I have been a memoir and fiction editor since 1990. In that time, I have worked with hundreds of manuscripts.
After you’ve read this, don’t forget to go to Part Two: Before Sending Your Manuscript To An Editor. Click here.
Also read Part Three: Wrong Timing Will Sink Your Memoir. Click here.
Some have come to me requiring only slight tweaking. The texts are nearly ready for publication. The authors have created an interesting and well-crafted piece of writing.
Too many other manuscripts, however, have come at a stage that reflects the I’m-ready-to-have-this-writing-over-with-finally stance of tired writers. Writing can be a long and tedious task after the initial rush of creativity and enthusiasm. Once the glow fades, Pegasus drops the enchanted writer from the skies and—horrors—the writer has to mount a pack mule to trudge the slopes of rewriting. (“But, I want to do inspired writing,” the writer bemoans, “not pick-and-shovel work!”)
Check this before sending a manuscript to an editor.
I have so many suggestions! Rather than write superficially about them in the short space here, I will group into several articles some of the tasks that impatient clients might undertake both to the great benefits of their manuscripts and to the relief of their billfolds.
Three Action Steps
1. The 10% Rule
Every manuscript can be improved by applying the 10% rule—and I mean “every!”
The 10% rule calls for deleting of at least one-tenth of any text. It’s easy to calculate the number of words that need to be excised: find the number of words in your document and move the decimal point up one digit. If your manuscript is 70,000 words long, 10% adds up to 7000 words. Your goal becomes to eliminate 7000 words. Yes, you can do it! Yes, your manuscript will be better for it!
I learned this well when I was doing freelance newspaper work. One day, my editor called to ask me to upload my latest assignment. When I had done so, she said, “Doesn’t your article begin on paragraph 4?”
“Well,” I thought, “I’m hip to this one. She can’t get me here! I’ve taught the 10% rule in my workshops.”
I began to reread my piece. The first paragraphs were indeed stellar, full of deathless prose, but when I got to the fourth paragraph, it became clear the first paragraphs were stylistic play while the gist of the article began in paragraph four!
If my writing had been an airplane trying to take off on a naval carrier, I would have dropped into the ocean—so slow was my launch!
Just as an airplane must take off immediately so must your story. The 10% rule is often about beginnings and endings (don’t recapitulate your book!) and so much in between. (The two suggestions below are also bout the 10% rule.)
The BIG question to ask yourself: “Is this piece of writing (word, phrase, paragraph) necessary to the story / article / post?” If it is not, excise! As so many professional writers have enjoined, “Kill your darlings.”
Redundancies are two or more words that mean the same thing: round circles, dead corpses, and first beginnings. Only the second words in the previous examples are necessary: circles, corpses, and beginnings. (One of my horrors is: “I personally.” Yuck!)
You will be surprised at how many redundancies appear in writing. Less obvious are redundancies such as “as a young girl, I loved grade school.” The redundancy here, of course, is, when you write “I loved great school”, you are describing your experience as “a young girl.” Few people attend grade school as adults. The phrase “as a young girl” is therefore redundant. Reread your text for both the evident redundancies (“very unique”) and the hidden redundancies (“because he was poor, he had no money.”)
Eliminating redundancies is, of course, another application of the 10% rule. Economical prose is satisfying to read.
3. “I remember”
In a memoir, use “I remember” very sparingly. If you are writing a lifestory, obviously you remember. Autobiographical writing is about remembering.
The use of “I remember” can be valid however as it can sometimes add meaning. Here’s from a piece I wrote: “As I stood at the edge of the road looking at the house where I had grown up, I remembered the day when my grandmother had planted the nut trees. My brother and my sisters and I had stood around her as she worked, but what it was exactly I was remembering I was not sure—other than the heat of the day and understanding that there was something she needed from me, but I could not remember what it was she wanted.”
Now obviously this sort of lead into a story points to writing that will be about memory. The writer will employ as many bits of memory as he can to reconstruct the story to arrive at what he does not remember. In this story, we will likely read about the process of remembering and perhaps about its role in identity. In this case, it is completely appropriate for the writer to use the phrase “I remember.” The same is not true if one writes “I remember how my grandmother had a green stuffed chair in the living room.” Here it would be better to write “My grandmother had a green stuffed chair in the living room.”
The above lead paragraph is also an example of how a memoir does not have to be linear—“this happened and then that happened.” As you edit your story in preparation for sending it to a professional editor, ask yourself if you have exploited all possibilities for making the story interesting to the reader. (More on this in a sequel post.)
There are many analogously unnecessary phrases that can be eliminated: “in conclusion,” “Let me start with,” “In other words.” As an author you do well to suppose your reader is intelligent enough to make the connections.
Before I go
I will not delve into proofreading here—that is, spelling or grammar as these are really for a later stage in the process of preparing a manuscript for publication. Before you engage a proofreader, send your story to a developmental editor. You may be surprised at how many suggestions you will receive. The necessary rewrites will obviate the proofreader’s work.
Nor will I delve into story structure. Stay tuned for that one.
Your comment, please.
What is your favorite “must not overlook” self-editing techniques that pertain to words and phrases? Please share below any self-editing suggestions that you have implemented to save fees—and, of course, to improve your text.