Tag: reading like a writer

Learning the Value of Editing from The Artful Edit, by Susan Bell

Learning to Edit with The Artful Edit, by Susan Bell

The Artful Edit: On the Practice of Editing Yourself is a craft book for writers who looove to write and haaaaaate to edit (double the vowels, for emphasis). This book is for writers who love the rush of creating, pulling characters and worlds and stories out of their brains, but aren’t so interested in the other aspects of writing. It’s also for writers who don’t think editing is necessary. They think their work is already good. And–I suspect most writers fit into this category–it’s for writers who are intimidated by the edit. They know they need to do it, because everyone says so, but they’re not sure the exact reason why (and definitely not sure how).

If this is you, you need to read this book.

My First Reaction, as a Reader

I expected The Artful Edit to be prescriptive do-this-do-that kind of book, but it isn’t. Instead, it is part strategy (what to look for in the macro vs micro edit), part case study (we see how Fitzgerald rewrote The Great Gatsby with help from his editor Max Perkins, including illustrative before-and-after examples), and part ode to the art of editing and masterful editors who’ve come before us (including a surprisingly interesting section on the history of editing since ancient times).

Overall, it succeeded in investing me in the importance of editing.

A warning, however: Read The Great Gatsby before reading this book. Otherwise it’ll feel like 215 pages of one of those conversations at a bar where the other two people spend an hour talking and “oh my god, remember when…?” about their favorite TV show–and you haven’t seen even an episode.

Don’t be that guy. Read Gatsby first.

The Artful Edit - Editing with pencil


After Some Percolating, as a Writer

“Students are generally taught to rely on others to see it on their behalf, and risk creating a dubious dependency.”

– Susan Bell, The Artful Edit

In other words, it’s up to us to edit ourselves. We must train ourselves to catch the majority of our grammar and spelling mistakes, sagging pacing, and limp characters. No finishing the first draft of something and immediately pushing it out the door to go on the agent or publication hunt. You gotta edit first.

As a heads up, this book did an excellent job convincing me that I should take editing seriously, but it did not provide much in the way of concrete strategies. That’s not what this book is for, so don’t go in expecting it.

Instead, here’s how you should read this book:


  1. The first time, read to soak up inspiration. Learn about how even the great F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote terrible cliches and lengthy, boring descriptions his first time through a draft. Get motivated and resolve to edit your work.
  2. After you’ve identified problem areas in your manuscript, skim through and reread those specific sections in The Artful Edit that would be the most helpful to the issue you need to solve.

Why the second read? I gained a whole new layer of understanding and skills from The Artful Edit when reading it a second time. By rereading only the sections that related to my current manuscript, I was able to read more more slowly and catch more.

And what are those specific sections in The Artful Edit?

While I do highly recommend reading this book all the way through once, for motivation and inspiration, here’s a quick list of the different skills that Bell covers in this book, if you’d prefer to just target your weaknesses.

Gaining Perspective

This section is all about how to step back from your work and literally get a different perspective on it.

Bell recommends:

  • print it out on paper
  • write by hand
  • don’t let too much time pass between draft and edit
  • or, walk away from it for a long time
  • read it out loud to people
  • change the font
  • write in a new place
  • let it gooooooo (*cue Elsa!)
  • don’t let it go yet
  • imagine your ideal reader
  • collaborate with someone else
  • hang it out on a clothes line or lay it out on your floor (who has this kind of space?)

Regardless of the method chosen, the goal is to find a way to look at your manuscript differently. Even employing a simple visual trick like changing the font or printing it out can help a writer see it from a fresh perspective–and have an easier time spotting the areas that need work.

The Big Picture: Macro-Editing

After gaining perspective, it’s time to change the things that aren’t working.

The macro-edit looks at the big-picture issues of a manuscript. While there are many things that could fit into this category, Bell covers:

  • Intention — the overarching aim of your work
  • Character — their palpability, credibility, and motive
  • Structure — rhythm and tension
  • Foreshadowing — writing a page-turner or deepening your theme
  • Theme — leitmotiv (thematic symbols “gingerly” sewn in)
  • Continuity of Tone

Bell walks us through each element above, and uses the revision process of The Great Gatsby as an example, showing us how Fitzgerald’s initial draft was lacking, where Max Perkins provided helpful pointers, and then what edits Fitzgerald made.

