Ambit Creative
Adele Annesi

Adele Annesi is an award-winning editor and writer for global Web content and print publications. She is an editor with the IT analysis firm Gartner, Inc., and has worked as a development editor for Scholastic Publishing. She is also a fiction and nonfiction book editor. As a press correspondent and columnist, Adele has written for newspapers, magazines, blogs and literary journals, including Hotmetalpress, and Trillium. She won Poetic Voices of America’s editor’s choice award, and presented the innovative "Art of Editing in Writing" workshop for the Ridgefield Writes 300th Anniversary program. A nominated member of Who’s Who in America and Who’s Who in American Women, Adele is at work on a novel and several short stories. Visit my blogs, Word for Words, and Writing Linx or, see me on Facebook or LinkedIn

When Words Sing: Editing for Voice and Style

When I read for pleasure, I usually choose mysteries, well-written stories like Ellis Peters’s Brother Cadfael, set in England in the Middle Ages. I love the language, though I have to look up the occasional word (Peters, whose real name is Edith Pargeter, was a language scholar), and lose myself in her voice and style. Unfortunately, once the editor, always the editor, and I find myself mentally updating the text.

But I would edit Peters’s work differently than I would another writing style. Her voice in the Brother Cadfael stories is lyrical and should stay that way to match the period (medieval), setting (Great Britain), and subject (monastic life in a shire). Any changes to the text need to maintain the integrity of Ellis’s voice.

For example, here is an excerpt from A Morbid Taste for Bones: The First Chronicle of Brother Cadfael. “In this early summer of 1138 the fratricidal strife, hitherto somewhat desultory, was already two years old but never before had it approached Shrewsbury so closely.” To tighten the prose while retaining its essence, it could become: “By early summer of 1138, the erratic civil war had raged for two years, but never had it come so close to Shrewsbury.” Neither the information nor Peters’s tone has changed, but the prose is tighter.

Of course, Peters’s writing is fine as is, but the exercise illustrates the importance of precision editing—careful selection of one word or phrase to replace others. Writers can harm their work by overzealous editing, and one way to avoid this tendency is to write in the moment, suppressing the editing side of your brain, then put the work aside. In Revision and Self-Editing, James Scott Bell says, “A good rule of thumb . . . is write hot, revise cool.” The best time to edit is when the work has cooled—more than a week is good.

Before editing, consider the old journalism who, what, where, when, why, and how of your story. It’s best to have a complete picture of all six before you begin. Let’s start with the “who” of the story, the characters. Who are they? Besides the externals, what are their hopes and dreams? What do they long for but can’t have? Knowing your characters helps immensely in editing dialogue. In Getting into Character, author Brandilyn Collins says, “Communication often goes far deeper than words, flowing from the underlying meaning, or subtext.” As the writer, you must

know your characters well enough to edit their conversations to reveal who they are.

Next, what is your story about? What are its subject and theme? When editing narrative, it’s essential to frame the answer to this question in one sentence. In Writing the Breakout Novel, Donald Maass says, “. . . great fictional creations . . . express for us our greatest purpose and our deepest desires.” To edit your story well, you must know the essence of the story.

If I were a painter, I’d be a landscape artist because I love writing about different places, which is probably why I love to travel. Establishing a strong sense of place in a piece grounds readers in the tale and provides them with a feeling of having been there, wherever “there” is. To edit the “there” of your piece, you need to know the place, but you don’t necessary have to have been there. In a recent interview, Pulitzer prize–winning journalist-turned-crime-novelist John Sandford noted that settings don’t have to be exact, just “credible for that neighborhood.”

It’s also important to have a good handle on when the piece takes place, including location, geography, locale, season, and time of day. These details are important for two reasons. First, and most obvious, the information is part of the story. Second, it’s hard to layer a piece with underlying meaning unless you’ve thought these issues through. Like a Black Forest cake with its white and chocolate icing, layers of chocolate, cake and berries, you need layers to your story. Without these details, it’s hard to imbue it with depth. This is where motif (recurring salient thematic elements) and symbolism (investing things with additional meaning) come in. Seasons are especially useful, as in spring for renewal, winter for death, summer for the heat of passion, and fall for that ominous sense of “something wicked this way comes.”

Maybe the most important question to ask when editing is why make the changes? It’s helpful to have a sense of why the work needs fixing before you start. This will help you to know what to change and how much change is needed.

Editing Prompt: Return to a piece you wrote more than one month ago. Answer the journalism questions in as much detail as possible before going back to edit.