Full Metal Edit: How I learned to stop copyediting and love the critique

[Editor’s note:  Another great post from our editor, Lewis Pollak!]5871413651_5cb7d14c5a_o


Some years back, long before I started working as an editor, my wife became a writer. Though there was certainly a part of me that thought this was a flight of fancy at the time and that she wasn’t serious about it (spoiler: I was wrong), I was very much curious to see her work.

Her response was something akin to, “Hell no,” but possibly less polite than that. My wife knows me well, and she knew exactly what would happen.

You see, my background is in academics. I spent years doing research and working on advanced degrees. While I grew up reading a great deal of science fiction and fantasy, the writing I knew as an adult (stop snickering, I hear you) was the sort you’d find in scientific journals.

But I was persistent, and eventually, she relented. What happened next was precisely what she’d feared. I started marking things like sentence fragments and other grammar that didn’t meet some standard I had in my head. I was copyediting when what she wanted was a critique. This is not what she, her story, or our marriage needed at the time.

It took a while (and a few smacks with a two-by-four studded with rusty nails), but she eventually helped me learn to look past the grammar and see the story. Without having gone through that process, I never would have gotten into editing. Even after I started, I still had to fight that impulse when doing developmental edits, and the ones I did early on took far longer than they should have and certainly caused undue stress for the authors I worked with as a result.

Editing Stages

I wanted to take a few moments today to talk about the different stages of editing, hopefully helping you understand the editing process better and perhaps putting you on the path to giving better critiques to other authors. Bear in mind that these are generalizations, not absolutes, and that different people may refer to them by different names.

A developmental edit looks at big picture issues: things like GMC, characterization, conflict and adhesion between characters, plot structure, and overall pacing. In the wake of a developmental edit, entire story threads could be changed or removed. Character motivations or flaws might be rewritten. Entire scenes could be moved, removed, changed dramatically, or added. In a perfect world, all the heavy changes happen here. But it is often the case that changes beget other changes down the line. Also, at least for me, there comes a point where it becomes a challenge to clearly envision what the story will look like after those changes are made. Sometimes things that should be obvious can be missed until after the dust settles a bit. It may also be the case that an issue can’t be addressed until the author makes some changes. This is often the case with ending sequences, because I don’t know how an author might choose to resolve various things.

A line edit is all about the details and more focused on the language, drilling down into individual scenes. Is POV clearly established? Should POV be deeper? Do characters react to stimuli appropriately? Do scenes flow well one into the next? Do conversations drift back and forth between multiple topics or simply drag on too long? Is it clear who is speaking? Could the end of each scene or chapter be stronger so we keep the reader from putting the book down? Are there words/phrases that are repeated too frequently or are used in multiple POVs inappropriately? Is appropriate character movement present?

Keep in mind that if an issue that would normally be discussed in line edits is pervasive throughout the manuscript, an editor may bring it up during developmental edits and give the author a chance to address the issue, which can save a ton of time later on. For instance, if characters never have internal reactions to stimuli/events (and I see that frequently) that should be brought up in a developmental edit. If it is only a problem occasionally, it can wait, so the author can focus on bigger issues.

A copyedit focuses almost entirely on language: clarity, readability, grammar, spelling, etc. That doesn’t mean a good copyeditor (and they are worth their weight in gold) won’t identify some of the issues above, but their focus should be on the language and continuity, sentence by sentence. Copyeditors are like a safety net. They get paid to see the things others have read five times and never spotted. A good copyeditor understands and respects voice and will refrain from sacrificing voice on the altar of grammar provided clarity is not an issue.

Being a Better Critique Partner

In my eyes, a critique is very similar to a developmental edit, the primary difference being the nature of the relationship between the writer and the person providing the critique. The reason I wanted to go through this was so that you could keep it in mind the next time you are asked to give a critique. Try not to focus on the language. Nitpicking over things like word choice is premature if the entire scene needs to be cut or moved.

Instead, do your best to look at the big picture. Do you like the characters? Do they behave in ways that make sense? Is there enough conflict? Is the plot interesting and does it have some element (or combined elements in some way) that makes it original? Does the story bog down in places? Those are the things that your critique partner probably needs to know in order to make the story the best it can be, not whether they have sentence fragments or they used a semi-colon incorrectly.

Applying Feedback

Give careful consideration to the feedback you receive, even if you disagree. Have you not conveyed something clearly enough? Are there ideas in your head that haven’t made it onto the page? Pay special attention to anything you hear from multiple people.

One last thing to note: not all feedback is necessarily right for your story. Know what your vision of the story is. Understand what you want the story to be. Don’t be afraid to filter out feedback that doesn’t fit that vision. If the feedback identifies a problem but the proposed solution doesn’t work for you, consider alternate ways to attack the problem instead.

Then you will be happy, your critique partner will be happy, and there will be no need for rusty nails.

Story Structure vs. Reader Experience.

When I revise my work, or when I’m editing someone else’s work, there are two main elements I consider.

The first is story structure:  what the story is.

The second is reader experience.  This is how the story is told.

Structure first.

When I revise, the first thing I do is a quick read through.  I look at what’s working, and what isn’t, just in general notes.

