Inland Christian Writers Conference, March 21, 2015
“Self-editing for Stratospheric Success: Delight readers, make new friends and sell really, really well with the 7 (or so) methods of power refinement.”
Discover the exciting world of major-league professional editing!
This is fast-paced, packed full of informative and useful tools.
Five years ago, I launched an editing company for authors and agents helping them manage projects for independent and traditional publishers. As a coach to private clients, I help authors find the story and write it.
No matter where you are in your career, the trick is to focus on what truly matters so you can compete in the overcrowded market.
As an acquiring editor, I was always on the lookout for the writers who knew how to tell a story. I knew that was what it took to sell. Whether it was a memoir, a novel or Christian living, the irreducible quality of all top-selling books is storytelling. I found that if they had that, it would sell.
These are the 7 principles of editing to knock editors out of their chairs: perspective, uniqueness, structure, precision, economy, impact, & words.
This is the stuff I give my clients to do to make their work stand out to agents and editors.
We dig in and apply them strategically to find their one theme and then refine to its greatest potential. And they sell! I’ve got 17 bestsellers and counting, which is crazy when you think of how many other jobs I’ve had and I was horrible at all of them. And I don’t take credit for the authors’ success at all. That’s all theirs. But for the first time, I don’t totally suck at this work. Even as a lifeguard, I was just not good. I mean, no one ever drowned, but they were lucky.
And for the rest of our time today, I want to show you how to do it. It’s very simple. It comes down to asking a series of specific questions about your work and being brutally honest with yourself.
The 7 tips for powerful refinement
Perspective – You’ve only got so much space to grab people because they come with expectations, so you’ve got to find what makes your work, well, work. Often, especially with fiction, you’ll set out writing one book and end up writing another. It’s a common problem for writers to try to muscle it when they see it going a different direction. It’s important if that happens, to stop writing what you want to write and go with what the book wants to be instead. I learned this early in my career that a wise editor stays open, agile, and never forces a book to fit expectations. If it doesn’t fit the mold, good. Change the mold.
How to get perspective and gain it back when you’ve lost it. I want to give a few tips on that.
Uniqueness – Voice, its sound, its style, its interest, its distinction is ultimately about the subtle differences between ways of speaking. We’ll talk about this voice business in a bit and how to bring it out.
Structure – research for comparison but simplify as well. Every story is multiple concurrent stories. Which is the focus when? What to say when. If you knew this, you’d have 99% of the job of writing figured out. Of course that’s just a way to say that at the foundational level, writing is about putting the right words in the right place. And the best way to do that is to know structure. And since this scares a lot of writers, we’re going to talk about it and get it nailed down.
Precision – accuracy. This applies to words, but also overall. It’s in choosing the right scene, the right point of view to get just the right feel. It’s being choosy and knowing how to choose. Why one thing works over another. It’s about learning to distinguish between specific things others don’t see any difference between. This discernment is developed by seeing small or hidden distinctions between words, people, events, places, ideas. And then showing how they are really big differences.
Economy – efficiency. Condensation. Quote from Art of the Novel by Milan Kundera: “Encompassing the complexity of existence in the modern world demands a technique of ellipsis, of condensation.”
Impact – interest! Where does it come from? This is often a mystery to authors even about their own work. Intrigue. Inspiration. Insight! Using your intuition.
Words – It all comes down to the words you use. I’m not interested in fancy talk. No one is. Complicated, convoluted language is a dead give away. The right words are interesting but not obtuse. They’re the right ones not the big ones. They draw you in with their evocative suggestions. And they hook you with their mysterious power. Finding the better word is what editing is all about. The better word can fix a sentence. It can define a paragraph. And the best word can convince you to read page after page.
When I started to edit I didn’t know any of this. I wanted to have something specific to help the books I was assigned. But I had nothing. I basically made sure all the quotes were cited correctly and helped create a short index. That was it. I might have given her encouragement that her points had come across, but basically I didn’t touch the thing and there was no real content edit or even a line edit.
I had to learn, What is editing?
It’s simply applying the specific tasks I just mentioned.
So now we need to get practical: how do you do it?
First, you need to break down the steps.
The Editing Stages
Substantive/developmental – Thinking it through logically and making it flow. This is about the big-picture. And determining whether you have the right picture is all about considering the impact.
