An editor’s advice to a young writer

Several weeks ago when Elizabeth Burton of Zumaya Books and I were working on the final edits of my novel, I commented on how interesting the process was and what a good experience this would be for my creative writing students.  Liz generously offered to make a cyber visit to my classroom and offer comments on the beginning chapter of a fantasy novel called Ruination written by Justin Johnson, a student in my Writing for Publication class. The session provided a fascinating look into the way an editor thinks and resulted in some wonderful advice for writers in general.

When Liz first agreed to visit, she asked for three chapters or 50 pages, her general submission requirements.  She explained that she likes to look at this much work because writers often begin their novels in the wrong place–the best beginning may well be later in the novel, further into the action.

The editing session was organized through Google documents  so that my class could watch live-editing and Justin and I could chat with Liz through a window that opened on the side.  Students watched on a screen in front of the room or on their own laptops.

Liz offered advice that ranged from thinking in terms of the character at all times to making the writing itself more effective.  Writing should be descriptive, but never bogged down with too many details.  Liz commented, “Essentially, never include anymore than is absolutely necessary to keep the action going.”  Readers, she noted, don’t always like character descriptions–just hints so they can fill in the blanks.

She offered similar advice for keeping the story moving.  Start with action and stay with it, she advised.  “Wordy,” she cautioned, “always waters down the drama.” Keeping description simple, she pointed out, can be more powerful than using a lot of words.

Another point of advice–be selective about how much information you give in a single dose.  “Maintain point of view,” she said, “by remembering you’re thinking like your character.  Beware of doing info dumps where they aren’t appropriate.”  Background can be worked in slowly.  There’s lots of time in novels. Keep character in mind at all times, even down to that basics of word choice.  A determined woman wouldn’t “find herself” somewhere, Liz noted.

Liz also gave suggestions for improving writing style.  “The one piece of common wisdom you can bank on is avoid -ly adverbs if possible.”  She also suggested never using “self” pronouns unless absolutely necessary.  A hole can’t fill itself up with anything; instead, it is filled.

Justin at one point jokingly commented, “I don’t like the English language anymore.”  Liz immediately responded, “Nobody does.  The others are so much easier because they’re purebreds.  English is a mutt.”

And while the editing process can be painstaking and sometimes frustrating, at the end of the session Justin also discovered one of the rewards–a series of compliments from Liz about his work in general and an offer to “talk.”

Justin described the session as being more informative than he ever could have imagined.  “It made me see my work in ways only an outsider looking in could have seen it,” he said.   He especially enjoyed Liz’s mixture of constructive criticism and humor.  “Overall,” Justin said, “this editing session practically tripled my college education.”

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About carolewaterhouse

A creative writing professor at California University of Pennsylvania, Carole Waterhouse is the author of two novels, The Tapestry Baby and Without Wings, and a collection of short stories, The Paradise Ranch. Her fiction has appeared in Arnazella, Artful Dodge, Baybury Review, Ceilidh, Eureka Literary Magazine, Forum, Half Tones to Jubilee, Massachusetts Review, Minnetonka Review, Oracle: The Brewton-Parker College Review, Parting Gifts, Pointed Circle, Potpourri, Seems, Spout, The Armchair Aesthete, The Griffin, The Styles, Tucumari Literary Review, Turnrow, and X-Connect. A previous newspaper reporter, she has published essays in an anthology, Horse Crazy: Women and the Horses They Love, and Equus Spirit Magazine. Her book reviews have appeared in The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, The Pittsburgh Press, and The New York Times Book Review.
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6 Responses to An editor’s advice to a young writer

  1. admin says:

    How absolutely interesting, Carol. You know what one of my pet peeves is? People who write like this: “I ate the dog.” She said. I have several people in my blogging group writing short stories on their blogs and sending the link through for comments and I want to critique so bad, but I let it go. I didn’t want to come off as a know it all but we’re only trying to help. I bet Justin was excited when Liz says “we’ll talk”!

  2. Gloria Oliver says:

    Having just gone through Liz’s editing online, I have to say it did have a lot of advantages. She could question things and I could give an immediate reply. I could also do then same for additions or deletions she put in place. Worked very well. The only thing I would have liked better was if we’d both had headsets and could have done voice over the Internet. Just need to hit ‘mute’ if I needed to curse at myself a bit 😛

    Glad your class was able to go through this experience. There are so many possibilities anymore

  3. Mayra says:

    Thanks for the interesting post, Carol.

    I’m your newest follower. I hope you’ll follow back.

  4. I enjoyed reading this. I’m glad it was helpful to your students. Liz really knows her stuff!

  5. gsb3 says:

    How about poetry? She does not address that. I know its a dying art, but people do still do it, and some even make a few bucks. Any advice there?

    • When Ms. Burton conducted her editing session, she was looking at the beginning pages of a novel written by one of my students, so of course all of her comments were directed toward fiction. She’s the owner of Zumaya, a small press that publishes novels in a variety of genres. I don’t think I’d call poetry a dying art. When I went to the AWP Conference earlier this year, there was booth after booth of small publishing houses that focused on poetry. I think it’s still one of the most admired types of writing.

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