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The Ten Line-edits I Most Often Suggest

Whether you're getting to grips with a wild NaNoWriMo first draft, or have seized the time between Christmas and New Year to do some hardcore editing, the chances are you've come across certain things that you always do not-quite-right that first time: the things you have to hunt out and interrogate. Note that I don't say "hunt out and eliminate". There's no "mistake" in writing that wouldn't be the perfect thing in the right place and time, for the right book - but some things are more common and more commonly mistaken, than others, and these are the ten line-edit comments - interrogations, if you like - that I make most often in working with students and mentees. (For more on the difference between line-editing and other kinds, click through to the Editing post in the Being Published series)

So in having a look through, do please remember that I am not telling you that these are always mistakes. I am not saying "correct these" any more than I would ever, ever tell you to avoid adjectives and adverbs, let alone, dog help us, to cut everything that contains the word was. I am only saying that where they crop up, they're likely to need a long, hard look...

1) May vs. Might. I see this in many manuscripts where the writer otherwise has excellent control of formal, informal and demotic/dialect grammar, except that they write may when they really need to write might. The usage is evolving, so there are times when I'm at the old fashioned end of the spectrum- and it is tricky to pin down because it's often about degree, not necessarily right/wrong. But it's too useful a distinction to lose, and I've done a separate page for the detail of May vs Might, with all the reasoning. For line-editing purposes, the TLDR goes like this.

First and simplest, might is the past tense of may, which is a "modal" verb (= a verb that works as an auxiliary to other verbs) that expresses probable or likely but not definite events:

  • If the sun comes out and it stays warm we may go for a picnic becomes in past tense
    • If the sun came out and it stayed warm they might go for a picnic.

To write If the sun came out and it stayed warm they may go for a picnic is as wrong as writing I pelted along the street and skip round the corner... but I see a lot of it in students' work and elsewhere.

Even if the original, definite event was in the past, if there are still probable or likely consequences in the present, we still use may:

  • The clouds came over at lunchtime, but we may still go for a picnic this evening.

In other words, there is still a realistic possibility of the picnic happening. But might is also the subjunctive form of may in the present tense and the subjunctive mood is all about hypotheticals, imagined things, possibilities rather than probabilities. Since may is alread about probably or likely, not certain, going into the subjunctive implies something less probably, or less likely. So you can also say 

  • The clouds came over at lunchtime, but we might still go for a picnic this evening,

with the implication that it's less likely, a mere possibility, and by no means a given.

It's because of this subjunctive thing that there is one definite rule where the may/might problem really matters, because getting it wrong changes the meaning. If the possibility is still present, really quite probably, whether the event is past or current you use may:

  • The island is still flooded and people may catch awful diseases...
    • but we can't get there to find out.
  • He may have guessed it would cause trouble, but he went blithely on as he always did.
    • and we don't know if he guessed or not

In other words, the possibility of people having died or got ill could still turn out to be real: to have been a probability. The situation and our understanding of it is, if you like, still open.

But if the possibility of that is hypothetical - it didn't happen and we know it didn't happen so in the event it wasn't, as it were, probably - you must use might:

  • The island is still flooded and people might have caught awful diseases...
    • but luckily they'd all had their typhoid and dysentery vaccinations.
  • He might have guessed it would cause trouble, but he went blithely on as he always did...
    • because he didn't guess and so had no reason to stop

The situation and our understanding of it, if you like, is closed. That's is also why for this kind of thing, you must use might:

  • If Archduke Franz Ferdinand had not been shot, the First World War might not have started.
  • Had we been happier, we might have got married.

To put may into that kind of construction is to me, and many others, a real marker of a writer with some work to do: 

  • [incorrect] Had we been happier, we may have got married. [Well, did you, or didn't you, get married?]
  • [incorrect] If Archduke Franz Ferdinand had not been shot, the First World War may not have started. [because, y'know, the First World War did start, more's the pity.]

If you're shaky on these - and many good writers are - click through to the main May vs Might post for more about what's going on and how to understand it.

2) My stomach lurched and other medical symptoms. This is a side-effect of the "show don't tell" command. In terror of using the abstract words that we must use to name emotional states, the writer tries instead to evoke the emotion by showing physical symptoms. That's followed by fear of the workshop's resident cliché-spotter, who condemns every instance of our well-worn friends, the thumping heart, spinning head and shaking knees, so off the writer goes to find something a bit fresher. But the problem with something relatively un-worn is that its more vivid physicality is actually more likely to become a bit tiresome, or even slightly comic: as stomachs twist, turn, and lurch I start wondering if I missed the moment when she ate the dodgy curry.

As well as doing a search-and-destroy for "stomach", "lurched" or whatever your defaults are, consider this: even with what's officially "showing", these things quickly become signals, not a real evocation. So what to do instead?

