There’s critiquing, and then there’s editing.

I thought I knew what editing was all about based on more than two years of belonging to, submitting almost 50 pieces of my work (mostly chapters) and giving well over 300 critiques of other writers’ submissions. I’m pretty good at placing commas, catching typos, and recognizing ungrammatical sentences. I learned much more from the critiques I received on my subs, and by critiquing others, learned more still by noticing where someone else’s writing seemed weak and why it was that way.

So there I was, all set to work on the ‘second draft’ of my novel–the one I would attempt to present to agents, editors and publishers. All I need to do is tighten up the weak points in the plot and slash about 20,000 words from my 105,000-word soon-to-be-masterpiece. Ouch!

Then my father got a hold of my novel manuscript. As luck would have it, he was up here in Minnesota this summer for vacation (the memorable canoe trip we took in the Boundary Waters. He asked how the novel was going. I said the first draft was virtually complete and he expressed an interest in reading it. I was mildly surprised but figured he’s retired and has plenty of time to wade through anyone’s first opus, with no pressure to even finish reading. I gave him a copy on a flash drive.

About a month later, when we were talking on the phone, he said he thought it was good enough to be marketable with a lot of work, and volunteered to “jot down some notes” the way a real-life editor would if they were polishing up the work for publishing. I figured he’d mark up a few pages here and there, maybe write a summary sheet pointing out plot flaws, suggested changes, etc.

Here’s where you need to know that Dad spent his entire career in journalism, working first as a reporter and news writer for local TV/radio stations, then moving to a major international corporation (we’re talking Fortune 100, stock in the Dow Jones Industrial Average kind of major). While there, he reported, wrote and edited for the two corporate newspapers–one domestic, the other, an international edition. He knows about deadlines, clean copy, getting the story across succinctly, grammatical correctness, and eliminating the unnecessary words. The man knows his business inside and out, even though it’s been twenty years since he retired.

Anyway, a month after he started editing, a package arrived for me in the mail. It’s my manuscript; 160  typed, single-spaced pages (to save mailing and printing costs). He included a three-page cover letter with general impressions and main points explaining how and why he made the specific types of edits, what publishers will look for and how they will look at a potential novel (don’t be too political, don’t be too obviously copying another author’s style, characters, settings, etc.). Generally good things to be aware of.

Then I start looking at his edits on the manuscript. To say there was a torrent of red ink would be an understatement. Had had marked every single page with at least 10 or 12 corrections/improvements, and some pages were so thick with markings that it sometimes took me 5-10 minutes to decipher his comments for a single paragraph.

I forged through the sea of red, and by about the tenth page I realized that what the critiquers and had been doing in our online sessions was ‘Editing 101.’ Dad was giving me the graduate course. To make a long story short, his editing suggestions let me slash more than 7500 words off my draft, without slashing any chapters or changing any major plot points. My style was not altered in the least, and my characters all maintained their integrity. Seven percent shorter on one go through!  I think Dad could have slashed a few hundred words off a Hemingway novel if he was so inclined. And I think Ernie might say from his grave, “Thanks, Jerry, I always thought I could have written that chapter with a little less verbiage.”

Bottom line: If something is missing from your rewrites, find yourself a pro or a semi-pro (journalism student, writing teacher, editor, etc.) who is willing to think like a publisher. Having fellow authors critique your work is helpful from an artistic standpoint, but aren’t most authors being constantly admonished to delete unnecessary words? We tend to think every word we write is absolutely crucial to our plot.

What’s your eye-opening moment about your writing education or any other life lesson?

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