Wednesday, July 14, 2021

BACK TO BASICS: Editing to Match the Story

This is the kind of post we can all use at times.

Few authors pen a masterpiece.

Fewer yet pen a masterpiece with no need of edits.

But when you're a new writer, the questions of what to edit, how to edit and when to edit are totally legitimate. Because you don't know what you don't know.

So let's start with my way (which I stole from Margaret Daley because it made sense to me and she's a prolific author of great stories... and she worked full time for decades while writing, and I like that kind of tenacity.)

1. Start your story. Write a few chapters. Describe your characters, get to know them, figure them out. Get to a grabs-your-attention spot now that you know your hero/heroine/protagonists and/or antagonists...

And begin there. 

Yes, you heard me. Set aside those initial getting-to-know you chapters and drop your reader into the action. I know, it's not how you learned it in grammar school with Miss Brown, but trust me, guys and gals: Miss Brown won't be seeing this and you want that editor hooked, hooked, hooked. (That's if you're aiming for traditional publishing. If you're going indie, it is just as important to hook the reader the same way. If you don't, they can click out of your book in a heartbeat and be reading someone else's story... edits matter. Do not sell readers short... they don't like that and they will let you know it.)

So now you know where your story starts. You've gotten to know your characters. I'm a "Pantser", I do minimal prep for my story because I'd rather see it come alive daily, so I'm going to talk from that perspective, but friends, EDITS ARE EDITS.

They are needed.


And like chocolate ice cream, they are good for you because you need to learn/see/spot your own weaknesses.

2. Do you mess up timelines? 

Do a chart that tells when important things take place for backstory or historical segment for easy reference. Keep it open as you work.

3. Do you overuse body parts? I saw a reader complaining about so many "He sucked a breath through grated teeth" or something like that. 

Oft-used phrases become annoying in genre reading, mostly because they fit and they're easy.

But there is a problem with expression vs. simple expression and it's kind of like a really good dance... change the tempo, change the moves, change the angles, change the rhythm... and end on a good note! 


Those closing scenes, from black moment on, carried your emotions on a roller coaster ride of why nots and what ifs, and that's what great edits can do: They take your reader on that ride because that's what a great story does... (having just returned from an amusement park and roller coasters, I can attest to this!)

Expression vs. simple expression is often about timing. If you overuse either maneuver it sounds unnatural so I pick and choose where I'm going over-the-top with descriptors. And I often do that in dialogue because old ladies and young children often talk that way. Here's an example:

The sun set.

She didn't move. Didn't sigh. Didn't let one tear fall onto the over-washed farm shirt she'd been wearing all day.

It was over.

She knew it. Understood it. Had expected it, even, but now--

Reality had taken it's shot and struck out like Casey at the bat and she was left to pick up the pieces. Again.

Ruthy explanation: The setting of that scene makes the scant description come alive in the reader's mind. The starkness offers the picture without me using too many words. 

Here's a different sunset scene:

Layered brilliance lit the western sky with shocking tones of gold, peach, orange, pink and red bordered by a thin splash of green. So thin she almost didn't see it.

The green hugged the horizon like a summer stole before the brighter tones overtook its subtle grace, shrouding it from view. Or maybe they didn't blanket the green. Maybe the power of their glorious salute to day's end sucked it up like a sponge seeking water. Stone-gray wisps filtered eastward, like sashes on a little girl's dress. 

She didn't live for sunsets, but the woods surrounding her tiny home were thick enough to make them a rarity, so today's fiery show drew her in. She could live here if she made that choice. Here with the beauty, the opulence, the gorgeous home, the stately cliffs reaching down, down, down to the sandy beaches below. Here where her heart resided with his. With him. How she wished it were an option.

It wasn't. She knew that.

He didn't.

But as the warm glows of the sinking sun faded to obscure shadows of what had just been, her hopes sank with them. Not her resolve.

She knew her duty. Knew where she had to be.

Now she had to tell him. Tell Carrick. Make him understand. 

