Self-Editing, Part 1

Recently, I heard a writer describe her editor as “the person who puts the hyphen in anal-retentive.” Had the editor been there, I’m sure she would have been beaming at such a compliment.

Some writers think editing is easy; others know better, especially after their manuscript comes back marked up. Editing deals from the small (hyphens, capitalization, and other minutia that can only be learned after having spent a lot of time with The Chicago Manual of Style) to greater issues of whether a character’s name is suddenly something else or a scene in the story is bogging down the overall plot.

But there is some self-revision an author can do (and I do advocate that you not get into editing your work until it is completed). This post will be the first in a series looking at self-editing.

showtellingFirst, let’s look at showing versus telling. If you have a recently completed manuscript, go through it and look at whether you have instances of having told your reader something, when you could have showed it.

All writers have heard this directive, but many beginning writers still struggle with it. Instead of telling, there’s dry exposition and long passages with little description or dialogue.  It may also be something writers have a hard time dealing with because—and this can be confusing—sometimes telling is showing.

Let’s look at the types of showing and telling:

Emotions: You can tell the reader that “Henry was mad.” Ho-hum. This won’t engage the reader at all. But if you show Henry throwing the book across the room—well, now you have something the reader can work with. A character’s emotions are a great way to show. A character is depressed? Don’t just say so. How does she react? By polishing off the rest of the cake?

Description: Overburdening a manuscript by giving physical descriptions of every character often slows down the story, and doesn’t add much to it. It’s much better to describe a character through their behaviors, actions, body language, and dialogue. Here’s a passage from Sue Grafton’s G is for Gumshoe. She uses a little physical description, but really it’s all in the eyes:

“I saw Dietz through the open doorway, leaning against the wall. His posture was identical to my first sight of him. Cowboy boots, his tweed coat. The hospital down in Brawley. All he needed was the toothbrush in his pocket, sticking up like a fountain pen. His gaze moved casually to mine, moved to Irene, came back to mine and held. The look in his eyes was quizzical, perplexed. His expression shifted from self-assurance to uncertainty. I felt an unexpected flash of heat. I broke off eye contact, feeling flushed. My gaze drifted back. He was still looking at me, with a wistfulness I hadn’t seen before.”

She could have written, “He looked at me, lust and wishing in his eyes.” But wouldn’t you much rather have read the paragraph above?

Show With Senses: Not only sight, but also sound, smell, taste, and touch. This brings settings and scenes alive. This is from Ian Rankin’s Set in Darkness:

“He put the phone down, refilled his whiskey glass. ‘Refined tonight, John,’ he told himself. Oftentimes nowadays he just swigged from the bottle. The weekend stretched ahead of him, one football game the extent of his plans. His living room was wreathed in shadows and cigarette smoke. He kept thinking of selling the flat, finding somewhere with fewer ghosts. Then again, they were the only company he had: dead colleagues, victims, expired relationships. He reached again for the bottle but it was empty.”

Rankin manages to bring in taste (whiskey) and smell (cigarette smoke). He uses a short piece of dialogue as well as interior dialogue (“he kept thinking…”) to give us Rebus’s frame of mind. And he tells us so much of his character in just a paragraph: his tendency toward alcoholism and his loneliness.

Speaking of dialogue and interior monologue, this is a great place to show more. In my next post, I’ll expand on showing through dialogue.

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2 thoughts on “Self-Editing, Part 1

  1. This is really good advice and the examples you give are spot on. Especially love the first one. I do have to question two things, however. First, there are writers who don’t edit as they write and those who do. I HEAVILY edit my emails so you can guess what I do with my manuscripts. There isn’t a writing day that doesn’t begin with an edit of what I’ve done the day before. It gives me a fresh glimpse at what I put on the page and also helps to anchor me for the next scene. That doesn’t mean I don’t realize the value of a professional editor, just that I go through a lot of revision before the editor ever sees it.

    Second, re: showing versus telling, while I agree generally, I would say that there are also times when telling is showing. Instead of Henry throwing the book, you could say:.

    Clay had done it once too many times. Too many broken glasses. Too much furniture reduced to sticks. Too many of Henry’s precious volumes torn to bits. Clay looked at his father.

    Henry was mad.

    Mad in a way that made Clay’s hands tremble, that made him want to crawl behind the bar and hide there forever.

    Henry mad was a righteous thing to behold.

    I think all of that is telling but somewhere in there might be showing, too. Or am I all wet? As in dripping, blotting the carpet with big black blobs of moisture, etc. etc. ? :)


  2. Yes, the trembling hands, the descriptions of past things broken — those are all great examples of showing! You’ve painted a wonderful visual picture that the reader can instantly see.

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