Show, don’t tell
Perhaps the most important piece of advice a book editor or book editing service can give is “show, don’t tell.” Often, as writers, we have a very clear idea in mind of who is saying what where when something is happening. However, creating that same image in our reader’s mind is the challenge we face. For best effect, don’t tell your reader that the sunrise was “beautiful” or even “spectacular”; instead, show that the sunrise “streaked the still gray sky with rosy pillars, illuminating the tops of the heavy clouds.” Allow your reader to see it and come to his or her own conclusion that it is beautiful. For example, John Updike, in his A&P, carefully describes the girls, but in Sammy’s words:
She had on a kind of dirty-pink – - beige maybe, I don’t know — bathing suit with a little nubble all over it and, what got me, the straps were down. They were off her shoulders looped loose around the cool tops of her arms, and I guess as a result the suit had slipped a little on her, so all around the top of the cloth there was this shining rim. If it hadn’t been there you wouldn’t have known there could have been anything whiter than those shoulders. With the straps pushed off, there was nothing between the top of the suit and the top of her head except just her, this clean bare plane of the top of her chest down from the shoulder bones like a dented sheet of metal tilted in the light. I mean, it was more than pretty.
Updike (or Sammy) could have told us that “Queenie” was pretty, but he chooses to focus on the details of her clothing.
Make a scene
We’ll talk more about scenes in regards to plot, but, like what’s onstage in a drama, what surrounds your characters will only add to their development and the reality of what’s happening. In this, appeal to all the senses, not just sight:
- What kind of light is there? Natural? Fluorescent? Are there colors?
- Describe a scent. Perfume/cologne? Flowers? New paint? Has someone just popped a breath mint?
- Besides the characters’ speech, is there a sound? Background conversation? Crickets? The creak of a rocking chair?
- Is there something notable about how it feels? Is there a draft? Has it become uncomfortably warm right when all eyes have turned to our hero?
Of course, not all of this needs to be included at all times. But the right kind of description can heighten the effect of a scene. For example, note how Updike brings in Sammy’s surroundings to emphasize the sudden discomfort:
All this while, the customers had been showing up with their carts but, you know, sheep, seeing a scene, they had all bunched up on Stokesie, who shook open a paper bag as gently as peeling a peach, not wanting to miss a word. I could feel in the silence everybody getting nervous, most of all Lengel, who asks me, “Sammy, have you rung up this purchase?”
Visualize your characters as actors
Shaping a good character should take care of this issue, but it’s worth a second look. While good description can help us to visualize the character as a figure (i.e., looks, clothing etc.), good description can also help us to visualize the character as a person. For example, what does the character look like when angry? Does he or she have a nervous habit that might come out in an uncomfortable situation?
Queenie’s blush is no sunburn now, and the plump one in plaid, that I liked better from the back — a really sweet can — pipes up, “We weren’t doing any shopping. We just came in for the one thing.”
“That makes no difference,” Lengel tells her, and I could see from the way his eyes went that he hadn’t noticed she was wearing a two-piece before. “We want you decently dressed when you come in here.”
Here, we can see Updike drawing our attention to how people look—Queenie’s blush and Lengel’s eyes—to suggest emotion rather than attempting to tell us directly. Besides being a great writer, Updike was one of the greatest book editors of all time.
–Dr. Dan, Edit911.com, Inc.
An important part of describing is determining the point of view of your story. Generally, there are two ways that book editors would advice you to tell a story (“you” is the silent member of the Trinity, assumed yet unassuming):
This POV is when an “I” is telling the story. Sometimes this “I” can be merely an observer, like Dr. Watson or Nick Carraway in The Great Gatsby, or the “I” can be the main character in the story like Sammy in Updike’s A&P.
The use of “I” should be carefully determined, as it works differently for the authors and for the reader. An author sees the “I” as a stand-in for him- or herself, but the reader sees “I” quite differently, for the “I” is stand in for the reader.
Detective stories are particularly good for this kind of narrative, since the reader sees what the detective sees and can truly “match wits” as the mystery unfolds.
This POV is the most common.
- Omniscient is when the narrative voice is aware of all details, including people’s emotions and motives.
- Limited is when the narrative voice is allowed only into the head of the main character (or protagonist).
- Objective is when the narrative voice only describes what can be seen or heard.
How does POV work?
In the following passage, we can see how point of view works:
Desmond walked by the ornate door carefully, still embarrassed by interrupting his hosts’ argument, and picked up the heirloom phone to call his shiftless brother-in-law for a ride home.
- We are allowed into Desmond’s emotional state (he’s embarrassed) but someone is calling the brother-in-law shiftless. Who?
No point of view is superior to another, but when performing your book editing it is important to be sure that your narrative is consistent. So, if you set off to write in a limited perspective, the story should remain limited.
Almost as important as the actual writing is the editing of the work. There are as many ways of looking at book editing or dissertation editing as there are writers. Some authors edit and revise only when the work is complete. Others write for a day and begin the next by carefully looking over the previous day’s endeavor. And, while some take on the entire practice themselves, most others work closely with an editor. Whatever your practice is, it’s best to remember what “revise” means: literally, it is “re-vision” or to “look again.”
In this, it is the role of the book editor or dissertation editorto play the part of the careful, supportive reader. As writers, we often feel very certain about what we say, convinced that our prose (or verse) is precisely what we want. However, we should also be aware that our readers are the ultimate judge of the success and rightness of what we say. This is not to say that we should write for our readers, but we should anticipate and listen carefully and this is where a good editor is invaluable.
In conversation, we know from our listeners how we are doing—we can see from body language or even questions whether or not our partner is following our train of thought. As writers, we don’t have this luxury, so we need to be sensitive to how our reader might respond. Editors are sounding boards, test readers who can provide exactly the kind of feedback writers are really looking for.
Typically, editors examine manuscripts on two different levels: local and global.
Local concerns are smaller, more easily fixable issues such as punctuation, format, or even continuity errors. Sometimes we can be prone to certain rhetorical structures—e.g., opening prepositional phrases—that can become distracting to a reader used to variety. We often overlook these even on revision, so a fresh pair of eyes is a definite advantage.
Global concerns are those that concern the entire work; these might include characterization, development, plot, description, or pacing. In other words, global concerns are those that affect the entire work and can affect how the reader responds to your work.
While a good editor will often do both at the same time, the more important one is the global perspective, for, fixing the indentation may improve the look, but if the characterization is uneven, there remains a great deal more work to do. Likewise, if one spends a lot of time fixing punctuation and then revises substantially for development and description, the local editing has to be done all over again.
–Dr. Dan, www.edit911.com