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Archive for January, 2011

Editing with a Mean Pen

Monday, January 31st, 2011

Earlier this week, I met with some local writers in a monthly event that I organize.  While we were talking, the topic of editing work came out, as well as the need for every writer to have someone with a “mean pen”.

A mean pen simply means that the person critiquing your work takes a no-holds-barred approach to finding problems in your work.  This will sometimes involve challenging the content (*GASP*, could there be a problem with an argument I’m using?).  Other times this will mean identifying areas that made the reader pause, reread, or question the writer’s meaning (or sanity).

In the conversation above, we were talking about why there remains a negative connotation with self-published works.  We decided the biggest problem with most self-pubbed pieces simply haven’t experienced a mean enough pen yet.  If more people had their work professionally edited, then self-publishing would become a much greater power in the world today.

As a freelance editor, I take a mean pen to every piece that crosses my desk.  I cross out anything I feel is unnecessary, often cutting out hundreds or thousands of words. I’ll point out ill-conceived and unconvincing arguments, or mistakes that a writer seems to make consistently (such as “then” and “than” confusion).

Other times, I’ll find that there are some gaps in the work.  Often this is because the writer assumed the reader had some knowledge.  It’s often a simple matter for the writer to fill the hole.  However, without someone with a mean pen that can identify these leaps, the writer may be embarrassed by a barrage of criticism after releasing work to the world before it was ready.

My goal as an editor is not only to improve a work, but to improve the writer as well.  It gets boring to correct the same old mistakes–I’d rather a writer was always making new ones!

Editing with a mean pen cannot guarantee that you’ll find every error.  The author ultimately has to choose whether he or she is going to act on the criticism.  There’s also no guarantee that someone editing with a mean pen will find every error.

What editing with a mean pen can do, however, uncover some of the larger problems within a work, and give the writer a hint of what needs more work.  That’s how a writer grows.

What do you think?  How do you find problems in your work?  What can writers do to help themselves develop a “mean pen”?

Three Ways to Identify “Data Dump”

Monday, January 24th, 2011

Recently, I’ve advised several writers using our editing service to avoid the dreaded “data dump”.

A data dump occurs when you give a lot of information to the reader at once in a clunky or obvious manner.  Below are a few ways to detect when you’re dumping information on the reader.

The Laundry List

I often see this when we’re seeing a character for the first time.  Here’s an example (this and all others in this article are completely made up):

Bob Jones took off his wire-rimmed glasses.  He was 5′ 6″, and wore tan slacks with his blue button-down shirt.  His hands were old and gnarly, and age spots showed under the edge of his sleeve.  His shoes were brown.  His eyes were green, but one of the pupils seemed to be turning milky-white from cataracts.  His thin frame belied a desperate, inner strength.

While the description is nice, and you likely have a firm image of him in your mind, we have no idea why we should care about him.  Here’s a recommended edit of the above paragraph:

Bob Jones took off his wire-rimmed glasses.

It’s really all you need to know.  The other details can be sprinkled throughout the story elsewhere, or not at all (hint:  eye color rarely matters).

“As You Already Know…”

This is when one character tells other characters something they already know.  If you see this tag in your dialogue, consider eliminating it.

For example, if you see something like this:

“As you already know, we’re under attack from the vicious Culverians.  They’re our sworn enemies for millennia, and we need to kill them.”

It’s probably a data dump.  A revised version might look something like this:

“We’re under attack!  Man battle stations.  Let’s kill them all.”

Note how the second version appears much more active.  The reader doesn’t know all of the detail, but they don’t need to.  They know they’re reading about a battle, and that’s probably good enough for now.  Later, after the battle, you can reveal how they’ve been at war for millennia.

The Ambler

This one’s a little more subtle than the others.  Essentially, you’re trying to do too much in a single sentence or paragraph.

John slowly brought the fork to his mouth as he watched his wife, who he suspected was cheating on him, chat with a man across the street.

When you see a sentence that tries to describe two people doing different things, you should check it carefully.  When you toss in background information as well, you’re probably letting your focus wander.  You may also be dumping information on your reader.

A revised version:

John slowly brought the fork to his mouth as he gazed out the window.  His wife was chatting with a man across the street. 

She’s cheating on me, he thought.  I know it.

Look for these three symptoms to identify data dump in your writing.

What other ways do you detect data dump?  Are there other symptoms we’re not mentioning here?

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