I’m five chapters short of the finish line. I’m ten thousand words short of the finish line. Small problem. Each chapter is supposed to be roughly three thousand words. So by the time I’m done, I’ll be five thousand words over.
Big deal huh. Whats the difference between one hundred thousand words and one hundred and five thousand words in the grand scheme of things?
Well! Word counts matter. Of course, if you check three different websites, you’ll get three different lots of advice on how long your manuscript should be. I’ve found the best one is this one. Tameri puts a novel at between eighty and one hundred and fifty thousand words, and a novella between twenty thousand and forty thousand words.
My first novel was 69,996 words. Yes. I know the exact number. Because I edited that within an inch of its life. This one is a bit more involved, hence the larger word count. Its not War and Peace, but its not short either. One hundred thousand words was what I thought was reasonable for this one.
Which brings me back to the big question: What’s so bad about an extra five thousand words?
The answer: nothing major, but there is something seriously wrong with a manuscript that hasn’t been scrutinised within an inch of its life and edited down to the wire. Hence the goal. I need to trim five thousand words at least. To do that, I need an editor! Now, there are a few stages of editing. All of them have different and specific roles. I’ll talk about the structural edit in this post! Copy editing and proofreading will be separate – and you better bet they are separate! Biggest pet peeve of mine is when people offer to proofread to correct spelling and grammar. That’s not actually what a proofread is!! That’s what a copy edit is, and there is MUCH more to it than that.
Anyway! Rant over. Here are the big rules of the structural edit.
Don’t do it all yourself. Have someone with a critical-analytical eye look over it. Terrifying? Yes! But so is presenting your book to the world, so you are best to do so when you are confident that its the best it can be. This first stage is called the structural edit. You want this editor to look for a few things in particular.
– Pace: Does the book rush in patches? Does it drag in patches? Are their patches where it is super dialogue-heavy and boring? Are the action sequences too slashy-slashy punchy-punchy, therefore at risk of boring the reader or making them switch off? These are the pace questions you need to have asked.
– Consistency: Are the chapters all similar lengths? You can check this by page counts, but basically you don’t want one chapter to be three pages long, and the next one thirty. Another little consistency issue is numbering. Do you write them long form (one hundred thousand) or short form (100,000). What do you capitalise? What don’t you capitalise? That sort of thing. The copy editor will pick this up, but keep an eye out in the early stages too.
– Repetition: This is a big one! Have you repeated an introduction of a character? Or the introduction of a theme? Do it once, do it well, don’t go over it. You have to trust your reader. Another repetition issue is descriptive words repeated in the same paragraph. Change it up! If something is ‘poignant’ in one sentence, it needs to be ‘thought-provoking’ in the next sentence, not ‘poignant’ again (for example).
– Expressive Repetition: Another big repetition issue is analogy! I read a book where the main character had one way of expression emotion: her stomach. “My stomach winged/pinched/lurched/twisted/etc.” At the end of the book, I was so frustrated! I was like “You don’t have a hero here! You have an Irritable Bowel Syndrome sufferer!!! Ugh!” But this had an effect on my writing. My editor came back to me and said “You’ve been so concerned about not giving your character IBS, that you’ve given him dental issues. He’s always clenching his jaw, gritting his teeth, etc.”
Ooops! Best change that one before I drive my readers nuts.
– Order: This was an issue I hadn’t even thought of until I had my first structural edit done. The order in which you introduce characters is important. I had introduced “Seth” by name only and mentioned him three times before he became “Seth Truman” with a back story. It needed to happen in the right order. He needed to be introduced first. The back story can come out over time, but its weird when there is suddenly a surname when he’d been just Seth for many chapters!
– Voice: Does your narrator sound like a wizened ancient being in the beginning only to sound like a teenibopper in the middle? This needs to get sorted. Does your point of view jump all over the place, losing the reader? Do your characters have distinct and vivid voices, or are they all blurring in together? Are their characters unique and vibrant?
The structural editor needs to have the power to say to you “Delete this substoryline. It doesn’t work.” Or “You don’t need chapter nineteen. It drags.” Their job is to make sure this thing works. If there is a section that doesn’t, it needs to go. Yes, I know it hurts. But take courage. Hear the feedback. Its better in the edit than on Amazon reviews!
At the end of the day, everything an editor gives you is a suggestion. Its up to you as the author to decide what you take on board and what you don’t, but its important to listen with an open mind. In an age where the power doesn’t belong to big publishing houses anymore, and the market is flooded with self and hybrid published books, quality is what makes a book stand out. This is how you do it.
And by that I mean, stay sane while you edit! Remember, its easier to critique than to do. No matter how much red pen is on your manuscript when you get it back, remember you where still awesome enough to actually write the thing! Thats something to be proud of!