Three editor’s tools for writers
Did I put that big fight in the second chapter, or the fourth? The color of the antagonist’s eyes is an important clue, but what did I say it was? I used this compound word a ways back—is it one word, hyphenated, or two words? Answering to questions like these can be a time wasters and an imagination derailer when you are caught up in the heat of writing. But I have several tools, learned from my years of freelance copy editing, that can help to keep my novel manuscripts on track.
The first is chapter summaries. I start each one with the chapter number, title if I’m using chapter titles, and the page in the draft where the chapter starts. These are usually a single paragraph each, briefly saying who does what, when, and where in a chapter.
If your writing style is planning your plot before you write, these summaries may work better for you than outlining. They aren’t carved in stone, so after you’ve drafted or even revised a chapter, you adjust them to help you keep track of where your story has been and where it’s going.
If you are revising a whole manuscript, you may want to do “Save as” and give the new version a revision number, so that you keep a summary record of earlier versions of a manuscript as well as the newer version.
The summaries are also helpful when it’s time to write your synopsis. You could do that by doing “save as”; deleting chapter numbers, titles, and pages; deleting details that aren’t necessary in a synopsis; and then uppercase the first appearance of each character name.
My second useful editor’s tool is a character list. That’s a consecutive list of every character in the manuscript, in order of first appearance. The way I do it is to start with the page number of the first character’s appearance, and the name in bold. Then I name each physical and character trait mentioned for them on that page.
After a line space, I do the same for the next character, and the same again for the next. When, on a new page, a new trait is mentioned, I go back to the correct character, add a semicolon and new page number, and give that trait. (Much easier to do in a computer document than a pen-and-paper list!)
As I do this, I am able to see, for any given character, if I have contradictory traits. If a heroine changes hair color, she’d better have had a session with hair dye! In my copy editing for publishers, I have saved characters from unintentional name changes and other such disasters. If you can do that before you submit a manuscript, you can avoid annoying your agent/editor/copy editor !
Third tool: style list. This is where you keep track of whether you want to call that piece of furniture a book case, a book-case, or a bookcase. (It’s bookcase, one word, as per Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, Eleventh Edition, which has been the preference of most publishers I’ve dealt with.) And for the record (since a lot of your characters may carry them) book bag stays as two words, because it’s in neither the Eleventh nor the Unabridged.
Also on the style list should be any proper nouns—character, place, and brand names. This list is also best done on a computer, either alphabetized as you go, or afterward using Word’s A-Z sort capabilities.
There are other tools I use as a copy editor, so obvious that I assume you already do too: my dictionaries, style books, and the Internet. Add to these your chapter summaries, character list, and style guide, and they’ll help you keep your manuscript in better, more publishable shape.
Johanna Bilbo Staton, known to everyone as Jody, is half English, half hobbit. She was a circus aerialist in high school and an English major at Rollins College, took the Radcliffe-Harvard Publishing Procedures Course, and got her masters in magazine journalism at Northwestern University. She came to Philadelphia as an editor at Jack and Jill magazine, married Rich Staton, and moved to New Jersey. When Christopher and Valerie came along, she switched to freelance copy editing, which she still does. She writes mostly middle-grade fiction, usually about animals, and either history or fantasy or both.
Thanks Jody for laying out the writing tools you use now from being an editor.