First, don't be afraid of Telling. We think, and say, all the time, things like this:

  • "I'd never been so frightened."
  • "He was suddenly incredibly angry."
  • "They hesitate - and then they go for it."

Why shouldn't your narrator - even if they're also a character in the story - do the same? You could think of this as exploiting the power of far-out far out psychic distances, where the narrator has the power to narrate whatever they choose in a strong, ruthlessly clear and succinct way.

Alternatively, go deeper, into the close psychic distances: don't narrate or explain, just give us the thought directly, probably exploiting free indirect style, and trust that it will make us feel what the thinker is feeling:

  • But the door was locked and only Grendl had the key.
  • Oh, to beat him to a pulp!
  • But should they? No, please no. But... yes - all right - GO!

In other words, this is an example of how the middle-range of psychic distance, the one that so much fictional narrative spends most of its time in, is sometimes exactly what you don't want. But note that you also don't want both far-out, and close-in versions, any more than you do on the larger scale: trust your reader to get it.

In other words...

3) Don't (usually) tell something before you show it. This is one of the most common kinds of of over-explaining, because it's a very natural outcome of how the writer's mind does its work. Your inner storyteller realises that for the next chunk of story to work, this picnic must be a disaster. So down that goes on the page, and you then set about embodying the disaster in actions and dialogue. And whether you call it foreshadowing, flash-forwarding or a plot-spoiler, of course there are times when a narrator - if you have that kind of narrator - does indeed think and therefore say, that kind of introductory summary.

It can even build narrative tension, if it's not obvious from the constituent elements of the scene where the disaster will come from, so the reader reads eagerly to find out what the fallout is from this as-yet un-explained disaster. But because such an opener does, basically, tell the reader What Happens Next, you do need to interrogate it, and think about where your narrator is standing relative to the events of the narrative, and thereby make sure this Tell-y opener is earning its keep as richly as Dick Francis's does in Straight.

4) (Usually) tell the story in the order it happened. There's always a temptation to "front-load" the sentence (or the paragraph, or the chapter) with the punchy, exciting element - which is also, after all, the reason for any of it to be written -and only then double back to explain how we got there, or other stuff we need to know. Again, it tends to be a product of the writing process, and you can think of it as a note-to-self, but at the worst you get some glorious dangling modifiers.

Even if you avoid those, though, front-loading like this is too often the equivalent of starting a party with the fireworks, and ending with polite chit-chat about the weather: the sentence (paragraph, chapter) flattens as you turn away to tell us stuff which isn't of this moment but happened before. Worse still, the impact of the really important, exciting thing is dissipated among the muddle of useful information that we are trying to fit in to what we already know. Interrogate the current opener with the classic "Why this? Why now?" questions, and unless it makes a strong case with several reasons why, put what happens first, first, as vividly written as you can manage, and trust the reader to stay with you while the sentence (paragraph, chapter) builds to the fireworks at the end. 

5) Don't (usually) explain something after you show it. This is really just another kind of over-explaining, and comes from a similar, note-to-self reflex: the writer sorting out for themselves - and by implication for the reader - the summing-up, the significance, of what's just happened, and the ideas about what to do next. Of course it's important that the reader understands or intuits how the fall-out of this scene seeds and creates the next, but it needs interrogating: could we get it from the thoughts-along-the-way, not a summing-up, explainy kind of thing? Could the reader get it without any summing-up or pointers towards the next stage at all?

After all, jokes fall flat when you explain them, which is essentially what you're doing here. As Andrew Stanton says, the reader wants to "work for their meal" not be given it as a nutritionally balanced pre-packaged pill. So remember that Line-edits (3) + (4) = "go in late and get out early", and trust the reader to have got what you need us to get.

6) After a break, anchor the reader. Some mentee's manuscripts have loads of my "Where are we?" comments after a chapter or double-line space. "Where" might be in time, or space, but you know already, so it's hard to spot when you haven't given the reader - who doesn't know - enough unobtrusive or explicit help. It's a particularly acute problem in narratives which switch between two distinct strands, so the tips in that post might help.

But it's also worth practising different ways to get us from scene to scene: instead of cutting a scene dead, jumping to an unknown "elsewhere", having to anchor the reader all over again and then get them interested, you can take us there. And much of the time the storytelling is more fluent, more interesting, and has a stronger drive if you do just that. (p.s. my original title for this section was "Anchor the reader after a break". You could have a think about why I changed it...)

7) "Who says this?" Another frequent comment, and I could write it in the margin of many published books, too. Sometimes there's nothing beforehand to get us to "hear" the speech coming from the right voice and mind, and the speech then goes on too long before you give us any help. Other times, the "start each speech on a new line" rule has been followed too blindly, cutting it off from the action or names which would help us if, if only they were together in the same paragraph.

And by "help" I mean help us intuit. Yes, the reader wants to work for their meal, but as Andrew Stanton also says, they don't want to realise that they're working. If a reader has to stop and work out that it must have been Anne who said, "I killed him!", then your storytelling has failed in the most basic way. For more on all this, click through to my main Dialogue post, and scroll down a bit.

