An example of a good, thorough edit
Let’s jump right into the editorial pool for a swim, shall we?
In a previous piece, I posted a very short book excerpt so that you could practice your editorial skills on someone else’s raw writing. It’s easier to see someone else’s difficulties on the page than our own, and I want to help you understand that editing is all about words on a page. It is not a judgement on you personally.
Now I’d like to lead you through the editorial process I used on this piece.
To begin, I’ve repeated the whole excerpt and then added my general comments. I’ll post my line-by-line edit when next we meet.
———– The Excerpt —————-
“Yes, sir,” snapped O’Malley as he pivoted and smartly left Captain Fauser’s office.
Captain Fauser, following his dismissal of Sergeant O’Malley made the appropriate entry into his daily log book. Next he searched his in-office computer screen for the index entry on Roswell, New Mexico. A portion of the Roswell file was labeled MOST HIGHLY CLASSIFIED. The only information provided on the computer screen was the indexing of incoming phone calls regarding this historic UFO episode. All incoming calls were required to be reported in person if possible within four hours to his supervising officer, in this case, Colonel Kevin Schmidle. Since Fauser had previously made similar reports on this subject he was familiar with the drill. First, he dialed Schmidles’ office, also located in the Pentagon, and scheduled a meeting for that afternoon. Fauser then collected the tape of the phone call, the stress analyzer printout, and the telephone trace information. At 14:30 hours, Captain Fauser straightened his Navy issue blue tie and presented himself to Colonel Schmidle in his more spacious wood paneled government-issued office.
“What’s up this time, Captain?” asked Colonel Kevin Schmidle.
Captain Fauser reported that The Pentagon had received a telephone call this morning requesting information on the Roswell incident. The caller identified himself as a Mr. Rick Franke. Upon receiving the call, standard protocol was engaged and a trace on the call was placed to establish a preliminary telephone number and address. The stress analyzer indicates that the caller intentionally misidentified himself. From the initial information collected it appears that the caller was a Mr. Casey Foster employed by The Washington Post. Mr. Foster indicated he would place a follow-up call later in the week so that I could report the results of my research on his request.
—————— My General Comments ——————
You’ll have to take my word for some of this because I’ve edited this whole book and you haven’t but here goes.
The entire tone of this book is stilted, stiff, and formal. This is supposed to be a novel, a work of fiction, and readers expect a certain amount of ease in their prose under these circumstances.
In this excerpt, that formality is emphasized by the use of administrative lingo such as “index,” “incoming,” and “scheduled.” These are “cool” words, meant to distance a reader from the action, and yet it is obvious from the rest of the book that that was not the author’s intent.
There’s a military flavor in the use of 14:30 hours. If this were a book set in the military, this might be acceptable. But the military aspect of this novel is minimal. Unless you’re writing a “ticking clock” screenplay, most readers will be annoyed and distracted by specific references to time. They’re keeping track of your story, not their clocks.
Nowadays, would anyone say “in-office computer screen.” Most of us would just say “his computer.” The author’s wording makes him seem computer illiterate.
There’s unintentional humor here as well in the phrase MOST HIGHLY CLASSIFIED. Really? If the Pentagon has such a classification, they’ve kept it secret for decades. And even if they do, I think this phrase comes across as something the writer did solely to impress his readers. It’s akin to putting up a billboard to tell readers that THIS IS IMPORTANT!!!
Part of good writing is keeping the phrasing smooth so that the reader is effortlessly drawn into the world you create. Putting anything in all caps actually interrupts flow, making the reader stub his optical toe.
Two other comments and then we’ll meet back here again next week.
Comment number one: Take a close look at the second paragraph and note the words index and indexing. These are red-flag words that draw far more attention from a reader than “the,” or “was,” or “and.” Not only are they repeated in back-to-back sentences, they are used to convey two different meanings.
Repetition of red-flag words or phrases should be done deliberately, and in a way that the reader notices for a good reason. You could repeat a word to replicate a sound such as “clop, clop, clop” or repeat it between characters as an inside joke. I’ve used deliberate repetition twice in my comment below. These are examples of what I mean.
Unless you are using repetition to achieve a specific effect, eliminate it.
Comment number two: If you read this book excerpt aloud, you’ll realize that the tempo of each sentence is similar to the one before it and the one after it. This plodding tempo adds to the stilted feeling of this piece.
As listeners, we are very adept at picking up on monotony. In fact, we often avoid speakers who repeat and repeat and repeat themselves.
As readers, we’re not consciously aware of this same factor in writing. When asked to explain why something bores us, we might not be able to pinpoint the cause.
Tempo is just as important on the page as it is when we speak as it is in music. One of the best ways to improve a piece of writing is to say it out loud. Your ear can often hear what your eyes cannot see.