Editing Fiction

    Today my guest is fiction editor extraordinaire and award winning blogger Helen Ginger. Helen teaches public speaking as well as writing and marketing workshops. In addition, her free ezine, Doing It Write, which goes out to subscribers around the globe, is now in its twelfth year of publication. You can follow Helen on Twitter or connect with her on Facebook and LinkedIn.

    Helen is the author of 3 books in TSTC Publishing’s TechCareers series. She’s also an Owner/ Partner, Webmistress and the Women’s Marketing Director for Legends In Our Own Minds®. What she gets asked about most often are her three years as a mermaid at Aquarena Springs. Swimming with a shimmery tail, picnicking underwater, performing synchronized ballet, blowing air bubbles … all year round, even in the winter.

    Comment on this post through August 24 to be entered to win Helen’s critique of the first 50 pages of your manuscript.

    Today Helen is going to share with us her unique method of editing and coaching that makes novelists better writers.

    Helen Ginger: editing

    What’s the most common mistake you see in manuscripts?

    Overuse of the passive voice. Most often, that involves the word “was”. For example,
    I was going to the store when I was waylaid by my neighbor who was out walking the dog. You can change that so it’s more active, so it draws the reader into the immediate scene: On my way to the grocery store, a neighbor and her pony-sized Lab stopped me so she could replay last night’s church supper and her dog could maul my purse.
    Active verbs entice writers to paint a picture, a visual for the reader. It also tells us more. She’s not just a neighbor with a dog. She’s a church-goer. She’s talkative. She has a huge dog. Her dog is either not trained well or is very friendly and a connoisseur of leather.

    Usually when I edit, I change some of the passive voice into an active voice as examples, but I don’t do them all. Instead I leave a comment telling the author to work on getting rid of the passive voice, whenever possible.

    But doesn’t an editor correct the manuscript?

    Isn’t that what she’s paid to do?

    The writer pays me to edit, yes. If I correct everything, then the writer doesn’t get the chance to learn and practice better writing. And the next book will have the same mistakes and the writer will have to pay to have those mistakes corrected. When I work with a writer, I don’t just read the manuscript, make edits, send it back and move on. Sure, I’ll work on another writer’s manuscript while the original writer is revising. When the first writer is done, she can send it back to me for a second read or a third. By the time she writes another book and asks me to edit, she and I know she’s a better writer. Because of that, I can lower my rate for her because I know editing her book will take less time. This is why an editor who coaches ends up being more valuable than an editor who does all the work. It’s also the kind of editor you’ll encounter if you work with a publisher.

    Another reason why I don’t rewrite all mistakes is because I am not the writer. What I envisioned when I read — I was going to the store when I was waylaid by my neighbor who was out walking the dog. — may not have been what the writer saw in his head. He may have been thinking of a drinking buddy walking a miniature Schnauzer. An editor doesn’t rewrite the story. She works with the author to improve it and get it ready for publication.

    Where do you think you’re weak in your writing? Would you rather your editor corrected all mistakes or, instead, worked with you on the problem areas? Feel free to ask me a question of your own.

    Visit Helen at

    Thanks for visiting with us, Helen!

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    1. Helen, I’d much rather an editor pointed out an error and made me fix it myself. That way I learn and the next book edits will cost me much less because there’s less work for the editor to do as I become a better and better writer. Amazing what a difference getting that passive voice out of the way does to a sentence!

      Judy, South Africa

    2. Thanks for this post, Stephanie and Helen! I used passive voice when I was starting out, but it’s something I’ve honed out of my prose over the years (not to say the odd one doesn’t slip through my nets now and then!). It makes all the difference, especially in action scenes or moments of tension. – Jennifer

    3. Helen, sounds like you’re great to work with! I learned from my first book’s mistakes, but as my publisher’s editor will tell you, I also learned how to make new ones.
      Not entering for a free critique because my latest manuscript is already with my publisher.

    4. I vote for a dog with exquisite taste…
      Thank you, Stephanie and Helen, for posting what a good editor should do – instruct and guide, not rewrite the story in her own image.

