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In Part 1 of this blog series, I covered the types of editing and the first two steps in content editing.
In Part 2 I covered steps 3-4 of content editing. They also constitute the first half of the Balanced Writing Process. This is a system I learned from my editor Clint Johnson. View his website here.
In this blog I will continue the Balanced Writing Process. As a reminder, last time we started with the following paragraph:
- 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.
After we removed everything except the action (and dialogue if there had been any) in step #3, it turned into:
- Johnny cut through the park. He smiled.
Then in step #4 we evaluated and improved the remaining actions to try to capture a better idea of the point we wanted to make in the original paragraph. It turned into:
- 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.
#5 Add Setting
Think of setting as salt (or any other seasoning for that matter). A little bit can enrich the story, but too much ruins it. We don't want thick layers of setting. We want to sprinkle it in with purpose. Any time a piece of setting is mentioned, it should directly point to something about what the character is experiencing. Ten people could walk through a field and they would all see different specifics. What specific thing does the main character notice? Why? What does it tell about them?
Look back at the paragraph we have been working on. Evaluate how we can tell more about what Johnny is thinking by using the setting. At this point we are going to still avoid adding any specific thoughts he may have. Adding setting turns the paragraph into something like this:
- Johnny cut through the park, gripping his report card. He sucked in a breath and looked down at the row of A's on it for the twentieth time. The smile on his lips widened. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw a janitor sweeping up discarded cans, magazines, and other litter. He stooped to pick up a scrap of paper at his feet to drop it into the nearest metal trash can. Then Johnny squeezed the report card until his hand shook and walked on. He tipped his head back and smiled at the sun.
From the original paragraph to this one the specifics brought out in the setting have changed. That will happen as you look at what you need to convey as much thought as possible.
Go back through the chapter you have been editing using this process and sprinkle in setting. Remember, you can spend an entire volume on explaining every minute detail in just one scene--but it would be very boring. Readers want setting that helps move the story--not setting that gets in the story's way.
#6 Add Thoughts
Now we get to add thoughts back in. A thought is anything that another character can't observe. It doesn't have to be internal dialogue. If we have done an effective job with the actions, dialogue, and setting, we will not have to make bland statements that "Johnny was happy." If the reader can't figure that much out then take another look at the previous steps. You only need to add the thoughts to fill in the blanks. When we do that with the paragraph we have been working on together, we get:
- Johnny cut through the park, gripping his report card. He sucked in a breath and looked down at the row of A's on it for the twentieth time. The grin on his lips widened. Now he'd be sure to get the scholarship. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw a janitor sweeping up discarded cans, magazines, and other litter. That would never be him. He wouldn't be trapped like his parents were in their own dead-end jobs. Johnny stooped to pick up a scrap of paper at his feet to drop it into the nearest metal trash can. He squeezed the report card until his hand shook and tipped his head back to smile at the sun. Then he walked on. College was waiting.
That's it. There's no question that it takes time to do this process--especially when you have a whole book. But look at the progress we've made by comparing our finished product to the original paragraph (shown at the top of this blog). You might be arguing that you write better than the original paragraph that I typed up as an example. Great! Try using the Balance Writing Process on just one chapter in your book and compare the before and after of your own work.
As I'm sure you noticed, a few things changed as we went along. I did what I could in each step to smooth out the writing. The major addition was the janitor. To be correct, the people who clean parks are called grounds maintenance workers, but I thought it was more likely that Johnny would call the worker a janitor. In the original paragraph I didn't plan on there being a worker around--but I didn't exclude that as a possibility, either. Quite frankly, when I typed the original paragraph I didn't have any idea where it would end up. I added the grounds maintenance worker as a tool to help show the progression of Johnny's thoughts.
This is all still content editing. Don't get so caught up in the specifics on the page that you stop considering other ways to portray it. And I wouldn't begin to say that the way I changed the original paragraph is the only--or even the best--way to mold it. I'd be happy to hear from you if you take the paragraph through the steps above on your own and come up with something different. It'd be fun to look at what you do with it.
Once you have finished these 6 steps, you are ready to move on to line editing. We'll discuss that more in Part 4.