Content Editor, Anyone?

Storyboard - Guenette photo

You write to communicate to the hearts and minds of others what’s burning inside you, and we edit to let the fire show through the smoke. – Arthur Plotnik

Since I self-published and began to read widely across genres in the self-publishing world, I cannot count the number of times I’ve said, “I wish I could have had a crack at this book before the author published it.” I realize that sounds egotistical but I cannot help myself.

You see, I’ve been incredibly fortunate to work with a gifted content editor in my own writing. After taking apart four novels and reconstructing them to be as sleek as I ever thought my writing could be. Comments such as – jarring, unnecessary, redundant, unclear, doesn’t make sense, loose construction etc. etc. – have pushed me to more hours of rewriting than I care to count. But thank goodness!

I suppose the number one piece of advice that should be written in huge letters on a poster over a writer’s desk, is this: DO NOT PISS OFF THE READER.

Here is just a short list of the things that get my reading goat:

Jarring point-of-view (POV) shifting among characters. Many call this head-hopping. Once I’m firmly in the head of the POV character, don’t dump me into the head of another character without clear cut signage. I’m not against multiple points of view – far from it. Just beware of confusing the reader because that very quickly leads to pissing the reader off.

Being placed in the head of a character that I have not been adequately introduced to. Come on – we’ve barely met. I don’t want to know his or her thoughts. Not yet, anyway. At least let us get acquainted first.

Stretching my suspension of reality far beyond the breaking point. Entering into any story, regardless of form (a novel, a movie, a TV show, a theatre production), requires pushing back the real world to a certain extent. But don’t ask me to give up common sense and believe things that simply could not happen – not in this world or any other. Once you have lost credibility with a reader, it will take quite a herculean effort to get it back.

Taking the easy way out. You’ve written yourself into a corner and there doesn’t seem to be any way that your good guy (or gal) is going to come out on top. We’ve all been there. So, go back and rewrite. Don’t take the easy way out by having the bad guy up and drop dead or any of the other equally hack ways of getting out of a jam.

Don’t make me think your main character is a shallow fool. We all have human foibles and letting the reader see your characters as fully formed, capable of good and bad, smart thoughts and the occasional off-base notion – all that is great. What gets to me are the characters that continually spout off judgements about others and the world that indicate said character is a one-dimensional idiot who dwells in a world of stereotypes and ill-thought out ideas. Now, if this is your objective – to have your reader think ill of your main character – I advise caution. Readers want to bond with main characters. No one wants to bond with a fool. I’ll take a serial killer over a fool any day.

An out of the blue, drop into the voice of an omniscient narrator. This is so jarring as to be a deal breaker. Let me explain. I am reading your book and understanding the story through the eyes of the various POV characters. I know what they know. Then suddenly, a character say something like, “I wish I knew then what I know now.” Think about the implications of this little throw away comment. All dramatic tension disappears. I now know this particular character will survive whatever is to come as the telling of this story is taking place after the fact. I am no longer moving along with the characters. A huge distance has been created between the reader and the story. The writer who decides to plunk this voice on the reader without warning does so at his or her own risk.

Yak, yak, yak, yak, yak. Don’t get me wrong, I love dialogue. The things people say to one another reveal worlds an author could never adequately describe. Beware of wasting this valuable tool on going nowhere, adding-nothing-to-the-story drivel. The same could be said of endless descriptions of what characters are doing or wearing. Broad brush strokes work so much more effectively. Remember the wise words of Dr. Seuss.

“So the writer who breeds more words than he needs, is making a chore for the reader who reads.”

So, there you have it – my rant on the need for thorough and effective content editing. If you have followed my blog for any length of time, you know I go on a rant like this about once a year. Maybe I should hang out a shingle.

Let me at your work before you publish. I can help you. Fee negotiable.

I’m only half joking.

Statues near Mt. Shasta, CA - Bruce Witzel photo

9 comments on “Content Editor, Anyone?

  1. I’ve felt the same way many times when I see the lack of copy editing. I know you’re talking about content editing, but the lack of good copy editing, too, makes me feel like that. Your content editing points are excellent and learning to avoid those pitfalls are all part of the road to becoming a good writer. On that road, things I have found helpful are: being part of a good writers’ group, reading books on writing, having a critiquing partner who knows what they’re talking about, and putting into practice what I’ve learned. Following a good blog such as yours is helpful too. Thanks for an excellent post!

    • Many thanks, Anneli, for stopping by and adding your thoughts. I agree with your points – perhaps the most helpful one being a second pair of eyes on our work, a person we trust to honestly critique our work without tearing it down. I find this especially helpful when it comes to believability. It is easy for me to get caught up in everything I know about a character’s motivations – so much of this will never be conveyed to the reader – and, at times, I need someone to say – this just doesn’t make sense. I don’t get it. What are you trying to say here? Those types of comments make all the difference when it comes to content.

      • EXACTLY! Honest, but constructive critiquing is so important. It’s good that you know your character, even if you don’t write everything you know about them. That is so important to have in your head as you write because you know what that character is capable of and why.

  2. Kelee Morris says:

    Great list. I especially agree about dialogue. Don’t have characters share what we’ve already seen, or what they’re about to do, unless it adds to the narrative.

    • Absolutely – if it doesn’t move the narrative forward there is no place for it! Stephen King wrote – if I wanted to browse a clothes catalogue, I’d go pick one up. I’m not interested in what people are wearing. So true. And dialogue that adds nothing new to the movement of the story really should be cut.

  3. evelynralph says:

    Reblogged this on evelynralph and commented:
    Lots of interesting information here.

  4. jane tims says:

    I recently hired an editor to look at my book about saving an abandoned church. His insights were so helpful. I like your list of considerations, especially ‘yak, yak …’ . I hate it when dialogue is not attributed and you have to work your way back through three pages to know who the heck is talking.

    • Another great point about dialogue, Jane. It’s a fine line between using he said/ she said ad nausea and having characters run-off at the mouth to the degree that the reader has no idea who is doing the talking. This point also goes to voices. Characters should be distinguishable, to a degree. So glad you had a good experience with a content editor!

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