From there, I look at how the story is constructed.  I double-check my plot outline.  If I’m working with someone who is revising, a student or coaching client, then I’ll have them create a chart of every scene.

I’ll double check that the characters all want something.  That what they want is big; that the reason for what they want is understandable and urgent.  That the obstacles in the way of the want are equal to, or even larger than, the scope of what they want.

I’ll then ensure that each scene is essentially a mini version of the larger story, until I get to the resolution scenes.

When I’m satisfied that the story itself is sound — that the characters are both consistent and well developed, that the plot line demonstrates that arc in a satisfactory way with an escalating conflict — then I’m able to move forward to reader experience.

“What am I trying to accomplish with this scene?”

Scenes are the basic building blocks of any story, and reader experience is built scene by scene.

When you’re working with structure, you’re looking at the macrocosm.  When you’re working with reader experience, you’re going microcosm.  It’s holographic:  each small piece reflects the whole.

Confident that you know where your story is going and how it works, you’re going to look at each scene and ask:  how can this scene support the story?

What does the genre expect?  Do you play to expectations, or experiment?  And why do you want to?  How will that make the story better for the reader?

Why are you choosing this POV character instead of another one?  Does his external voice (dialogue) match his internal voice (exposition?)

Why have you chosen this point of view?  Do you want the closeness and immediacy of first person?  Or the almost clinical distance of third — not deep third, but more “narrative” third — or even omniscient?

How can you get the scene to accomplish more than one thing?  How can you layer the scene, multi-tasking both character development, conflict escalation, and maybe some subtext and theme?

Is the scene anchored?  Can the setting help accomplish, say, setting emotion or theme?

Is the scene visually boring?  Can you add something — Elizabeth Berg calls it a Talking Head Avoidance Device — that is interesting in and of itself while still imparting crucial information?  Instead of sitting at a coffee house talking about what’s happening, can they be at a dance-a-thon?  Or working out at the gym?  Or at target practice?  How can you shift this around?


You’ll also look at how the scenes work together:  from micro back to macro.

Do you have too many scenes in one character’s POV, so that another POV character essentially disappears?  (See Happy Days, where Richie’s older brother goes upstairs for skis… and never comes back down.)   Is everyone getting enough screen time?   If you have one scene with a non-major character’s POV, why?  And do you think the reader will appreciate it for what it is, or be frustrated at getting close to a character that essentially disappears without an arc?

Do you have too many action scenes back to back, so the reader is essentially “falling asleep at the edge of his seat?”

Do you have repetitive conflict?  Or repetitive anything, for that matter?

Does each scene carry you into the next one?  Or is there a “stopping” point that’s essentially a fat speed bump in your novel?

Sequence matters.

One of my best friends has to polish each scene before she can move forward in writing a story.  I’ll be honest — this baffles the hell out of me.  In my mind, getting the story laid out is like framing a house.  If I polished before I got the mechanics worked out, it’d be like getting one room framed, putting in all the stuff, wallpapering and carpeting and painting… and then ripping a lot of it out, because I realize I’d gotten the electrical wrong.

Of course, people vary. If it’s your process, you need to honor what works for you.

But if you’ve been flailing a little in the revision process, and you’re not sure how to proceed, I’d recommend trying it this way:

Zoom out:  structure.

Zoom in:  scene work.

Toggle:  Scene sequence.

Every element supports the other.  And when you’re finished, like an impressionist painting, it will create a cohesive whole.




Coloring Inside The Lines.

This is a short post — I’m planning on writing more posts, quantitatively speaking, but in the World o’ Cruise, I’m taking it a bit easier on myself.

I was drawing and coloring with my son today.

He’s still sort of all over the place, but at five, he’s developing his fine motor skills.  “Good job,” I said, as he carefully colored within the lines.

As I was watching him, I thought of all the times I’ve heard writers say that, basically, it’s fascist to encourage someone to color within the lines.

Yes, they’re using it as a metaphor, but frankly, I’ve heard parents (or worse, non-parents who seem to miraculously know everything there is to know about child rearing) say “it’s such a sad mark of society, that they’re forcing kids to color inside the lines!”

Missing. The. Point.

They’re not teaching kids artistic integrity.

They are teaching them muscle control.

We’re the ones who are putting way too much emphasis on “they’re stifling creativity!”

Sure, if it’s a kid that in fifth grade who decides to paint a purple sky with a turquoise moon and wants to go abstract, I am against saying “that’s not right, make it look like everybody else’s!”  (Hell, if my kid wants to paint a lime green dog on silver Astroturf, I’m all for it.)

But when you’re talking five years old, when they’re still learning how to maneuver those little digits on the end of their hands to do things like form letters and numbers, then coloring in the lines is pretty damned slick.

If you can’t control your hand enough to color inside the lines — if those squiggles aren’t a sign of Pollack-esque genius but instead are a spastic inability to keep your wrist still — then you’ve got a problem.

That’s art by accident.  You might fool some people, but odds are good you’ll fool less than you think.

Writers: this goes for you, too.

There’s a difference between dumb, arbitrary, conformist rules, and learning writing basics.

If you decide that you are being true to your artistic writing self by not studying how point of view works…

Or the core of three act structure…

Or even why grammar is important…

…then you’re trying for art by accident.