    5. That’s an interesting insight into how a professional editor works! I think I’d prefer to be shown my mistakes and left to fix them myself – not just to learn from them but, as Helen says, to make sure the corrections reflect my original vision.

      I use passive voice a bit myself, and sometimes I’m overly ‘wordy’. I’m also unclear sometimes – my beta reader usually returns my novel chapters with lots of notes in the margin that go like this: ‘What exactly do you mean????’ ‘Where is this happening, on the train or in the car????’ The row of question marks is the one constant 🙂

    6. Great point about the writer needing to practice good writing and learning from mistakes. Thanks for great insight into editing.

    7. I like that approach! It’s sometimes difficult to see the ‘little’ things (that are really enormous!) we need to do with our own work. Having a fresh set of eyes (especially when they belong to someone who knows what they’re doing!) is priceless!

    8. Stephanie – thanks for hosting Helen, my favourite editing, writing mermaid! Helen – this is helpful and I totally agree – I’m putting in edits from the person I engaged to edit my manuscript and it is great. Frustrating but great. I don’t think the comma stuff will ever stay in my brain, but there are many habits that I’ve cured myself of just by going through this process.

    9. I would love working with an editor like you, because I definitely want to correct my writing mistakes.

    10. Hi everyone. Please overlook any mistakes. My computer crashed yesterday and I’m typing (or pecking) on an iPad.

      Ellen, I also edit for my husband sometimes and I hand things back to him and say, I haven’t a clue what you’re trying to say here.

      Everyone uses the passive voice. It is near impossible to get rid of it all and I’m not sure you’d really want to do that. But too much hurts your story telling. So I encourage authors to change as much as possible. The active voice brings your writing to life.

    11. Helen’s method would be best for me. If I expect to retain the lessons, I need to be the one to apply them throughout the MS.

    12. This reminds me that there’s so much to learn about writing novels. That’s not a bad thing. I am concentrating on re-working my manuscripts so that the passive voice becomes lively. I appreciate Helen’s conservative use of the red pen and the reminder that it’s actually up to me, the writer who sees the scene, to make the changes that bring it to life.

    13. Oh, sure, I’d love for an editor to correct my mistakes and turn my manuscript into the perfect, best-selling novel…and then I’d wake up. I’d like to see where my weaknesses are, whether it’s pacing or misuse of a word (bring/take is a flub that I make because I can’t remember which goes where), or…? whatever I don’t see. Not to tinker with my voice, but to show me how to make it the best it can be.

    14. Thank you for sharing how you work. I believe any writer, who wants to be happy and pleased with their work, is constantly looking for ways to improve how they write. Just this brief insight opens me up to more ideas for my own work.

    15. I love that you’re thinking of the writer first and helping him to become better…instead of just making the corrections yourself. 🙂

    16. My big problem is filling my sentences with lots of prepositional phrases at the beginning and ends of sentences. Oops, I just did it here. I love the idea of being educated rather than just having the writing fixed even though it can be frustrating at times.

    17. Good points to ponder and put into practice. At least, if the editor is working with people who really care about becoming better at their craft, a teaching editor is a godsend. Working in a writing center at a university, I noticed a marked lack of interest in improvement. I’m amazed at the energy and commitment to excellence of this woman! Because of people like her, we all read better written books.

    18. Ii think having an editor who teaches verses “corrects” would be a wonderful experience!

    19. Fiction writers identify with their work much more personally than their non-fiction counterparts. Because of that, it’s hard for them to detach from their own words and give an objective assesment. An editor needs to help those writers deal with both structural weaknesses in the story arc and with the detail mechanics of word choice, grammar, and verb tense . At the same time, the editor must not destroy the writer’s voice. It’s truly a team sport.

    20. Thanks for another great post, Stephanie. Helen, I like your approach to editing as a collaborative effort and would appreciate working with someone like you. I don’t understand why the passive voice is with us always no matter how much we write (at least with me personally) and I like your views on this.

