That McKnight’s Guide to Editing

I’m somewhat back from my… whatever that was. Lots of vacation, lots of extracurricular reading, lots of editing The Book. It was a lot of things and, really, I shouldn’t have been slacking that much over here, but I have been and–let’s be realistic–will probably continue to be for the next several months. I’ve been splitting my time between reading and reviewing comp titles and editing, and now my focus should be primarily on getting The Book done.

I have a bunch of writing friends with who I talk about writing. This should not be too much of a surprise. But lately, I’ve been talking about editing. (This should also not be too much of a surprise, given that I’m currently editing.)

When it comes to my work, I am both an academic and a project manager. Meaning that I heavily research everything, and then I apply my research to my work in a very logical, managed way. This can come off as neurotic, so trust me when I tell you that I come off as neurotic because I am neurotic.

What does this have to do with editing?

Two things happened:

The first was a fantastic panel on editing at the Writer’s Digest Conference in 2017. (As mentioned, I am very… thorough(ly neurotic) about my work, so I can tell you that the panel was called “Self-Editing for Nonfiction Writers” and was hosted by Rachel Randall.)

Rachel’s talk was about three stages of editing: macro, mid, and micro.

Macro-level editing makes sure that the content accomplishes your book’s purpose, that said content is presented in such a way–structurally–that it serves the reader.

Mid-level editing focuses on clarity (defining concepts and ideas, fixing confusion transitions, removing inside jokes, fixes flow issues), conciseness (in language–removing redundant phrases, wordy phrases, needless prepositions, etc), and consistency (in formatting, proper noun spelling, etc).

Micro-level editing is where you check things like grammar, syntax, definitions, punctuation, all that tiny stuff that is so important.

This blew me away. I had been trying to do all three things at once. To have all the tasks separated for me, and then put into order? Genius.

The second thing that happened was much more recent. I gave a talk on how to write a porn parody screenplay–if this startles you, you clearly have not read my bio–and then led attendees through a workshop so they could create their own scenes. (Yes, it was delightful.)

While creating this presentation, I had to figure out how to best convey the technique behind writing a good parody. And I realized it was all about memetics. Looking at the source material and finding the pieces of information that stayed with the viewer–the memetic information… and removing anything that wasn’t memetic or necessary to something that was memetic.

Dudes, I’m sorry. Let’s hold this right here.

The word “meme” derives from “memetic.” You know what a meme is, or at least you think you do. A meme is an image with text on it! It makes you laugh!

Not exactly.

A meme is the carrier of an idea. It’s the smallest carrier you can have that conveys an idea. A book is not a meme. A movie is not a meme. A single still (photograph) from a movie can be a meme–meaning it represents the entire movie, the theme of the movie, the idea behind the movie. (And, yes, it also needs to be viral, to be able to replicate and spread. You can read more about this here.)

So those were the two things that happened. (God, I’m like one of those cookbooks where it’s five pages of memoir with a half page of recipe. I apologize–I’m only giving this much information because I’m hoping it will help you understand what is about to follow.)

What also happened? Around the same time as my workshop, I completed my macro-level editing and moved into my mid-level editing. Yes, scroll on back up there to remember what mid-level consisted of.

Somewhere in giving my talk and diving into my next draft, the two things (mid-level editing tasks + memes) came together and had a brain baby:

That McKnight’s Guide to (Mid-level) Editing

editing header

What you see in the above image is what my workspace looks like when I’m editing: my second draft manuscript, my notebook, a pen, and an empty coffee mug (it doesn’t start empty). We’re going to talk about this process, there will be more pictures. Hold onto your butts.

There are two moving pieces to this process:

  1. My manuscript which, as you can see, gets maimed with notes. Line edits, additions, bits of “this is fucked” and “awk” (awkward) and “boring” as well as things like “this is awesome” and “you are as a god.”
  2. My notebook. It’s a softcover Moleskine, something like 8″x”10, and it’s perfect for this whole shebang.

The notes on the manuscript should be nothing new to you, assuming you’re also doing your edits by hand (you’re probably not). Anyway, it looks like this:

editing MS notes

You can see things like…

“Gap here. Fix. Currently reads like a para break is needed. It’s not. Notebook*” (structural issue)

“‘And a possible egg-fetishist.'” (joke insert)

“‘Now free from his day job’?” (awkward phrasing issue)

“Weak–‘certifiably nuts’?” (word choice issue)

“*Insertion here. Notebook” (information issue)

But how did I get here? How did I spot these issues? If we’re being honest–and we are–I didn’t spot most of these on the first (or second, or third) read of this chapter. (Not the fourth read either, please stop with the judging.)

I applied memes.

Well, the concept of memes.

I distilled each paragraph, each sentence into the smallest bit(s) of information it contained. Sometimes it would be one sentence into one bit, sometimes it would be one sentence into eight bits. (This, in my opinion, is a good thing, as it shows a variance in complexity, which is far more engaging than repetitively structured sentences. You may disagree. Disagree away.)

So a paragraph like this one:

editing draft screencap

Gets broken down into a nested series of “memes” (using this word so loosely now, forgive me, Richard Dawkins) like this:

editing notebook column a

Yes, it looks like I just rewrote that bunch of paragraphs into a bunch of tiny paragraphs. I technically didn’t, but I also technically did. It’s clearly not the same set of paragraphs–it just contains the same information. But because it contains the same information, it’s technically the same paragraph.