He wouldn't. Couldn't. He believed that love conquered all and what he couldn't conquer with love, he'd conquer with might and he'd proven that, time and again but this time...

She stood and brushed grains of sand from the folds of chiffon.

This time she had to face the demons of the past alone and she'd do it because she'd either succeed--

Or die, trying.

And she was okay with either scenario.

Edits aren't just about changing words, slicing and dicing, and strengthening your story's arc. Sometimes they're about making the scene fit the story, the moment, the emotion. If you mess with the emotion of the moment, the scene or the story by giving the readers too much or not enough, it feels wrong, and that's what your edits need to avoid: You don't want your story to feel "wrong"... 

I liken great storytelling to beats of music. When the music works for me it's because the tune and the lyrics and the harmony all feed the moment, making it come alive.

Zach Williams and Dolly Parton's duet on "There Was Jesus" is a perfect example of that... The fact that you can see their breath in the cold barn only adds to the pathos of the song.

There Was Jesus official video here...

As is her partnership with For King and Country on "God Only Knows" that added a layer of absolute pathos to a song that was already wonderful, lifting it to beyond wonderful status.

God Only Knows video with For King and Country and Dolly Parton here...

The two compilations have inspired a new series in my head, a beautiful series of second chances, rough times, bad choices and absolute deliverance, the kind only God can give because humans are so very narrow. 

When you edit, bleed emotion. Choose words with care, not abandon. And don't be afraid to do it again and again because getting it right isn't just your responsibility... it's your duty to the beauty of story.

Somewhat bossy and always opinionated, award-winning and bestselling author Ruth Logan Herne has over 60 novels and novellas in print with over 2,000,000 in sales so she's pretty sure she's smart but equally sure that she doesn't know everything about publishing and/or writing so that's why she loves chatting it up with aspiring authors and industry pros over here in Seekerville. Friend Ruthy on Facebook, visit her website and email her at (where yes, she actually reads and answers her own email.... happily!) 


  1. Hi Ruth:

    I think your editing theory is like the Goldilocks theory, 'not too hot, not too cold, but just right' which we also love in philosophy. The same theory was dressed up to be called the 'Golden Mean'. But not exactly. Not all that glitters is gold. There is a time for moderation and a time for excess and a time when less is more.

    I just wish Dolly would come to terms with growing older. I suspect that there is a wee bit too much editing. :()

    1. Vince, good morning! And that gal can do anything she wants because I love, love, love her... such a big heart! A giving spirit. And so crazy talented in her seventies.... she carries those notes and runs as if she were twenty-five again. I find that so amazing and inspirational.

      And you know what she says... It takes a lot of money to look this trashy! :)

      She's one of my all-time faves.

      Her and Reba.

      I love women that take on the world!

  2. These are wise words--about being wise! As always, you give us a lot to think about. I seem to be in perpetual draft mode, but when I actually buckle down and start to edit, this will help a lot!

    1. Glynis, hey! Good morning! And sometimes we have to get our "sea legs" under us, right? And our timeline isn't anyone else's affair, so you do you.... just don't quit! Rewards definitely favor the ones who stay in the game, sweet lady!

  3. I'm working on revising and working on scenes and this will be helpful to keep in mind. And I love Dolly Parton. She is such a giving person and so humble.

  4. Great post on editing! Along with those oft-used phrases are pet words. I have to watch out for those also!

    1. Sally, I think we all do but thank heavens for editors... they catch even more!

  5. I love that those two songs have inspired a new series, dear Ruthy! Looking forward to reading it when it comes to fruition :)

    1. I love being inspired by music, Carrie. Sometimes a four-word phrase becomes a book in my head and it unfolds as it comes to me. The brain is an odd and marvelous thing!

  6. Two of my favorite things are music and books, and I thank God I can still see and still hear! I also love Dolly Parton! She has the "guts" to stand up to her critics and keep on, keein'on!


If you have trouble leaving a comment, please "clear your internet cache" and try again. You can find this in your browser settings under "clear history."