by Daniel Sosnoski
A major portion of the editor’s job, when line editing, is to cull extraneous words and tighten up the text. This may be less relevant in the editing of fiction or poetry, but even in those cases, careful pruning is essential to facilitate the emergence of the writer’s voice and intent.
In practice, typically, 15 to 20 percent of the textual content you’re working will be deletable. Accordingly, if I want a 1,000-word story, I’ll assign the writer to give me around 1,200, as after the edit the text will be the right size.
The problem here isn’t that most authors are too chatty, but rather it’s the result of the writing process itself. To get into a good flow and rhythm, writers usually write the way they think and speak. It’s the advice I give to new authors: “Avoid trying to sound like a writer.” But spoken English contains a great number of words, phrases, and linguistic strategies that are performative discourse markers.
If you’re interested in the philosophy of language, Speech Acts by J.R. Searle (1969, Cambridge University Press) built on the work of Ludwig Wittgenstein’s ideas of language and game theory and J.L. Austin’s How to Do Things With Words (1975, Harvard University Press; 2nd Revised ed.), and makes the argument that language isn’t merely used to talk about things, but it is largely used by speakers to do things.
A good portion of general speech guides the listener to understand the intent of a phrase or sentence. Thus, a speaker might say, “And then I was like, ‘Oh my God,’ and she was like, ‘Get out, shut up,” or might employ rhetorical tag questions such as, “You know what I’m saying?” Standard discourse is rife with “filler words,” such as:
- “You see…,”
- “The important thing is…,”
- “At the end of the day…”
These terms give the speaker time to consider what should follow, and the listener time to prepare for it. Such language can usually be cut to good effect.
Some procedural language indicates how the listener (or reader) should interpret what follows; for example, “In order to…” “It is important that…” “Be sure to remember that…”
Editors routinely remove these, along with the words
You remove all of these needless words, unless they are vital to the meaning of the text. Usually they aren’t, but the writer was talking to the reader and that’s likely how so many of these fillers slip in. Sometimes an entire paragraph or two will be a digression and you’ll mark it for wholesale deletion. The writer’s point was already made. No need to belabor it.
The death certificate
In some cases, however, the text must lose more than the expected 15 to 20 percent. Perhaps in the editing more than half has been deleted and you’re still cutting. Possible reasons are that the author didn’t have a good idea — or any idea — before sitting down to write. The result is a long meandering text that goes nowhere.
It might be that the text is inappropriate for the publication, or that it’s offensive in some fashion. I was once given a manuscript that concerned the journey of a band of elves and dwarves, led by a fair maiden and a wizard (sound familiar?). Each chapter consisted of a day in the journey, a tedious, slogging affair; characters were introduced with extensive laundry-list descriptions that began with the tops of their heads and proceeded vertically down their bodies.
There isn’t much to be done with a derivative, badly executed work. If you try to correct the structure, you still have a duplicative text. If you try to revise the plot from a structural standpoint, the mechanics are still so lacking that your only available move is to recommend that the author start over from scratch.
In any of these cases, in your judgment the work is unsalvageable and it isn’t worth your time and labor. Even if you need the money, you might deem it unethical to work on a text that you know has no chance whatsoever of being an acceptable read. In such cases, you’ll have to deliver the bad news.
I’ve found that rejecting a novel is difficult given the time and effort that went into it. So a cover letter explaining your rationale is a wise move. Try to point out anything that did work (if such exists), offer helpful comments, and guide the writer to your conclusion as gently as possible. Some might argue here for “tough love,” yet I’d counsel sensitivity to the author’s ego, which is going to take a major blow. There’s no reason to make it worse than it has to be.
When you think the author of the item in question might succeed at a full or major rewrite, offer (if you can) some samples of a possible approach: “Instead of describing the character in detail, consider saying, ‘She was fair of face and of shapely form,’ and let the reader’s imagination fill in the gaps. As the story progresses, you can add a detail or two at a time; for example, ‘She shook her golden hair as she refused.’”
With minor criticisms, the “hamburger strategy” is a standard approach; namely, you “sandwich” your suggestions for repair between two positive statements; for example, “The topic is timely and of interest, and you found a good angle. The material needs further research and support, however, as it’s purely conjectural at this stage. That said, ample sources exist to buttress your argument and the end result should be highly effective.”
But when the patient is dead on the table, you’ll have to deliver the bad news as best you can, knowing the usual approach is largely unavailable to you. Today, given the ease of indie publishing, we are awash in texts written by people who toy with the idea of writing a book, but are lacking the skills to actually accomplish the task.
In some cases, you may be able to save a work that is in severe distress, and in others what will be most needed is your professional advice that nothing helpful can be done with the work at hand:
Elliot, following the first read of this story, I was able to see where you are trying to go with it. I made notes on the text and also in a separate document, which is attached for your review. While at first I was planning to indicate the range of adjustments this story needs to work effectively, it became apparent that there are some fundamental issues that need to be resolved that lie beyond the scope of a general edit….
As you get stronger at your craft, you may widen the scope of what is salvageable, but prepare yourself for those occasional times when your only possible recourse is to bury the body.
Daniel Sosnoski is the author of Introduction to Japanese Culture and editor-in-chief of Chiropractic Economics magazine. He has been the staff editor for numerous medical associations and is the founding editor of the PubMed-indexed Journal of Clinical Lipidology. He currently belongs to the American Copy Editors Society.