    21. I think that offering an active paraphrase of a sentence with the passive will catch the writer’s attention. And Ginger is wise not to spend her time, and the author’s money, in correcting or changing everything.
      I remember my 8th grade “grammar” teacher telling us that the first complex sentence form a child learns is the passive voice. Since the subject is rarely mentioned, it’s a way to shift blame!

    22. When I write, I have to go back through and do a check for the passive voice. You can’t get rid of them all, but the more active your words, the more you’ll draw in the reader. When I’m reading a book, I want to be right by the side of the protagonist as the action happens.

    23. I am writing a coming-of-age novella in the first person. The protagonist speaks in the past tense. Do I work on getting rid of the passive voice? After all, a youngster is telling her story and we all speak in a passive voice all day long anyway. It seems to me that what is most important is to not drop out of the protagonist’s point of view. I hope I don’t have to re-read Catcher in the Rye to find my answer to the passive voice question! Thank you.

    24. I’ve benefited from Helen looking at 30 pages, so I know how helpful her editing is. I love the coaching. My writing improved so much that I had to do a complete re-write. Almost done. Now when I use passive voice I find it when I read back over my day’s writing. I’m aiming for more improvement 😉

    25. I love the idea of coaching. If you fix it, the error just gets repeated. I have problems with passive and “to be” verbs.

    26. Peggy, does she speak in the past tense throughout the book? Are there places where she can speak in the present tense? Is it all her telling what happened in the past or does she have interactions with others in the present day? When she’s remembering, does she remember conversations, which would be in the present tense since she’s remembering them as they happened? Even in the past tense, look for ways to avoid the verb “was.” Instead of: On my way home, a small boy was on the side of the road and as I was approaching him, he threw a rock at my windshield. You could write: On my way home, a small boy standing on the side of the road threw a rock at my windshield.

    27. Hi Simon! I’m glad to hear you’re still working! Yay.

    28. Nice to see you over here, Helen. I especially liked the way you pointed out the difference between the way the writer would see a moment in a scene and the way the editor would. That is why I just offer suggestions to my clients, giving a few examples, but tell them that the final change is up to them. It is just important to somehow address the problem with the writing, whether it is using one of my suggestions, or coming up with one of their own.

    29. You bring out some excellent points. I like your method of not editing too much for the writer. As most teachers and parents know, the best way to learn is to do it yourself. You are so right that they will only improve by rewriting themselves. I respect your second point. You don’t know what they were trying to say. Your changes may make it a different scene or make the character a different person.

      One drawback of the self-publishing industry has been authors going to print without the help and expertise of a good editor. Unfortunately, that has resulted in books of lesser quality on the market. The reader looses because they have an inferior product. The writer looses because they don’t have the opportunity to learn and improve.

      If I were to become a writer, you are the type of editor I would want. Thank you for an interesting post.

    30. I don’t know what I love more: mermaids or editing advice. I always wanted to be a mermaid. Now I know that it’s possible. 😀 😀

    31. Such wonderfully informative posts this week. I’m really learning a lot that I can use in my writing. 🙂 I think I would prefer Helen’s way of working with the writer on problem areas. I agree that we will not learn if an editor does it all for us.

      Thank you for another great giveaway!

      FeedBurner subscriber.

    32. Excellent, Helen. I agree, passive voice is one of the most common mistakes beginning writers make. And we all still do it from time to time, so it helps to have someone else point it out! I enjoyed getting to “know” you better, Helen, especially your background as a mermaid!

    33. I appreciate the idea of making suggestions to correct
      writing rather than merely correcting it without offering
      a suggestion. Very good points to think about.

    34. I can see where mauling of a purse could make someone fairly active! J/K.. I look forward to learning more from your advice and subscribing to your ezine.

    35. I want to get rid of passive voice, adverbs, exclaimation points, typos, spelling errors, crying, you name it. My writing was fraught with Writing 101 nightmares, but I’ve been working on them. I’d like to move past these pitfalls and any others snaring me.

    36. Thanks Helen & Stephanie. I like your comment about editing and not correcting! …. I’m currently doing edits and I’m learning sooo much during this process. I’m getting the hang of the show and tell thingy! And I honestly had no idea I was able to use the work “look” that often in a small ms 🙂

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