Ask the Editor: Barb Goffman

For our next Ask the Expert slot, we invited independent editor Barb Goffman over to share BarbGoffmanHeadShother insights and answers to our questions. Take it away, Barb!

Area of Expertise: Crime-fiction editing

How did you get started in this business?
I discovered in high school that editing others (through my school newspaper) helped me improve my own writing. You can spot problems in other people’s writing more easily than in your own, and–at least for me–having awareness of writing issues is a key to not duplicating them. I honed my editing skills while pursuing my masters degree in journalism at Northwestern University. In the early 2000s, I moved onto fiction (writing and editing), first in critique groups, then as a co-editor of the multiple award-winning Chesapeake Crimes series. Last year I decided to put my editorial skills to work full time, and I opened my own editing business, focusing on crime fiction.

What are three things we should know about your area of expertise?
A good editor will help an author: (1) make her story sparkle through enriched characters, setting, and plot; (2) improve her writing without impinging on her style; and (3) spot plot problems, such as holes, unanswered questions, and things that don’t make sense.
Is there a general characteristic that experts in this field all share?
Good copy editors value precision. Good line and developmental editors love a good story and enjoy helping authors prune and shape their manuscripts so they stand out from the crowd.

What are the top five errors that you see?
The top five errors, in no specific order:
1) Including too much back story too early in the book. With back story, it’s best to dole it out a little at a time, with each bit being shared only when it’s necessary to enable the story to proceed.
2) Providing too little information so that the reader is left confused. If a name is mentioned, for instance, some information should accompany that name so the reader Confusedunderstands who that person is. For instance, if your main character and her husband are arguing, and he storms out, saying, “I’m going to spend the night at Jane’s,” it’s important for the reader to know if Jane is his sister or his ex-girlfriend. (Unless your main character doesn’t know who Jane is, in which case she should yell something like, “Who the heck is Jane?”)
3) Riding the plot train, so determined to get to the story’s end that the author forgets to stop and let her characters react to events. Real characters react to things, through dialogue and/or internal monologue. Doing so brings them to life and lets them grow.
4) Telling too much. Writing “he looked angry” doesn’t let the reader picture what’s actually happening. Is his face red? Are his fists clenched? Have his eyes popped open so wide you’d think toothpicks must be holding them open? Take the time to show important things.
5) Having events happen or characters do things that don’t ultimately make sense. Sometimes authors write things because they’re exciting, such as having a business burn down or having the main character’s house be burglarized. But when you reach the end of the story, you realize that there was no reason the bad guy would have burned down that Red_Herringbusiness. As to the burglary, even if it was designed to be a red herring, the person who committed the burglary needed a good reason to have done it. Everything must happen for a reason. Everything that happens must be believable.

Is there a great idea you’d love to share?
If you’re copy editing or line editing your own work, you can easily get caught up in the story and miss problems on the page (typos, the use of wrong words, the overuse of certain words, unclear sentences, etc.). One way to avoid this problem is to take a chapter and throw the pages into the air. Then pick them up in random order and edit them in that order. Not only is throwing paper fun, but reading pages out of order allows you to focus on the words, not the story.

Readers: Ask Barb an editing question. Anything is fair game!

dontgetmadgetevenBarb Goffman likes her crime short and sweet. Well, maybe not that sweet. She’s the author of Don’t Get Mad, Get Even, a short-story collection published last year by Wildside Press. Barb won the Macavity Award last fall for best short story, and she’s been nominated multiple times for the Agatha, Anthony, and Macavity awards for her short fiction. Her next story to be published, “The Shadow Knows,” will appear in Chesapeake Crimes: Homicidal Homicidal Holidays coverHolidays, due for release on October 7th. Barb’s stories run from funny to dark, and from amateur sleuth to police procedural. To support her short-story habit, Barb runs a freelance editing service, specializing in crime fiction. She also serves as secretary of the mid-Atlantic chapter of Mystery Writers of America. You can reach her at GoffmanEditing <<at>> gmail {{{dot}}} com. Learn more at www.barbgoffman.com.

