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On Editing Fiction, by Onil Lad

I decided to apply to a Manuscript Development Program at the last minute, a couple of days before the deadline.  They required a sample of your work plus a pitch.

I edited as I went along and assumed the chapters were tidy and coherent enough to give the reader a sense of the concept.

My partner has recently started an editing course and I thought that she could practice on my manuscript.

Although it was an incomplete first draft, all that was required was to correct a few grammatical errors such as misplaced commas. Or so I thought.

The deadline was two days away and we only had seventy pages to get through.  It should have been a cinch.

Apart from everything else, I didn’t realise just how long it would take to edit and redo the work. In the end we had to work constantly for those two days until we were both sick of the sight of my words. I must have read through those seventy pages dozens of times.

The process highlighted grammatical areas that I needed to brush up on. We disagreed a lot about commas. In the end I gave in when she showed me the exact line in the editing manual that proved she was right.

There were grammatical rules that I wasn’t aware of regarding hyphens and dashes.  Heck, I didn’t know hyphens and dashes were different and now I find that there are “em” dashes and “en” dashes. I’d never heard of them.

As a speculative fiction writer, I try a lot of things and not all of them work. Sometimes when concepts hit the page, they sound ridiculous and you throw them out. It was embarrassing for me when I realized that some of the “miss” chapters got through. The comments hurt and it was depressing for me that my inferior chapters had been analysed. You want people to only read the final polished product.

We went through everything, even changing those character names that didn’t fit, and every line of dialogue, some of which, according to my editor, didn’t make sense. We agreed that we still have a lot of work to do to get the dialogue right.

We found some structural problems as well. It was clear that I was overcomplicating the plot. It was something else to fix at a later date.

If you need feedback, I think it’s better to show your work to an editor rather than a writing group. You’re more likely to get an honest critique.

Looking at the editor’s manual, I noticed that it was a doorstopper of a book. There’s so much to get to grips with. I think I need to do the editing course myself.

Anyway, we’ve got The Elements of Style now, which I can use as I go along.

The bottom line is that the collaboration, although painful at times, worked for me.

Next time, editing will be easier, and I’ll make sure that I leave enough time to go through my manuscript with a fine tooth comb.


Onil Lad’s bio page


House for all Seasons by Jenn J McLeodA Distant LandThe Book of LoveShattered SkyThe Fortunes of Ruby White

Writing Novels in Australia

8 Comments Post a comment
  1. Hi Onil,
    I understand how crazy it can be during the editing stages. I went through this with my first novel. What my creative writing classes have taught me is that there are 3 Editing Stages:

    1) Structural Editing – redrafting

    Focusing on Character development
    Fix Pacing
    Extending metaphors
    Tightening your theme
    Structuring scenes

    2) Copy Editing

    Looking for words repeated in a sentence
    Improving formatting
    Trying to be clear, concise, correct, comprehensible, and consistent

    3) Proof Reading

    Looking for spelling, grammar, punctuation
    Styling issues
    Reading out loud


    November 30, 2013
    • I agree that it is helpful to edit in distinct stages. There is no point in spending time working on spelling, grammar and punctuation sentence by sentence only to realise that the whole chapter you have just worked through has to be cut because it doesn’t fit as part of the overall story.

      (As a side note: Extended metaphors are something I would advise caution with. There is a lot of bad advice out there about literary metaphors. Much of it simply advocates that repeated metaphorical references will somehow make a story profound, whereas many readers often won’t take something to have the metaphorical meaning an author thinks they are symbolising and it ends up detracting from the story – or even making it incomprehensible to readers. An extended simile is often more appropriate, as in a character’s physical journey being like their mental journey in a key way that has meaning for that character.)

      November 30, 2013
      • Hi Steve,
        Yes, I agree with the extended similes instead of the extended metaphors. They can become over complicated and distracting, and are perhaps, better off to be used in poetry instead of novel writing.

        December 1, 2013
    • I happened to come across this article that you might find interesting in relation to symbolism in fiction:

      December 1, 2013
      • Very interesting article – I think it all comes down to balance. And we cannot forget that each reader interacts with the story with their own ‘meaning-making.’ They contribute their own meaning to the story, and perhaps see a specific symbolism, but at the end of the day, it would all just be theories from different interpretations and perspectives – stories have multiple meanings and that is what we need to understand as readers, writers and critics. We all take something from the story that we deemed as important.

        A fascinating article I read by Roberta Trites for uni, was ‘Growth in Adolescent Literature: Metaphors, Scripts, and Cognitive Narratology. International Research in Children’s Literature 5.1 (2012): 64–80

        A quote from the article: Cognitive narratology specifically investigates
        how embodiment influences both the author’s discursive creation of story and its subsequent meaning-making as a function of the reader’s cognition.

        It’s a great read that I recommend.

        December 1, 2013
  2. To be a good editor, it is best to, at the very least, be familiar with numerous writing manuals, as well as being familiar with how a range of actual people write and read. Advice differs from one manual to another, no single manual covers everything, and there are things for which several different options are just as valid as long as you pick one option and stick to it consistently.

    November 30, 2013

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