(This sounds like a load of bullshit, I know. But it works, so it’s functional bullshit.)

It’s the same paragraph, but only the necessary bits. All the other words? Color, but ultimately irrelevant when it comes to conveying basic information.

And it lets you really look at your structure. You’re removing all the meat and organy bits and peeking in on the skeleton, making sure the bones are in the right structure, that none of them are broken or risking fracture.

Which means you can see where your informational flow is and thus spot where you might accidentally abandon your reader due to missing information or a giant structural insertion mishap (a non-technical phrase describing what happens when you have Idea A, allow it to drag you into Idea B, talk about Idea B for quite a while, then go back to Idea A to wrap it all up, but the reader has looonnng since forgotten Idea A and now they’re totally adrift).

Moving on.

You’ve done your memetic breakdown. You’ve got a good peg of how your flow is looking. You’ve had to read and re-read your writing a few times–and slowly–so you’re spotting all your weird phrasing, redundant words, and cliches. You’re making notes to yourself to fix all your weird phrasing, redundant words, and cliches.

Your manuscript starts looking like this:

editing ms noets large

But you still have some structural issues. Or maybe you realized that, in your list of items in your notebook, there are zero descriptors which means, goddamnit, you’re telling, not showing again. Or countless other issues.

And there’s no room on your manuscript. I mean, look at it. It’s full. You could write on the back, but… yikes. Also, what if you printed on both sides? You’ve gotta write elsewhere.

Back to your notebook!

Every star/asterisk on my manuscript corresponds to a longer note I’ve written in my notebook. How does this work, visually?

editing columns big I fold the page in half.

Column A is my structural breakdown/my summaries.

Column B are my notes. And I make sure that my notes are by their corresponding summaries. If that means leaving huge gaps on either side of the page, I do it. I need it all to be together.

If you can’t quite read the notes in the picture…

“Insertion—->Something about how he agreed that we didn’t need to go to the top, but on arrival, standing in line for tickets (brief desc here), he sprung his trap. <–This is inserted because lost the experience-narration thread and went into thought-summary narration.”

“There’s a giant info gap/narration failure here. Needs to be filled. Not everyone knows what the Arch is. Need to desc/explain/height.  Need to get Ben+me from ticket desk to elevators to segue. See how this all goes, if need to add anything else. State of mind/fear?”

The first insertion happened because I realized, in writing out the summaries, that I had switched into a recounting, rather than sharing the experience–there were no descriptors in my summary. I hadn’t brought the reader along with me, allowed them to share my surprise at Ben’s “trap,” all of that. It was a show-not-tell issue that needed to be fixed.

The second insertion (which you can’t see what it’s referring to because I took the picture poorly) addresses how I immediately start talking about the arch and being in the arch but… never actually describe the arch in concrete terms? Again, no descriptors–mostly out of a subsconscious assumption that of course everyone knows what the St. Louis Arch is and what it looks like.

This whole section needs an overhaul, is what I’m saying.

Other notes on other sections, so you can see what other type of tasks I’m writing to myself…

“This needs to be fleshed out slightly more. Short sentences. Staccato rhythm to contrast prev para. Also in chrono order pls.” (prose fix, summaries showed a very plodding rhythm)

“Should rework this bit to comment like… ‘I’d describe Anthony’s house to you, but I already did in the section above,’ then carry on w/ what’s already there.” (description fix, spotted two different descriptions of the same thing during summaries)

“There is no segue between armadillos + St Louis ~’Fortunately, I was not going to Texas–where more armadillo corpses would be, but to St Louis.’ Follow with some comment on the potential of changing scenery. ~’there, the fields of America’s heartland would give way to… well, something else. Having never been to Missouri, I didn’t know.'” (narrative flow fix–summaries let me spot that I was missing narration between two locations) (also: “~” is a symbol for “approximately”)

“Okay. This is a topic-mess, disjointed+muddled. Outside of book, list actual worries. In book, flesh each out in para-‘what if’ + ‘but’ then check to see where each fits [in section above] and insert accordingly.” (clarity issue, the summaries let me realize that I was jumping around in my information–when I read them aloud (because something seemed off), it sounded like I was telling a story completely out of order)

Annnnnd that’s it. I’d show you the finished results, but I’m not supposed to put my hoping-to-be-published work online so you just have to imagine the glory that is the fully edited version of me making my way to the top of the St. Louis Arch and, theoretically, coming back down alive.

As a final note: read. Read everything. Not just your comp titles, but books on style and structure and… just well-written books. Of all types. I read literary fiction, historical nonfiction, horror, fantasy, graphic novels, memoirs, romance, science nonfiction, academic nonfiction, literary canon, poetry, and onwards. And it helps. It all helps, even the not-so-great books. At least you know what not to do.

It’s not enough, in my opinion, to be a good writer. That’s not going to “make” you or your career. You need to be a great editor–or at least have the money to pay one.

Thanks for coming to my TED Talk.*






*This is a joke. I have not done a TED Talk. Stop taking life so seriously.