28 thoughts on “Ask the Editor: Barb Goffman

    • I came across that random-page idea accidentally, Sherry, after I one day dropped a short story and the pages scattered everywhere. Serendipity.

      As to contractions, if we’re talking fiction, use them all the time. You want the reader to not get distracted and pulled out of the tale. If all your characters started speaking as if they were in a formal setting, without any contractions, that could be distracting indeed. Have your characters speak and think how people speak–and that’s with contractions.

      Two exceptions:

      (1) You could create a character who doesn’t use contractions, perhaps to show that person is quite formal. But don’t do it with more than one person. Example: In Craig Johnson’s wonderful Longmire series, the character Henry doesn’t speak with contractions. But everyone else in the series uses them.

      (2) Occasionally a character may say or think something without contractions for emphasis. Example: Prosecutor to defendant on the stand: “You killed him, didn’t you?” Defendant: “No,” he said, his voice rising. “I most certainly did not.” The lack of contractions here works.

  1. Hi Barb. Thanks for coming by. I’m fascinated by the editing process. In the final throes, when the advice is something like “tighten this up,” how do you demonstrate to an author how you do that.

    • How to tighten? That’s one of those things (like writing) where it’s best to show, not tell, isn’t it? If I were your editor, I would give you examples of the things you do that you could cut to tighten up. Often people use certain words that you don’t need, such as “that.” Compare “I told him that he’s cute” with “I told him he’s cute.” The sentence works fine without the “that.” Qualifiers such as “very” and “just” also can often be cut without losing meaning. (They also tend to be overused.) You also may be able to get rid of a lot of “saids.” If two people are talking, you shouldn’t need said after each sentence, as it should be obvious who spoke. You want a dialogue tag every few lines so the reader doesn’t get lost, but not on every line.

      Now these are all small ways to tighten. You might also need larger-scale tightening. I recently pointed out to an author that she provided the same information twice in her book. Of course she only needed to say it once and needed to cut one of the paragraphs entirely. If you’re a person who goes on and on about setting or description or anything, you might consider if you can make your point with one or two sentences instead of a dozen. Some authors might have an issue with too much detail. If a character is going into a store, you don’t need to show her parking, and unhooking her seat belt, and grasping the door handle, and pressing it, and pushing the door open, and throwing her feet out, and grasping her purse, and standing up, and straightening her blouse, and closing the door, and focusing on the store, and then stepping toward it. As we’ve all heard before, leave out the boring parts.

      Hope that helps, Barbara.

  2. As a reader, I was nodding my head at your 5 don’ts. I’d add don’t change third person viewpoints at random because head hopping in the same scene is a big pet peeve of mine. Even though much of what I read is first person, I do enjoy multiple view point stories when it is done well. But being in a different person’s head every other paragraph really bothers me.

    Am I alone in that, or is it something else you try to help people with?

    • I do see a lot of POV problems in manuscripts, and yes, I do address them. If multiple points of view (POV) are used, I recommend not switching within a scene. It’s much easier for a reader to keep track of whose head he’s in if the POV character changes after a scene break or a chapter break. Remember, the goal should always be to keep the reader turning pages, not to distract them. (That said, there are authors who can switch POV paragraph by paragraph, but it is a difficult skill to master. Very few do it well.)

      Another POV issue I see often is a character reacting before something happens. Jane shouldn’t cringe from the tone John uses with her before John actually speaks.

  3. Barb, I love your advice about characters needing to take the time to react. I think that’s often overlooked and it makes such a difference in how much the reader cares about the story.

  4. Great post, Barb! I very much enjoyed it. And I’m so glad we have another savvy editor in our midst to call upon.

  5. Pingback: Links for writers. Also comics fans, moviegoers and musicians (#SFWApro) | Fraser Sherman's Blog

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