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The Biggest, Baddest, Book-Killing Editorial Problems

(…and they have nothing to do with punctuation or spelling)

October has been a terrible moth for blogging, because it’s been an awesome month for everything else: lots of speaking engagements, lots of interesting work with clients, lots of beautiful Seattle fall adventures on the back of a motorcycle.

I love teaching at conferences, appearing on panels, and generally talking about words and books in front of rooms of people. And a couple of weeks ago, I got to be part of a panel at the stunning Write on the Sound with two friends and fellow editors: Jim Thomsen and Christy Karras. Our topic: So You Think You’re Done? An Editor’s Red Flags and Warning Signs That Your Manuscript Might Need Another Look.

Representing a love of words at Write on the Sound 2014: Christy Karras, Jim Thomsen, and me

Representing a love of words at Write on the Sound 2014: Christy Karras, Jim Thomsen, and me

Christy shared her love of the nitty-gritty details of proofreading, and Jim described what it’s like to go in and change sentences at the copy/line editing level. Me? I was there to represent the developmental/content/substantive editors–the group that’s so subjective and opinion-driven that we can’t even agree on what to call ourselves.

As a dev editor, I’m usually the one that new writers overlook. They work in solitude on draft after draft, and then they hire an editor to fix their grammar and make sure all of their sentences flow together. And while that’s really, really important, it misses the Big Question:

Does the book WORK?

A developmental editor will never actually touch your manuscript, or change your words. But we spend a lot of time with your words, looking at the whole project together from the 10,000-foot view. Because if your plot has serious structural holes in it, or your nonfiction book fails to address the reader, then readers are never going to stick around to see those troublesome passive verbs.

With just 15 minutes to convince the 100 or so panel attendees to slow down and take another look at their Works in Progress, I came up with 10 Developmental Editing Questions to Identify the Biggest, Baddest, Book-Killing Issues  facing manuscripts:


For practical, informational nonfiction:

1.  Do you address the reader’s felt need in the very first chapter? When they walk into a bookstore or visit an online store, they’re asking some kind of question that’s driving them to the bookshelves. A successful nonfiction book focuses on this need, rather than whatever the author’s agenda or goals might be. This is the biggest problem I see in nonfiction, and it’s deadly. A person doesn’t buy a book that promises to solve a problem they don’t know they have, or to explore something that they don’t find interesting.

 2. Do you offer something unique? Ask the hard question: why would a reader buy this book instead of any of the other books that are similar? If it’s a cookbook, why is it different or better than all of the other cookbooks? Why should they choose you instead of Rachel Ray? If you can’t answer this, you need to spend more time refining your unique position.

3. Do you clearly show that you have the authority and knowledge to write about this subject? The fact that you care about politics/the environment/divorce/diet is great. But if you want strangers to give up their money to hear your opinion, you need to tell them why you can be trusted.

4. Does each chapter add something new to the subject, and does it build to a conclusion? What should your reader do with the ideas/research/advice you’ve offered?

Edmonds, Washington: Our backdrop at Write on the Sound. It's a wonder anyone showed up for the workshops.

Edmonds, Washington: Our backdrop at Write on the Sound. It’s a wonder anyone showed up for the workshops.


For narratives, including memoirs and all forms of fiction:

I’ve heard that every narrative fits this general pattern: A character starts out in a state of stability, but something quickly happens within the first few pages to throw them into some kind of instability. The rest of the book is spent watching him/her as they struggle to overcome the conflict and find some resolution. They are usually thwarted by circumstance or other characters, and their efforts must increase, until near the end when it seems like instability might win, when a resolution is found.

Can you identify each of those parts of the journey in your own manuscript?

 5. Is there a clear conflict that emerges at the beginning and isn’t resolved until the end? Put differently: is there something the character wants and doesn’t have?

 6. Is your primary character/characters actively engaged in pursuing what they want, or in solving the cause of the instability? A passive victim is not a compelling character.

 7. Are your characters complex? A hero shouldn’t always be right, and a villain shouldn’t always be evil. Be intentional about giving your hero a flaw (a real one, not just a sympathetic and sad back story). Let them make mistakes. Make your villain sympathetic; somewhere, he or she probably has a mother who loves them.

8. Does everything happen for a logical reason? Nothing can happen just for the convenience of moving the plot along. Every action must have a stimulus, and every character must have a believable motivation for their actions, and not be suddenly blessed with “sudden insights.” Readers will tolerate some level of coincidence in fiction, but not a person who acts out of character without reason.

9. Does dialogue read naturally, the way people really talk? Read it out loud to find out—or if you’re brave, get others to read it out loud to you. Stilted dialogue kills a book.  Remember: a conversation is about more than what two people say out loud to each other. You also need the beats of pause, of body language, of facial expressions, and what your Point of View character is thinking but not saying.

10. Does your narrator intrude where he or she doesn’t belong, “telling” when they should be “showing?” One way to test this is to look at whether all scenes are active, unfolding as they occur in actual times and places, without relying on “voice over” or an all-knowing voice explaining what’s happening to the reader. There’s a reason that the phenomenal Self Editing for Fiction Writers has a whole chapter called Resist the Urge to Explain.)


Of course, this just starts to scratch the surface. Want more? There’s plenty to say about dev editing, and editing in general. Here’s a list of 46 self-editing questions that will take a writer from first draft all the way to published book, which I shared at a self-publishing workshop for Seattle Public Library’s #SeattleWrites program.

(Plug: I’m teaching two more workshops in the series: tomorrow(!), October 16, at the Ballard branch we’ll talk about Selling Your Self-Published Book, and next Wednesday, October 22, we’ll tackle marketing in “Secrets to Long-Term Publishing Sales” at the Capitol Hill Branch. Both events are free to the public, no registration required.)

1 Comment
  1. Excellent advice for writers of all kinds. I’ll be tweeting this!

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