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Ever wondered about webinairs and on-line editing services. Jackson Hole Writers Conference past participant Jennifer Jellen recently took a chance and signed up for a a Writer’s Digest webinair. This is her take-home message:

So much of writing is focused on adding— whether it be developing rich characters, building fantastic worlds, or creating beautiful sentences— that we sometimes forget how essential subtraction can be. Enter the art of editing, that final stroke by which you carve away every nonessential bit, lightening and enlivening your work so that its true heart can show.

I thought I had this part down. Coming from a long line of stoic Teutons, I have no problem wielding a literary ax. Delete that chapter? No problem! Cut that character? He was boring anyway! But a recent webinar with literary agent Kate McKean of the Howard Morhaim Literary Agency showed me that I was missing the point. Editing, it turns out, is much more than hack and slash; it’s a subtle art that, when properly applied, refines your connection with the reader, stripping away any artifice that might get between your audience and your story.

As we gear up for this year’s Jackson Hole Writers Conference, I thought I’d share a few of the many gems that Ms. McKean revealed during her talk.

  1. Let your characters find their end before you commit to their beginning. This sounds a little counter-intuitive, but it’s essential. No matter how well we plan and plot, characters and ideas evolve as we write. Sketch in your beginning, write to the end, and then come back to edit the beginning once you truly know your characters and their whole tale.
  2. Don’t be afraid to jump ahead. This is one of the best writing suggestions I’ve ever received: Insert the abbreviation TK when you’re uncertain or stuck. TK stands for To Come (apparently TC means something else entirely). So if you don’t know what happens next, or are unsure of a detail, simply write TK and move on. You’ll maintain your momentum and later, once the story is fully formed, you’ll be able to fill in those gaps.
  3. Use an active voice whenever possible. When we switch to a passive voice—He was struck by the teacher—we create a space between the reader and the story, whereas the active voice—The teacher struck him—keeps the reader in the moment. Sometimes, we slip into a passive voice without even realizing it. A great way to double check is to search your work for the word by and look at the associated verbs.
  4. Remove anything unessential. We’ve all heard the advice about going easy on the adverbs, but other words can add unnecessary bulk as well. Intensifiers such as very, really, and just don’t advance your story. They don’t tell the reader anything important; they simply act like literary cholesterol, clogging up the arteries of your story and making it harder for things to flow.
  5. It’s not the agent’s or editor’s job to fix your problems. Today’s agents and editors don’t have the time to take a rough, raw work and transform it into something great no matter how much they love the premise, the characters or the writing. It’s our job as writers to craft the best possible story, to hone it through good editing, and then to collaborate with agents and editors to polish and publish it.

Ms. McKean’s webinar was a great source of information on the subtleties of editing and their importance to all writers. The webinar was offered through Writer’s Digest online and was well worth the small fee I paid to attend. While I generally don’t recommend paying for advice, this was truly a great learning experience and I hope her tips will help you as well. You can find Kate McKean on Twitter (@Kate_McKean).

 

–Jennifer Jellen