I wanted.

Finding your higher purpose is always the real work because we’re fickle, distractable, chronically forgetful people. We are the Israelites. We forget God is working, we forget we’re following and not leading, and we forget the real point isn’t what we’re after but what he’s doing.

We’re always beholden to the work. And God is in it, if we’ll stop to notice and listen. So the real work is always slowing down to pay attention to what we’re really doing and saying, and why. Writing ultimately means leading readers to know what’s most important. But always first, we’ve got to find that ourselves.

If we’re going to be good guides and bring fresh air to many, we have to relax and be healed of our need to perform.

I was talking with another author who suffered unimaginable damage in her life. It’s taken years to acknowledge it was wrong and overcome it. It absolutely floored me that she’d done what I always have, diminishing the pain. “EVERYONE else’s pain was always worse,” she said.

What holds writers back isn’t the pain itself; it’s the struggle to believe it warrants attention.

That’s the unbelievable, secret truth, the debilitating LIE that a writing coach can’t fix. How can I express this strongly enough to convince you: this belief is the great evil in your way. People spend their lives afraid to allow what they suffered to matter, unable to allow the only thing that could break the bonds of that fear: accepting the truth.

We’ve been told over and over again, “No one cares. You don’t matter. Whatever you think happened, it was nothing compared to real struggle. You know nothing of what that’s like.”

Everyone thinks this. It’s designed to keep you safe. Day after day, month after month, how long has it held you silent?

You’re not going to make mountains out of molehills. It was bad enough. You won’t be throwing a pity party. You’re just going to acknowledge it happened and it hurt. You’ll never know real freedom until you call it what it was, and face this fake news playing in your head 24/7.

People care. It does matter. It was real. And it was wrong.

So many people need the freedom of that. And all it takes is your honest, vulnerable courage.

Face it. For justice, for peace, for righteousness and healing.

You were chosen to speak this. No more lies. It’s time to realize what you carry, Light-bringer. Share what you’ve been given, and see it transform out of the ashes of your past. It matters, and no one can change that. Nothing can overcome this–no more dodging.

“Don’t you know that a midnight hour comes when everyone has to take off his mask? Do you think life always lets itself be trifled with? Do you think you can sneak off a little before midnight to escape this?”
- Søren Kierkegaard, Either/Or, 1843

For the higher purpose!

M

8 Reader Questions–8 Parts of Speech

“The new writer found she wrote best thinking of her readers’ questions–and how!”

 

This sentence contains all you need to know about writing a story. You may want to commit it to memory.

I recently discovered something I think may help new writers remember everything they need to write amazing stories quickly.

Usually, beginning writers simply write what speaks to them and never consider what readers may want from them. Instead, I teach writers they’ve got to love their readers, so we must consider what our readers, not we ourselves, need to know. 

Now, sure, the goal of editing is considering what readers need, but to writer better and faster, you’ve got to learn to consider those questions while you write, as part of your process.

That’s the goal. So what I’ve needed is a method for explaining that.

Because if you’ve ever written or edited anything, you know it’s incredibly difficult–there are so many things to think about. You’ve got to break it down into steps so you can avoid breaking down yourself.

Anyway, that’s what I want to do in this post.

So look back at the opening sentence. It’s got the 8 parts of speech–noun, verb, adjective, adverb, pronoun, preposition, conjunction, and interjection. No big whoop about that, right?

Well, prepare to have your mind blown, my friend, because it’s my contention that there are also 8 correlating “big reader questions”: Who, what, how, where, when, why, really, and who cares.

I believe you can answer all your readers’ questions and learn to quickly craft satisfying stories by remembering these simple 8 things. These are the only things that matter to your readers (and if you’re an aspiring writer, you can hereby skip all the beginner tools and tips).

If you can simply remember the parts of speech, you can remember what you need to do to write a great story:

Nouns – Subject (“Who”)

Verbs – Action (“What”)

Adjectives/Adverbs – Descriptions (“How”)

Pronouns – Point of View (This is “the question asker”–more on this below)

Prepositions/Conjunctions – Context (“Where” & “When”)

Interjections – Drama (“Why” & all-important “Who cares?”)

The first words here are easy. Subject-verb. You remember those from English class. Technically they’re all you need to write a sentence–and all you need for a story is a character doing something. The subject and their action answer your reader’s first questions: What and Who. 

“What’s this story about?” “What’s going on?” “Who is he?” 

Obviously, your hero and the central action are the most important tools to draw readers in, so if you’ve got someone interesting and you’ve got interesting things happening, great! You’re on your way. But to keep readers reading, you’ll need a little more than that.

The real secret is in making readers care. And that’s done by considering a deeper question: “How?”

“How” is more specific: How does my character feel? How is her deep fear best revealed? How have I matched her deep desire with a strong opposition to give her a compelling plight?

Think of those how questions as the adjectives and adverbs in a sentence. They answer readers’ questions with specific details. In your story, you need particular, unique details to add color to your scenes, and not by using adjectives and adverbs, but by involving the senses. Grounding readers in a specific time and place requires being able to smell the coffee or the grass, or feel the humidity of the South from your characters’ childhood days. You’ve got to make details sensory by showing, instead of telling.

Any writer worth her calling knows to kill your adverbs and adjectives wherever possible. But what they do in a sentence can remind you to answer the question of how: How does it feel in this scene?, i.e. How is she affected by his rejection?, or How does the office culture contribute to his discontent?, etc.

Now it’s better to use a stronger verb than an adverb, and it’s better to show what your character does instead of describing how he feels. Just remember that adverbs and adjectives remind us we need select, specific sensory details to express the emotions and feeling of scenes.

Pronouns (he, she, it, they) represent point of view, who is experiencing the story. This is important to consider and beginning writers struggle with this, but your point of view character is the readers’ filter and question-asker, so have her ask good questions. And if it’s your first book, use third person limited, not omniscient. You can branch out next time. And remember to always finish the scene before switching characters.

Prepositions (of, about, with, in, etc.) and conjunctions represent all the connections and relationships between your character and his world. Think of them as representative of the context of the story, specifically where and when. Like the frame around the artwork, they remind us to consider everything relative to the character and his situation. “Where are we?” “When did this happen?” and, “Where have I shown the internal and external stories connecting?” This fabulous question will greatly enhance the significance of your story. The connections you draw out are what make your story mean something, which leads to the last question:

Interjections answer the question why does this matter?, i.e. Who cares? Interjections (“–and how!”) represent the emotional drama you always want to increase. It can be big and loud, or quiet and intense, but it’s got to get readers engaged! High emotional stakes make the story matter more, so interjections remind you to ramp up the impact.

And there you have it. How to answer readers’ eight big questions by remembering the eight parts of speech.

Of course, to give readers the best emotional experience, you’ve got to learn to answer only the questions readers need answered. Which is to say you’ve got to balance this and get out of the way of readers discovering what they must answer–which is why you should never say “it felt like…” or “it was [this or that].” No! Bad writer! No cookie!

The last question, “Really?” is, What makes this story believable? Your specific sensory details make the story life-like and unique. But realize it’s also in the work you do to suggest and hint at many answers you let the reader figure out themselves.

A follow-up post on that will probably be needed. But with patient practice I believe you’ll start feeling the balance that works best and be churning out killer stories quicker and that connect better.

Just keep showing up to play….

(If you found this helpful, let me know. I’m currently compiling my first ebook of the “Best of Monday Motivations for Writers” If you have any thoughts or follow-up questions, email me through the form below. And in the meantime, get writing.) 

For the higher purpose,

Mick