How can I get started editing this manuscript?
November 11, 2010 7:26 AM   Subscribe

What are some ways to approach editing a large manuscript?

I've finished a memoir about the time I spent in Russia after the fall of the Soviet Union. I have had 2 agents request to see sample chapters after I submitted a proposal to them. After they read the sample chapters they both asked to see the full manuscript. Both said that they liked but did not love it. That it was too wordy and that the story got bogged down. But both of them said that if I edited it, they would have another look.

My question: How do I do this? I've never done this before. It's not that I think that every word I've written is so precious, it's just that I have no idea how to get my head around pruning and shaping this 350 page glut of words. Are there any books I could read or resources I could tap that could help with this? And writers, when you have to reshape your first draft, where do you start? What are the practical techniques you use for approaching the task? Thanks so much.
posted by staggering termagant to Writing & Language (15 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
I would guess that your manuscript has a certain insight to impart about the evolution of Russian society in the post-communist period. The content of your manuscript can be judged based upon its relevance to the understanding of Russia that you are trying to convey. Some parts of the manuscript, whether sentences, paragraphs, pages, or chapters, contribute more effectively to this understanding than others. Some are central and essential, others are incidental and peripheral, perhaps even irrelevant.

In other words, you have a story to tell, but you also have digressions. Digressions can sometimes be charming, but in your case the two agents you have spoken to consider them excessive. So identify what is truly important and central to what you are trying to say, which you need to keep, and identify those parts that are less relevant, and remove them. In terms of specific technique, there is no short-cut, you just re-read the manuscript, and think about what you are reading.
posted by grizzled at 7:36 AM on November 11, 2010

It's very difficult to edit your own work. I suggest hiring a professional editor. (Disclosure: I am a professional editor.)
posted by headnsouth at 7:38 AM on November 11, 2010

Elements of Style by Strunk and White may help - there are passages about concise language.
posted by medea42 at 7:41 AM on November 11, 2010 [1 favorite]

One of my editing guidelines is "Describe things once." Doesn't really matter if it's a sunset, or what the lover looks like, I pick the most important description and cut all the rest.

My sweetheart has eyes like darkest heartwood, clever and quick as sparrows, lips cut thick and fine as slices of red grapefruit, bronzed skin sparked with cinnamon freckles and hips that sway a lullaby; they draw me to bed, but not to sleep...

You can also do a remarkable lot of cutting if you get rid of preposition collisions. She jumped up on; he fell down under, she lifted herself in back of.

Likewise for crutch words- just, only, already, still, ever.

But the best way to edit something that gets bogged down is to figure out the main thrust of the story. What is this book about? Then start hacking away at anything that diverges from that story. It's okay to have one aside, but if your asides have asides, they need to go.

Get rid of derails. "To understand X, let me tell you these anecdotes that happened many years before" - cut it. If it's deathly important, figure out a way to work it into the narrative, without stopping and going to a different time. But most of the time, it's not deathly important. It's just important to you.

Anywhere you announce what you're about to do in the text, cut it. "Let me tell you about my lover with the lullaby hips..." It's not an English paper, you don't have to explain everything. Just tell us about the lover with the lullaby hips.

Some people like to use cards to order their scenes, or the shrunken manuscript method. You can use a spreadsheet, or a piece of paper. I just read and re-read, and cut, and recut, and keep it all in my head.

Mostly, the trick is figuring out what the story is about. Then getting rid of everything that doesn't serve that story. Good luck!
posted by headspace at 7:43 AM on November 11, 2010 [4 favorites]

If you can't afford to hire a professional editor, consider hiring a non-professional person with relevant qualifications, e.g. a grad student. Do you have a friend with good taste who might be willing to help you out?
posted by prefpara at 7:56 AM on November 11, 2010

Read it aloud, and delete any section that bores you. Read it to yourself silently, and delete anything you skip over. Read it silently and fix any section that you have to re-read. Consider giving a copy to someone else for this same treatment. (Then give them money to compensate them for their time.)

If you can't divide it up logically into chapters or sections (because it's too messy), then maybe you need to tear it down and rewrite it.

Disclosure: I have a forty-page paper about my Grandpa's WWII service that needs this treatment, but I haven't yet been able to do it myself!
posted by wenestvedt at 7:59 AM on November 11, 2010

I also suggest hiring a professional editor (and I, too, am a professional editor).

However, if you don't want to do that, there are quite a few books on the market about editing your own work. A lot of them are geared toward fiction writing, but most of what they have to say would also be relevant to a memoir. Sadly, I don't have a specific book to recommend, but maybe just knowing that they exist will give you something to look into.

To me, it sounds like there are whole chapters or long passages that need to be cut in order to make the main theme ore narrative more focused. So first of all, you need to figure out exactly what the main thrust of your story is. Try to describe the overall impression you want people to get from the memoir in a single sentence, and make that sentence as specific and concise as possible. Then go through your manuscript again (preferably with one of those books I mentioned above at your side for reference), and cut any scene that doesn't contribute to the main theme you just identified. At this point, you should be looking at the big picture; focus on cutting whole passages of at least a paragraph each. Obviously, you'll need to patch up any loose ends that result from the cuts and write some new transitions to make sure everything still makes sense.

