Anatomy of an Edit
Why couldn’t someone show me how to rewrite my story exactly the way it should be? Here’s how I did it for another writer.
My novel — still a work in progress, but in the last steps of its journey — underwent several developmental edits by freelance editors who formerly worked at top New York publishing houses. The editors made suggestions, margin notes. What I really hoped for, and needed, as a longtime, published nonfiction writer (instead of “why don’t you” and “I suggest”) were rewrites of paragraphs; rewrites that would demonstrate exactly what I needed to do in order to improve the character development and other flaws the editors pointed out. Why, why, why didn’t an expert show me directly — so I could learn from their examples and continue in that mode. Well, that’s not the way it usually works.
I’m trying to develop a new paradigm.
Last week, I received a request to beta-read the opening chapters of a book by a U.K.-based aspiring novelist. Having now learned from the masters, I decided to rewrite his first two pages, to show him how, in my opinion, he might make his story more compelling.
Following, broken into sections, are the first two pages of his manuscript. I’ve included:
- The original draft.
- My rewrite.
- Comments explaining my general reaction and why the edits were made. Note: although I added details and dialogue, the edited manuscript is 300 words shorter, 694 from 976. I hope these examples, in this format, are helpful to you.
Here are the original opening paragraphs of Chapter 1, “The Invisible Man.”
Alcohol. On its own, it’s nothing remarkable: a few hydrogen atoms and one of oxygen held together by a couple of carbon bonds. A glassful left alone simply evaporates, leaving behind nothing but a very clean glass. Having said that, add a flame, and it can burn down the entire street. Even worse, add a human. My father was an alcoholic. My mother was one, too, and we’ll come to her presently. But let’s begin with my father’s story.
He knew all about her. He knew her name was Kate Daniels, that she lived at 14 St. John’s Street, that she was twenty-four years old and was born on the fifth of March. He knew her phone number, her hobbies, that she was unmarried and had no children, that her next of kin was her mother, who lived in Dorset. You see, my father was head of personnel and had access to the records of every person his branch of the civil service had ever employed. And he knew all about Kate Daniels. Or at least, he thought he did.
He, too, was single and had no children, and as far as he was concerned, this was grounds enough to pursue her. But there was a problem. It seemed he was invisible. Rarely did a day go by when he wouldn’t pass her in an office or corridor somewhere, and whenever this happened, he would adopt his cheeriest smile and make a point of giving her a pleasant nod of acquaintance, but she would pass him by without so much as a glance. No eye contact, no return smile, just a young lady with a perfectly painted face and in a pencil skirt and high heels passing with a sense of professional urgency in the opposite direction, always in the opposite direction. And this happened day after day for almost a year until my father convinced himself he was devoid of form and would visit the men’s room and stand before a mirror to confirm he did, in fact, have a reflection after all
The opening paragraphs, edited:
Albert Jones knew all about her. He knew her name was Kate Daniels, that she lived at Fourteen St. John’s Street, that she was twenty-four years old and was born on the fifth of March. He knew her phone number, her hobbies, that she was unmarried and had no children, that her next of kin was her mother, Sally S. Daniels, a hairdresser in Dorset.
As head of personnel at the Swindon Wilshire Office of Works, Mr. Jones was an expert on Miss Kate Daniels, marketing assistant. Or at least, he thought he was. After all, he’d pulled her file so many times the manila corners were dog-eared and the pages inside were smudged with his inky fingerprints.
Your story is engaging and appealing. However, it reads like a memoir or nonfiction magazine article. I suggest deleting the first paragraph. It’s a much stronger opening without it. Avoid generalities. Add characters’ names and a few telling details. The paragraph I deleted is nicely written. Consider saving it for the intro or jacket blurb.
The next two paragraphs of Chapter 1, original:
He, too, was single and had no children, and as far as he was concerned, this was grounds enough to pursue her. But there was a problem. It seemed he was invisible. Rarely did a day go by when he wouldn’t pass her in an office or corridor somewhere, and whenever this happened, he would adopt his cheeriest smile and make a point of giving her a pleasant nod of acquaintance, but she would pass him by without so much as a glance. No eye contact, no return smile, just a young lady with a perfectly painted face and in a pencil skirt and high heels passing with a sense of professional urgency in the opposite direction, always in the opposite direction. And this happened day after day for almost a year until my father convinced himself he was devoid of form and would visit the men’s room and stand before a mirror to confirm he did, in fact, have a reflection after all.