The Details: Micro-Editing

“The micro-edit is the once-over you give your text much more than once. You will likely encounter a greater number of errors than in the macro-edit, but they are often simpler to solve than macro-problems.”

The micro-edit looks at the small, line-by-line stuff. It “thrives on a writer’s ability to ‘read slowly'” and catch the details that would easily be overlooked in a swift, breezy read-through.

That includes:

  • Language – keep it fresh, precise, active, and real
  • Repetition – repeated words and expressions
  • Redundancy – expressed that thing more than once?
  • Clarity – do people understand what you’re saying here?
  • Authenticity – in image and dialogue
  • Continuity – in visuals and character
  • Show and Tell – cutting out summary
  • Beginnings, Endings, and Transitions

Interestingly, Fitzgerald was better at micro-editing than macro and so there were fewer instances where Perkins edited Fitzgerald by the line. Because of that, Bell was able to use examples from other writers and works to illustrate her points in this section.

Edit - just pencil


People tend to be naturally stronger at either the larger picture or the details. Macro-editing or micro-editing, but not usually both.

So when it’s time to edit our manuscript, we need perspective to see our work properly, and then we need to be honest with ourselves about which area is our weakness.

And then we we can’t run away from it.

“Now take your strength and put it on a high shelf. Concentrate on the kind of editing that isn’t easy for you, the kind you may even hate.”

This is how we become stronger writers–by being disciplined editors willing to face down and tackle our problem areas.

“The debate continues on whether you can teach someone to write; I know, unequivocally, that you can teach someone to edit.”

And with that, my dear writers, go forth and edit. You must. It’s an essential part of the editing process.

Uneven Character Development in The Shoemaker’s Wife, by Adriana Trigiani

Shoemaker's Wife Cover

I love reading a novel with an expansive timeline, showing us years of character development. And I love historical fiction. So I was ready to fall in love with The Shoemaker’s Wife, by Adriana Trigiani.

My First Reaction, as a Reader

I didn’t love it.

The first two thirds of this novel were my favorite. Trigiani captures the alpine slopes and rhythms of life in northern Italy with clear descriptions and beautiful imagery, and the story lines of Enza and Ciro’s respective starts in New York City–especially the Metropolitan Opera and Little Italy–snap with vitality.

*Per usual, there are some BIG SPOILERS ahead. If you haven’t read the book yet, WAIT!*

The story starts to lose momentum when they move to Minnesota. This is partially because their fate as a couple has already been determined, and their adventures are intertwined moving forward. I was always more invested in their individual lives than in their love story, way more interested in the ways they were kicking butt solo than in the “Will they get together?” question. In addition, Minnesota doesn’t feel as vivid, as if Trigiani has Italy and Little Italy in her blood but learned about Minnesota through secondhand descriptions.

And while Enza and Ciro’s love story does have beautiful moments, the novel’s true strength is in its other relationships–between family and friends. I teared up multiple times at different points in Ciro’s relationship with his brother, especially their poignant last scene. The nuns love for Ciro shines through in their actions. And Enza’s relationship with Laura is realistic and touching.

Shoemaker's close crop 2

After Some Percolating, as a Writer

I would come back to The Shoemaker’s Wife if I:

  1. Wrote a multiple perspective story and couldn’t tell why one character was stronger than the other.
  2. Needed an example of a novel with an expansive timeline.

Uneven Character Development in a Multiple-Perspective Novel

This novel has two main characters — Enza and Ciro. But overall, Ciro is a much stronger character and Enza feels one-dimensional.

How did this happen?

One Character Changes More. The Other is Too Perfect.

Ciro changed and grew the most, while Enza stays relatively stable in her wants and behavior.