Line – Do your sentences and paragraphs say what you mean exactly right? This is where your skill in getting what you hear in your head out of your fingers. This is where your love of words and characters and the incredible story you’re sharing comes to bear.
Copy – What minor errors have you missed? Grammar, word choice, what’s unclear?
Proof / typeset – What really minor errors have you missed? Spelling and punctuation.
(there’s another proof after typeset to fix errors introduced through the transfer to the InDesign pdf file).
Those are the stages. And I edit my own work that way when I’m self-editing, but I call each stage a draft.
These 4 editing stages are what publishing houses will still do after you’ve done all your drafts. Doing drafts is how you self-edit. And you must self-edit before it will get noticed. The worst thing you could do is expect anyone to read your book without having edited and put it through its paces and asked all the questions of it.
It’s not a formula, it’s an art and you’ll have your own method and strengths and weaknesses. But I’m giving you a system that if you apply, you will have editors eating out of your hand.
The 4 Author Draft stages
The First draft – Most pro authors advise to write a book as fast as you can. I agree. The idea is to get as much of the original idea out as you can before you lose the thread. This could take as little as a week or up to a couple months depending how much time you have to write per day. I worked on my first draft for several months and got distracted and derailed. I stopped. Don’t stop. Just keep it pouring all out. Have an idea of where you’re going and definitely get an outline together before you start. In fact, it’s best to imagine as much as you can of the progression and how each chapter will build on each other and even what those chapters will contain in terms of the impact on your reader before you start drafting. You don’t have to know everything about it but at least know the impact you intend each chapter to have and what it leaves your readers feeling and thinking and how it leaves them wanting to continue.
Then when you do start writing, the first draft should be like a walk through the woods. Writing gets easier once you accept that pain and failure are part of it. If you struggle with perfectionism, realize you’ll have time to get everything just right later.
The Second draft – Ask questions. “So what?” (Who cares?) “Oh yeah?” (Come on!) “Huh?” (What’s happening?) from Orson Card, Characters & Viewpoint, Ch2
The Third – Line edit clean up. Make it sound better with the line edit questions above:
The Fourth – this is where you print it out and take a final pass to read it aloud or better yet, have it read to you, and add or subtract and smooth any remaining clunky bits. This is where you can add critique feedback and eliminate any distractions, get reads and determine whether it had the impact you intended or if it didn’t quite work.
Tip: When seeking qualified feedback, this is important: find the best pro authors you admire and those who don’t care about you or impressing you. Keep your eyes open for these and read their work to connect with it and ask them if you can send them something to read and be prepared to be turned down a lot until you find someone who’s willing. And of course, always be willing to reciprocate. You will only be as good as the best writers you surround yourself with. If you get turned down, don’t take it personally, move on and keep working to raise your level. That’s winning.
And you may have read this encouragement from Ira Glass, host of This American Life on NPR,
“Nobody tells this to people who are beginners, I wish someone told me. All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you got to know its normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story. It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s going to take awhile. It’s normal to take awhile. You’ve just got to fight your way through that.”
Now I want to give you some practical ways to apply all 7 of those techniques at specific points in your drafts to help you achieve your best possible work. This is the nitty-gritty. And then we’ll take some questions.
I’ve taken each of the 7 goals and given you a list of specific questions to ask at each draft as you go through. Remember, there’s no formula, but if you think about these things systematically as you go, it will help. And though it’ll help most in second and third drafts, being able to apply these in your first draft eventually is a good goal. But if try to hold all this in your head while writing your first draft, you’ll lock up.
The guiding questions for a second draft (fiction or nonfiction) are:
- Is all necessary information included? (refer to author vision / proposal)
- Does anything not belong? Are stories, bullets, questions, & all sections helpful and applicable?
- Does the text progress logically? / Does anything require reorganization or reworking?
- Is voice unique and consistent?
- Controversial ideas or wording?
- Is this achieving the emotional experience I intend to give, progressively and at the end?
- Does all the material support my main goal? Do all stories, anecdotes, illustrations, and metaphors fit? Are there abstractions? Inconsistencies? Any illogical leaps?