8) "Run-on here" vs "new para here". If the sentence, as Joe Moran says, is the building-block of writing, then paragraphs are the courses, structures, walls and corners. In leading the reader through your story the paragraphing is as important as it is in academic writing. It is, if you like, a unit of narrative as a scene is a unit of story. Where (and how) does the paragraph (where do we?) start? What happens in the middle? How does that create a change that we reach by the end? How does the first sentence of the next paragraph seem to grow out of that change? A paragraph, in other words, is the basic unit of leading the reader through the story, as an essay-writer needs to lead the reader through her argument.

As Moran also explains, English sentences are naturally end-weighted, with the important bit at the end ringing on over the full stop. So of course the end of a paragraph has the same force doubled, ringing even longer in our ears, the importance flowering in our heads as we move on, and down, and reach the beginning of the next unit. What moment of the flow of narrative most deserves to ring? But don't forget that the law of diminishing returns sets in: the shorter your paragraphs, the less effective each ringing will be. 

9) Don't be afraid to use contractions in narrative. Reading aloud will pick up when you've made a character say "Do not" or "Have you not", but some beginner writers find it incredibly hard to break their narrative loose from what "writing" has always been at school and work: a formal thing, using the formal forms of our language. Getting away from "office-speak" can be hard: this post might help.

The thing is, fictional narrative has always had one foot, as it were, in the storyteller's voice, and if you'd cheerfully type, "Don't tell me because I can't help" to a colleague, or other casual and colloquial phrases, then why shouldn't narrator have the same kind of voice? Even if you're writing historical fiction, bear in mind that OED's earliest examples of don't are in the 1670s, and can't in 1721, with similar dates for won't and others. Those are in playtexts, and the naturalistic direct speech in novels, but clearly even if people in other forms always wrote do not, cannot, will not and the rest, they didn't necessarily say them. So why would you, writing in a 21st narrative tradition which melds spoken and written modes, not use them where it seems right? Not that I've ever been able to come up with a consistent sent of principles for where: you just have to do lots of reading-aloud road-testing.

10) Commas. Finally, in terms of ink on paper, I probably put more commas in than I do any other mark. I do also take them out - but usually only to move them. This is partly because - despite what your workshop mates say - commas are absolutely crucial to articulating your meaning, and I mean that literally: commas form the joints between the units of meaning as you build what you're trying to say and then lead the reader through it to understanding.

But the reason we all fight our copy-editors over commas is that punctuation has two related but separate functions, as David Crystal himself put it to me. The function they teach you at school is all about articulating meaning by helping to clarify the grammar and syntax. But because we spoke, and speak, language before we wrote, and write, it down, punctuation also works to express how the meaning of a sentence is shaped by the saying of it: emphases, pauses, inflexions and so on. And the two are not always the same: as I said further up, narrative prose always has at least one foot in voice, including how real people actually say things.

Which doesn't mean you can sprinkle commas in any old wheres: you're in the business of controlling how the reader "hears" and understands your text, so you have to work with the conventions that you and your reader share. The real way to get to grips with them is to think in terms of the units of meaning within a sentence. But even I know a blog post has to stop somewhere, so that will have to wait for another day. Briefly, my most common suggestions/corrections, are:

a) Comma splices, where two sentences that need a full stop or a semi-colon between them are joined with no more than a comma. More here. Comma splices are a problem because the grammar and syntax of the sentence (i.e. the complete idea) brings the reader to a halt, but if you’ve only put a comma there it’s too small a halt; the sense of the sentence seems to tumble on over the break into what's actually a new sentence/idea, and the paragraph starts to seem sloppy and incoherent.

b) Missing one of a pair of parenthetical commas:

  • I sleep, which comes easily to me but he reads for a while. Or I sleep which comes easily to me, but he reads for a while. Either of which should be
  •  I sleep, which comes easily to me, but he reads for a while.

c) A pair of parenthetical commas which are correct but feel very formal and un-voice-y

  • She hurried off down the road but, as the rain began, she stopped to throw a scarf over her head.  Here the commas separate a "weak interruption". Given the natural voiciness of something like this, it would be feel more natural, and be equally correct, to punctuate it as most of us would speak it: 
  • She hurried off down the road, but as the rain began she stopped to throw a scarf over her head.

My personal go-to book for this stuff is R L Trask's Penguin Guide to Punctuation, which is short and sweet and very clear, and the relevant sections of Sam Leith's To the Point; though lots of people also swear by Lynn Truss's Eats, Shoots and Leaves.

And that's it for this post. I hope it's been a help - and for a whole lot more help for every kind of self-editing from big structure stuff to this kind of microscope work, don't forget that we have another online course in Self-Editing Your Novel starting in March, though do hurry - there are only six places left!