Friday, January 23, 2015

The Editor's Lake

I’ve seen an excellent graphic floating around the internet that I wanted to share with all of you:

This graphic was made by Gabriela Pereira to illustrate the approach she takes to editing her manuscripts. From her original article:

     “I begin the revision process with the most basic points (character and plot) and then work my way to the nitty-gritty details (theme and language). This idea is based on Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, where you want to fulfill your book’s more basic and urgent needs first, then move on to the smaller components. This means focusing on your overall book first, then breaking it down act-by-act or scene-by-scene for more detailed revision.”

This is a great way to approach the editing process, and I hope it will be helpful to all of you as you’re revising your stories.

Now, several of the steps shown in the illustration are elements that I focus on here at the Story Polisher: narration, POV, tense, voice, description, dialogue, grammar, punctuation, spelling, and word choice. All of these fall into the category of writing that I call Prose. You’ll notice that most of them are quite high on Pereira’s pyramid, and I believe that she was right to place them there—the nitty-gritty details of prose are details that are usually best left until the meat of your work—your Plotting and Creativity—are more or less where you want them. In fact, if I were to make any revision to Mt. Revision, it might be to move the “Narration” step up under “Description” and “Dialogue.” For many people, details of point-of-view and tense will be best left until later in the editing game.

But it is important that all writers realize something: just because the elements of prose are small details that can be left until later in the revision process does not mean that they are less important than the meaty elements of your story that you’ll revise first. To explain why prose is so important, I have drawn up an illustration of my own:

This graphic illustrates the order in which an editor or agent will encounter the elements of your writing once you’ve submitted a manuscript to them. They’ll begin on the surface of the lake and slowly plumb more deeply into the waters as they read on. First, they’ll notice your prose: your grammar, punctuation, spelling, and word choice, your narration, perspective, tense, and voice, and the quality of your description and dialogue. Only once they’re past these layers will they be able to delve into character, plot, and world building, and only very deep into the story should they encounter the dark waters of theme.

Now, if the waters at the top of the lake are murky—that is to say, if you have poor grammar and spelling, if your story is riddled with perspective errors, awkward dialogue, and bland description—then few editors will dive deeper in to find the character development, plot, or world building. It’s not their fault; all those nitty-gritty details of prose are how story is conveyed. They are impossible to ignore. A writer who expects their story to be taken seriously despite its faulty prose is like a real estate agent trying to sell a stable but nauseatingly filthy house—it might be a good house underneath all the grime, but no one will ever see it.

So remember: when you’re editing, don’t slack off in the final laps. Pay careful attention to your prose, as it’s the first thing anyone will notice about your story.

If you’d like to read Gabriela Pereira’s original article on revision, head over to

1 comment:

  1. As an academic professional int he field of history, I find this article very helpful. My students often lament, "This is a History class, not an English class. Who cares if we write well?" This Editor's Lake is exactly why. I can't even get to your argument or theme of your paper for all the terrible grammar and poor prose! This is why you must write well, regardless of topic or field. If you want your ideas heard and understood, then communicate them well through good writing.