- What have I left out or not said well? Are there unanswered questions or inadequately developed points? Can I add examples or application ideas?
The guiding questions for a third draft, line edit, are:
- Is text clear, concise, logical? Are there redundancies, inaccuracies, inconsistencies? Are transitions good and smooth?
- Is there any passive voice, slang, cliches, wordiness, or confusing or incorrect grammar?
- Do headings and subheads fit? Is word count okay?
- Have we checked the accuracy of facts and sources? Does all scripture fit context and properly noted? Do any quotations need documentation?
- Is there a better way to say what I mean here? Do all paragraphs, points and sentences express my intent clearly and well? What better word or phrase might fit here?
- Have I received all necessary permissions request letters? Who do I still need?
- Have I finished my dedication, acknowledgments, supplemental text/photos/artwork, & prepared a letter for endorsers, any foreword writer, “influencers,” and other supporters?
All of these are fair game in draft 4, though hopefully, you’ll be done making big changes and can focus on the minor clarifications and transitions and things at that stage.
Perspective is about gaining objectivity. How to get perspective and gain it back when you’ve lost it? First, step away. Get some space. Between writing your first draft and starting your second, go work on something else for a while. Come back when you’ve let it cool and you can look at it as it is, not just as you hope or wish it was. Second, remember how little you care about someone’s book you’ve never heard of. Remember the “so what?” question and answer it.
Uniqueness – To hear the sound of your own voice, sometimes it helps to listen to your favorite singer. Listen to how they are them but augmented, more than a regular singer in some way. There’s them and all that makes their voice theirs—their background, their culture, their personality. And then there’s that special something extra. Maybe it’s the gravel of Kenny Rogers. Maybe it’s the resonance of Josh Groban. They’ve found a way to express the earthiness or the smooth purity of what makes them special. And they thought about it and worked hard to learn to bring it out consistently. That is being a remarkable artist. And it doesn’t have to take as long as you might think. Start listening. Most of us already know what makes us sound unique. We just need permission to speak it.
Structure – Here’s where your comparative books come in handy. Do you have at least 3 books you feel yours is like? Research the specific market you’re aiming for and choose books that provide a blueprint structure you can build around. You’re not going to copy it exactly, any maybe you won’t do this until you’re done with the first draft. But having an idea of where you’re headed before you set out ensures you land somewhere close to what you intended.
One technique to help you know where to focus when is to write a brief chapter outline on what the take-away or point of the chapter is, what it contains and what the emotional impact is. If it’s fiction, you might also include who is in the scene, the main character’s goal and their main opposition. If you’re at your first draft, it may change, which is fine, but at least you won’t be completely blind. If you’re trying to impose structure at second or third draft, that’s a little harder, but it’s still doable. The basic 3 parts are setup, complication, resolution. And these days it’s debatable what constitutes resolution. Open-ended is completely fine. But Christian readers want redemptive endings. And the more dramatic, the better.
If it’s nonfiction, redemption isn’t as important as making people believe they can change and feel inspired to do what’s hard and commit to it. That’s why the inspirational market is so strong. Inspire people with a steadily-building theme that incorporates forgiveness and sacrifice and the truth of God’s unconditional love and you’ll see sort of a stair-step structure to your memoir or Christian living book. Fairly straightforward, though it isn’t always easy to get that to feel natural.
Don’t worry. Learn from your comparative titles and see what they did and apply the lessons to yours. There are books on structure that can help. And if you’ve got a special case, because there are always several people stuck on this, see me after and let’s chat.
Precision – accuracy. Let’s talk about developing discernment and recognizing distinctions. How to find the little differences between things that are really big differences.
I believe we’re suffering from a cultural overload of information that leads us to withdraw from noticing these distinctions and prevents us from listening closely to our own lives and our work as writers. The way to see into the work is the same way you dig into a passage or seek the Lord in prayer. You concentrate. You meditate. You wait and you hold a single thought in your mind until it begins to reveal layers and cracks and colors you didn’t notice before. Precision of speech comes from precision of thought. There is no other way.
The only way here is to slow down.
Tip: SEEING with the INNER EYE: Have you gone deep enough into your pain? What have you experienced that gives you insight into the essential emotional drama your story deals with?