But knowing he was visible only made matters worse. If he were visible, why did she ignore him? He’d often seen her engage in idle chatter with other men. Why, she was quite possibly the most popular woman there. She certainly turned heads wherever she went. But why didn’t she notice him? He would while away whole evenings considering this question, but answers were never forthcoming.
The next two paragraphs of Chapter 1, edited:
He, too, was single and had no children, and as far as he was concerned, that was grounds enough to pursue her. But there was a problem. Hardly a day went by when she didn’t pass him in a corridor, high heels clicking. Every time he saw her, he’d adopt his cheeriest smile and give her a pleasant nod of acquaintance. But she never gave him so much as a glance. No eye contact, no return smile, just the young woman with the perfect face in the pencil skirt and high heels walking past, in the opposite direction, with a sense of professional urgency.
After almost a year of that, Mr. Jones began to think of himself as invisible. He would visit the men’s room, stand before the mirror, and confirm that he did, in fact, have a physical form, a reflection. So why did she not see him? He’d often eavesdropped on her making idle chatter with other men. Why doesn’t she notice me? he asked himself.
He would while away whole evenings considering that question, but even with a bottle of the best Scotch in hand, the answer was never forthcoming.
In general, the writing is wordy, with too much telling. Let the facts reveal themselves through the characters’ actions and words. Think carefully about your descriptions. ‘Perfectly painted face’ might suggest that Miss Daniels is a hooker rather than a corporate professional. There are too many long sentences. A few short, punchy sentences can liven up the style and add to the suspense. Break up your paragraphs, too. You told me that this story is pure fiction, not a memoir. I suggest changing every mention of “my father” to “Mr. Jones” (or another name you choose). You might want to reveal that the character is ‘your father’ closer to the end of a subsequent chapter, when it’s a surprising turn for the reader. The first paragraph, which I deleted, stated that the book is about alcoholism. Instead, insert details about bottles, glasses, sips, names of beverages and cocktails — the reader will figure it out very quickly.
The next three paragraphs, original:
And then came the Christmas party, a huge affair in which everyone and their nearest and dearest were invited. Director, graduate, or messenger, it mattered not; you were to come and bring anyone who mattered to you with you. My father went alone.
The evening wore on, and in those days, heavy drinking at the Christmas bash was expected of people. Essentially, going there to get drunk was de rigueur. And by then, my father was very good at getting drunk. He was also very good at appearing quite sober. He was standing with his back to the wall, one hand in a pocket and the other holding a glass of whisky, watching as couples danced to the music from the mobile disco. He was bored. This wasn’t his kind of thing, but he was expected to attend, so he did, but only through a sense of duty. He bided his time, one eye on the clock and the other on the ladies, waiting patiently until he felt he had stayed long enough and could go.
Another half an hour, he told himself. Then the quite unexpected happened. His secretary, Miss Caruthers, serious, intelligent, and a close confidant, was passing by, and she stopped to say hello. There was nothing unusual in that except she had Kate Daniels with her. Well, not wanting to let such an opportunity pass him by, my father took her hand, shook it, and asked her her name. Of course, he knew already, but there was a game to be played, and he fully intended to play it and win. This would prove harder than he’d imagined, though. Their brief, one-sided conversation consisted of him asking questions and her replying with single-word answers. This left him looking and feeling visibly uncomfortable, and it was obvious from her lack of return questions that she had no interest in him whatsoever.
Let Miss Daniels speak! Don’t just say that they had “a brief, one-sided conversation.” Let us hear it, including her single-word answers. Think hard about what Mr. Jones and Miss Daniels would say to each other in that situation, and use those words to reveal their characters. No need to describe Miss Caruthers here. This isn’t about her — yet.
The next three paragraphs, edited:
And then came the firm Christmas party, to which everyone and their nearest and dearest were invited. Director, graduate, or messenger, it mattered not; you were to come in your finest and bring everyone who mattered with you.
Albert Jones went alone.