Once you've done that, go through the manuscript yet again. This time, you should pay attention to the details: identify the point or idea you want to get across in each passage, and delete any sentences, phrases, or words that don't contribute to getting that point across.

Then send it back to the agents and see what they say.

(On preview, headspace said some of the same things I did, but maybe the idea of tackling the big picture first and then taking care of the details will still be useful to you.)
posted by Hypocrite_Lecteur at 8:01 AM on November 11, 2010

Or narrative, that is. See above about difficulty of editing your own work.
posted by Hypocrite_Lecteur at 8:02 AM on November 11, 2010

Hire a book doctor with a relevent non-fiction/memoir background to tell you what to do.
posted by Elsie at 8:42 AM on November 11, 2010

Use several proof-readers: first a bunch of friends and relatives with the appropriate skills, then if ever possible, a professional one.

But before that, have a go for yourself. If you don't want to ask these agents for pointers (which could be interesting), simply assume that your word count is off by a visible percentage (like at least 15 or so). You will be able to get rid of that much without missing any of your cherished punchlines. The point isn't so much whether it is possible to cut down a text - of course it is. But it is in fact highly desirable to shrink your word count, because your readers will always have less patience with you than you had with yourself while writing. That's your touchstone. Read with the reader's eye.

One technique is to run through the main text, per section, back to front (in order to avoid that you get carried away by the stream of your own tale), checking every single paragraph for redundant sentences, long-winded constructions and non-essentials, and every section for larger-scale derails. Everything that catches your eye goes into the bin (naturally, work with a re-named document); every time this happens, you re-work the transitions right away. Leave clean text behind.

Then, there's the classics about style and organisation: balance your (undesirable) passive-voice usage with (equally undesirable) confusing changes of perspective; maintain a sensible adjectives policy [as opposed to "maintain a sensible, well-controlled and rational adjectives policy"]; apply some text organization that distinguishes between statements and evaluations, poetic descriptions and value judgments, etc.; use word repetitions sparingly and with a purpose; stay away from unnecessary verbal flourishes; and so on. There's loads of advice out there (I remember books by P.D. James and by Elisabeth George about writing; of course, that's crime fiction, but tons of good advice there), but I guess that you could make your own personal list of stylistic dos and don'ts based on what you prefer to read in others' books.
posted by Namlit at 8:55 AM on November 11, 2010

I'm also a professional editor, and I'm better, faster, and cheaper than headnsouth or Hypocrite_Lecteur. I think you should hire me.

Now that I have that out of the way ....

I think it's great that you have agents interested! Perhaps you could talk to a creative writing instructor at a college or someone else to coach you if line editing is too expensive.

Another method would be to ask a bunch of people to read your manuscript. Ask them when they first put the book down. If you have more than one person putting it down at the same place, something's wrong with that place.

Find out where your readers were bored. Where they were intrigued. When they got bogged down. Where things didn't make sense. Where they forgot to make dinner because they were so wrapped up in reading your manuscript that they lost track of time.

This information will help you know what to cut and what to keep and where to clarify.

I also know that it's very hard to sell fiction, particularly debut fiction, that's more than 110,000 words long. Shorter is better. I don't know if this applies to nonfiction, but getting your manuscript down to about 100K words couldn't hurt.

If you need more suggestions, me-mail me.
posted by WyoWhy at 9:09 AM on November 11, 2010

Go to, sign up, post a bit in the Share Your Work subforum, look for "beta readers" on the relevant subforum.

Agree with WhyoWhy that you should get your wordcount below 100K and ideally below 90K.
posted by Sidhedevil at 9:56 AM on November 11, 2010 [1 favorite]

I am not a professional editor. I am, however, a writer with an awesome crit group. I'd recommend them to anyone. If you're not sure where to find people to criticize your manuscripts, try the Absolute Write forums. State specifically that you're looking for line-level edits. And offer to repay the favor to other authors. As an educator and a writer, I can tell you with confidence that the best way to learn how to edit your own work is to practice your editing skills on the work of others.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 10:02 AM on November 11, 2010

> It's very difficult to edit your own work. I suggest hiring a professional editor. (Disclosure: I am a professional editor.)

> I also suggest hiring a professional editor (and I, too, am a professional editor).

What they said. (I, too, am a professional editor.)
posted by languagehat at 12:45 PM on November 11, 2010

See, unlike all the other professional editors on this thread, I (a professional editor) assume you've already discarded that option for lack of money.

If you can afford to hire a professional editor, you might be someone for whom it's worth the investment. Anyone who wants to make a career or a side career out of writing needs to learn to edit their own work, but people who want to publish one or two books about specific personal or professional experiences are often well advised to work with freelance editors (and thank Heavens for them!)

So, yeah, if it seems financially feasible, hire an editor. You can post a job listing on the Editorial Freelancers Association site for free. The EFA also has a sample rate chart.

If you're not going to be able to hire a professional editor, then go with swapping edits/beta reads with other writers. Don't do the "I hired the English teacher from my local high school" unless that person actually has experience as an editor; teaching English and being an editor are not 100% overlapping skill sets, to say the least (and I've done both, so).
posted by Sidhedevil at 1:47 PM on November 11, 2010

« Older Show me the wonders of the Mac....   |   Who was the WJR radio doc? Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.