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Monday, February 4, 2013

Editing...Editing...Editing--Part 2: Balanced Writing

Picture Credit: http://manbicep.com/2011/11/19/
This blog begins with step 3 of content editing. View the first two steps in Part 1.

Also, I don't want to take undue credit for the technique I use. I learned it from my editor extraordinaire--Clint Johnson. He teaches classes, speaks at conferences, and helps authors polish their work for a very reasonable charge. Click here to visit his website.

The Balanced Writing Process is making the actions/dialogue, setting, and character thoughts all work together in appropriate amounts. We do this by tearing apart and then re-building one chapter at a time. This step is probably going to be your most time-intensive step, but give it a try with just one chapter. You'll be amazed at the difference it will make.

#3 Cut Back to Action/Dialogue

First, copy your first chapter to a new document. DO NOT work straight from your original manuscript for this one! Make a note of how long the chapter is. You can look at how many pages or how many words--just get a rough idea. Now delete everything that is not either detailing a specific, visible action or spoken dialogue. Cut paragraphs apart or out completely. Cut pieces of your sentences out. Let's try it here together:
  • Johnny cut through the beautiful park on his way home from school, thinking about how happy he was to have earned a perfect report card. Those grades would mean a scholarship! Just when he thought he'd never go to college. No more need to worry about being stuck in the same dead-end, low-paying jobs he watched his parents slave away in. The sun shone down on him and all the flowers were in bloom. He smiled at the world.

The passage turns into:
  • Johnny cut through the park. He smiled.

Once you have cut away all of your hard work, the next thing you need to do is take a deep breath; because if you're anything like I was when I first started using this technique on my writing, your beautiful work just turned into unrecognizable hash. The good news is, that means your work will be all better for using this!

Take a moment to look at what percentage of your chapter was specific action or dialogue. For commercial fiction, actions and dialogue should take up 60 -70% of your chapter. If you write in the literary genre, then it is commonly lower, but don't go too much lower. In the above example, action takes up just under 10% of the prose. That is too low no matter what genre you're writing.

#4 Evaluate and Improve Action/Dialogue

So now we evaluate where the holes are. At the same time, take a good look at your dialogue--it should still be around at this step. You should have deleted your tags (he said) but aside from that, how believable is it? How moving? Do the characters who are talking each have a definite agenda? Are they interacting in a compelling way? Are the characters different enough that you can tell who is talking even before you add the tags (this doesn't mean that you won't add tags back in, but they should be identifiable)? If not, revise your dialogue.

For practice, let's look back at our example:
  • Johnny cut through the park. He smiled.

In the cut we made, we lost all sense of why Johnny is happy and what the main conflict is. We need to find a way to portray these through his direct actions. This is done by adding specific details about what he is doing that lead the reader to understand. Like this:
  • Johnny cut through the park, gripping his report card. He sucked in a breath and looked down at it. He smiled. He saw a janitor sweeping up trash. Johnny watched him and stooped to pick up garbage. Then he squeezed the report card tighter and walked on. He tipped his head back and smiled.

By giving Johnny a few actions that explain what he is thinking and feeling, we have increased the percentage of action from under 10% to 68% of the original length. Notice that it still does not read like a polished paragraph. THAT IS OKAY. We're not done yet. Our next step will be to add setting, but both that and the final step in this Balanced Writing Process will take place in Part 3.

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