All evening, he stood with his back to the wall, one hand in his jacket pocket and the other holding his gin and tonic, watching couples dance to songs from “Thriller” on the mobile disco. He stood and watched, one eye on the clock and the other on the ladies, drinking. At ten-thirty, he told himself, nothing for me tonight. In a few minutes I can go home. He was just about to drain his glass and put it back on the bar when his secretary came by to say goodnight. Kate Daniels was with her! What an unexpected, amazing opportunity!
“It’s such a shame I haven’t made your acquaintance,” he said, shaking Miss Daniels’s hand, blotting out the fact that he’d interviewed her eleven months before. He knew her name, of course, and much more, but there was a game to be played, and he fully intended to play it. And win.
“I’m Kate Daniels,” she said with a puzzled frown. Her eyes didn’t meet his.
“How are you tonight, Miss Daniels?”
“Are you enjoying the party?” He tried not to slur his speech. He was a master at getting drunk and appearing to be perfectly sober. Or so he thought. After all, everyone at the party was drinking.
The last paragraphs in the chapter, original:
Before long, she noticed another man. She called out to him, raised a hand, and rippled her fingers. Unsurprisingly, he broke from his group and started towards her.
Most men would have accepted their loss and left, but oh no, not my father. Inside, he was fuming — she smiled at this other man, her eyes sparkling and she inhaled deeply to accentuate her chest. So, she had plenty of time for this man yet none for him. And as this man crossed the floor towards her, the alcohol spoke for him, and he leaned to her ear and heard himself ask, “What are you doing tomorrow night?”
Certainly, he was under the influence. In reality, my father was a quiet, often painfully shy kind of character. Had he been sober, he would never have asked the question. But as can be the case with alcohol, the words bypassed the editorial desk of his brain and came straight out. Nothing, though, could have prepared him for her answer. He was expecting a run-of-the-mill sidestep such as “I’m washing my hair” or “I’m mending my bike.” But never would he have expected such a reply as hers. She turned to him, looked him up and down as if they’d never met before, and said, “I’m going to a séance. Why?” And before my father could respond (and let’s face it, what kind of response is there to an answer like that?) the other man slipped an arm around her waist and led her away.
The last paragraphs in the chapter, edited:
Her eyes began roving around the room.
Mr. Jones tried to regain her attention. “That’s a lovely dress you’re wearing,” he said, filling his voice with all the holiday cheer he could muster.
She raised a manicured hand, rippled her fingers, and called out, “Yoo-hoo, Harry!”
Harry Smith, director of marketing, broke from his group and started walking towards them.
Most men would have accepted their loss and left. But no, not Mr. Jones. What a bloody insult! She smiled at Smith! She has time for him, yet none for me! Aided by five gin and tonics, Mr. Jones leaned in close to Miss Daniels’s ear and whispered, “So, what are you doing tomorrow night?”
“I’m going to a séance,” she replied with a coy half-smile.
Before Mr. Jones could register his surprise, Harry Smith slipped an arm around Kate Daniels’s waist and led her to the dance floor.
Between chunks of dialogue, describe what each character is doing at that moment. You can include interior thoughts, italicized, in the present tense.
If the fact that she’s going to a seance is the punch line (after all, he knows “all her hobbies,” and now she reveals that she’s into paranormal stuff), give that story beat more weight.
Who is the other man? What makes him attractive to her? Is it just his superior position, or something else? Give us a hint. That little bit of dialogue and action, rewritten by you, can tell us a lot about all three characters.
I’ve read more of the story, of course, and do feel ‘your father’ would have long ago been fired, given the amount of drinking and obvious alcoholic behavior you describe. First, you have to show us how good he is at hiding it, and then, little by little, show that he can’t hide it any more… and the consequences.
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The author’s response:
Ellen, you’ve shown me the vast scope for improvement that’s required to bring this manuscript up to a professional standard. It’s clear to me it’s far from finished and there is a great deal of work yet to done (which is embarrassing because I’ve already submitted it to ten different agents — no wonder they’ve been in no hurry to get back to me.)
I’m surprised all that none of this addressed by my editor. I paid him nearly $1000 and he simply took what I had and edited it for spelling, grammar, sentence construction and the like.
If you haven’t already, perhaps you should consider a career in editing? You make many valid, useful and constructive points: exactly what people are looking for in a second pair of eyes.
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A career in editing? Yes! My approach: Instead of ‘just’ making suggestions, I will provide Medium writers with a sample rewrite of their first chapter.