Ciro is lovably imperfect, a good soul who makes a healthy, normal level of human mistakes as he grows up. He starts the novel as a mischievous ten year old and becomes a dreaming, scheming teenager who loves girls. Throughout his twenties, he has sex before marriage and enjoys his youth. He enlists in the army to fight in World War II to gain U.S. citizenship, and comes back conflicted about war, his country, and human nature. He makes mistakes throughout his marriage to Enza.

Enza, on the other hand, doesn’t seem to change as she grows up. She is loyal, helpful, and selfless as a ten year old girl, and she is loyal, helpful, and selfless as a 50-something year old woman.

She’s also too perfect. Throughout her entire life, her goal is to send money home to Italy to help her family build a home (that she’ll never see again), and there is zero resentment that she has to send money home, even when she’s living in terrible conditions, when she is poorly dressed at a party, or when she has to make decisions to work instead of enjoy her youth. Even during her twenties in New York City, she’s pretty tame. And then she forgives Ciro way too easily when he shows up on her wedding day (to someone else!). The most scandalous thing she does is break one man’s heart to be with Ciro. In the grand scheme of the book, that’s a “meh” flaw.

Because I can relate to Ciro’s imperfection more, I connect with him better. Enza is too sterile for me to love.

One Character Has Stronger Relationships

Ciro has the strongest relationships with other people.

Throughout the book, Enza remains relatively untethered, developing strong relationships with only Ciro and Laura. Even her relationships with her father early in the book or with Pappina later feel flat and insignificant.

Ciro, on the other hand, has incredible relationships with numerous people. Enza, of course. But also the nuns. His brother Eduardo. Even his relationships with Remo, his mentor shoemaker, and Luigi are stronger.

Strong relationships include conflict. If you’re close to someone, things aren’t going to be perfect all the time. Enza’s relationships feel fluffier, less deep, whereas Ciro’s relationships include conflict and go through different phases.

Shoemaker's close crop 1

An Example of a Novel with an Expansive Timeline

The Shoemaker’s Wife covers a lot of time and distance. It follows Ciro and Enza from age ten to well into their thirties (and Enza into her fifties), and from the villages of the Italian Alps to the tenement housing and theaters of New York City to the lakes of Minnesota.

I love novels like this. My favorite novel, Americanah, does it, Snow Flower and the Secret Fan does it, and Cutting for Stone does it. To name just a few.

I searched online (and the old-fashioned way, in my writing books) to find a way to describe this kind of timeline in a novel–one that spans decades of a character’s life, versus just a year or two. And I couldn’t find a term.

So I made one up myself.

Expansive Timeline — Refers to a novel’s timeline that spans an extended period of a characters life. Sounds cooler than “long timeline.”

You’re welcome to borrow it.

Expansive timeline novels require an even stronger handle on character development. A writer must be solid in each character’s personalities and motivations–because the book follows them for so long. In a novel with a short timeline, the writer can just say, “Hey, this happened in my character’s past, therefore she’s acting this way.” But in an expansive timeline novel, the reader SAW those characters grow up. They watched the character’s development as a human. And therefore, the writer has to be even more careful to craft a story with natural character motivations. If a character “wouldn’t” act that way, the reader will be the first to notice.


It all comes down to character development. Short timeline or expansive timeline, all characters must have well-solidified personalities and motivations. Otherwise the book falls flat.

Learning How to Write Place with Caravans, by James A. Michener

Caravans, by James A. Michener

In December, I was perusing my mother-in-law’s large bookshelves for a holiday read, and stumbled across Caravans, by James A. Michener. I’d heard great things about his ability to write place, and learning how to write place is on my (long) list of “Things I Need to Learn to Do Better as a Writer.”

Turns out, it’s both an excellent master study in how to write place–and a great adventure story!

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I Just Read – Emma: A Modern Retelling, by Alexander McCall Smith

An Adaptation of Emma, by Alexander McCall Smith

I picked up Emma because one of my major projects for 2018 is revising my current novel, a modern adaptation of Pride and Prejudice. So, naturally, to prepare, one of my main goals is to read as many Jane Austen adaptations as possible and take notes along the way. Read More