In fiction, there are many techniques. The first is accurately thinking about what the scene looks like, what’s happening and where everyone in the scene is, what they’re seeing so you can accurately describe their place in the scene. Get into the main character’s head more, in his skin. It’s similar, though not completely the same with Christian-living or devotionals or a study. Try to embody the reader in all his ignorance. Take your time to see everything you need to know and then reduce all of that info to only what’s essential right now.
You need to have all the info about a topic, but you only share what’s most important. Doing that chapter after chapter is how you stand out.
It’s also how you find your one theme.
FACT: Most writers start writing one book and end up with another.
FACT: Most writers want to write one way and have to learn to accept the way they really write.
FACT: Most writers don’t know the real theme when they start out and have to readjust in editing.
Yes, you write the book. But the book also writes you. Don’t miss the point. Let it be what it is. Bend in its wind like a tree. You won’t break.
Economy – efficient chapters say no more than what’s needed. The Gettysburg address is one of the most famous speeches ever given and it’s a little more than 300 words. Well-known editor Sol Stein says to practice the formula 1 + 1 = ½ Whenever you have one thing repeated, it weakens the impact by ½. So, any repetitive scene, character, idea, word, phrase, whatever, eliminate the second use. Obviously, I don’t mean the building-block words like the or of. But don’t give me 2 chapters of something where one will do. Think about it. Don’t give me 2 characters who are basically performing similar tasks for the main character—combine them or do without what’s not needed.
Tip: Use the 2-of-3 things rule. This is a power tool you can begin using while editing to change the way you write stories. Try to do 2 of 3 things in every sentence, every paragraph, every chapter. The 3 things are reveal character, advance plot, describe setting. How do you do 2 of those at once? It creates impressions, it invites the reader in to help you write the story with their imagination. You don’t tell them the sky looked ominous. You describe how the dark clouds scudded across the sky and Meg Murray shivered beneath her blanket. You create a specific picture through word paint. You show don’t tell.
And that creates impact and interest in your stories. The other secret about writing is that writers don’t answer questions. They create them. They tease readers with them. They set things up and then pull you along with that mystery, that intrigue. Every writer is a con artist who is romancing a reader and inspiring them to engage in a subversive act of following their instincts, their intuition, and discovering new and exciting things. You do NOT want what you learned in Sunday school, that there’s always a right answer and that answer is Jesus. End of story. No. There’s a whole world of wonder in that name we could never exhaust in a thousand lifetimes. He is not just the answer. He is the endless question.
And you can quote me on that. J
So, the last one: Words – How do you find better words if you don’t search for them and read interesting books? Do you subscribe to a word of the day post? Do you read above your level? Are you a wordsmith? Maybe, maybe not, but at least you need to find more interesting verbs. Your language is what informs your voice and convinces readers to keep turning pages.
Can you get into the sentences more with more interesting words?
We can’t talk about some specific things here that are really important because there isn’t time and they aren’t general enough for all writers. For specifics, you will need to check out books at your library I will recommend to you now.
For fiction writers, Self-Editing for Fiction Writers and Writing the Breakout Novel (workbook)
For nonfiction: On Writing Well by William Zinsser and The Artful Edit by Susan Bell
If you’re stuck or overwhelmed, I offer 3 levels of weekly coaching. This is like dog-training for troublesome books. Or you could think of it like a gym membership with a personal trainer. I’m much less expensive than I should be and we focus on motivation and improving quality and speed. In 3 months, you can expect to have a handle on some long and short-term goals, career objectives and a full book proposal and several polished sample chapters.
Those vision forms you have are what we use to define your project and get an idea of the target to hit and what will attract people to your book over others.
It’s good to fill it out at least twice—once when you start, and once you’ve finished your drafts.
So that first question on the Vision Form? “What is the 30-word summary of the one thing your book is about—the unique, compelling appeal? (Why would anyone read it over other books?)” You write this to include your unique voice, the impact, & obviously your true theme.
The rest are fairly self-explanatory, but you can see how the first answer will change once you know what makes you and your message stand out. And writing it in 30 words can be one of the hardest parts of the whole process.
At my website, I have a tool that helps you evaluate all the areas you need to determine whether you’re ready to be published. There’s the vision form as well, if you want to get it here at the top menu, Micksilva.com.