"The Complete Guide to Editing Your Fiction," Michael Seidman

Pros: Lots of helpful information; an editor’s-eye view
Cons: A bunch of little things that grated on my nerves
Rating: 3 out of 5

First posted 8/8/2002

One of the major components of consistently good writing is the willingness to edit and revise your work. Many novice writers, however, don’t understand the value and importance of the editing process. They skip it entirely, give it a perfunctory stab, or tell themselves, “that’s the editor’s job.” The truth is, editing is key to good writing. It’s often only during the revision phase that a work’s true beauty is brought to the surface.

Michael Seidman’s “The Complete Guide to Editing Your Fiction” presents a couple of major truths that many other books skip over or address in very brief form. Because of this, Seidman’s book is particularly valuable to novice writers who don’t yet understand the value of revision. However, also because of this, more experienced writers probably won’t want to pay full cover price for it.

All Writing Is Revision: Seidman’s best point is that all writing is revision. From the moment you conceive of an idea, then decide that no, it would be more interesting if this scene took place at night, or that character had a desperate fear of wasps – from that moment you are revising your work, even if you haven’t yet written a word. Why is this such a major and important point? Because it can make the editing and revision process seem much less foreign and threatening to those authors who don’t want to engage in it. Once you realize that you’re already doing it without realizing it, maybe you’ll be willing to do it deliberately as well.

Revision is Necessary: Seidman also makes a very good case, over the course of the book, for why you need to revise your work. If you can’t bring yourself to revise your work, you owe it to your writing to read this book and hear the other side of the argument. Listen to Seidman’s evidence and hopefully you’ll come to understand exactly why revision is a necessary part of writing, and one that you should engage in.

Every Word Counts: Every single word, sentence, paragraph, and chapter of your manuscript needs to serve a purpose of some sort. It would be hard to come out of this book without picking up some ability to look at your printed manuscript and evaluate the worth of each piece of it. While the previous two truths apply mostly to novices, this last one will be useful to many experienced writers as well. While we often know it on a surface level, it can be hard to incorporate and fully understand it. Seidman does a good job of getting it across in a thorough and lasting manner.

Hints and Tips

Seidman passes on plenty of specific advice as well as the basic truths. For example, he suggests that after you print out your manuscript and mark up changes, you re-type it into your computer (if you used a computer) rather than editing the pre-existing file. This gives you yet another viewpoint from which to evaluate your work.

Many of his tips have been presented in other books as well – marking up a printed manuscript instead of simply reading your computer screen; reading your work aloud; and so on. But he does present a few ideas I hadn’t seen elsewhere.

Seidman addresses everything from characters to dialogue, scenes, point of view, back story and detail, plots, openings, style, pace, genre, language, imagery, grammar, and so on. Seidman is primarily a mystery editor, so he includes plenty of information relevant to genre and category authors. Perhaps most useful of all, he includes a checklist for revision in the appendix.

So Where Did the Problems Come In?

I may have a little trouble explaining why I didn’t entirely like this book. Looking back at what I’ve just written, it sounds pretty good. Yet I came away from it with a dissatisfied, irritated feeling. I suppose it serves as a good example of the author’s argument that the small elements of a manuscript can make a large difference, even if they aren’t noted entirely consciously.

How to Write a Novel: Much of this book could really be presented under another title: “How to Write a Novel.” On the one hand this is entirely understandable and correct. After all, one of the points the author is trying to make is that every part of writing is also editing, and that when you revise you must look at every aspect of your work. On the other hand, there are plenty of “how to write a novel/short story” books already on the market. Sometimes Seidman addressed editing concerns in specific; at other times, it was hard to remember that this book was any different from all those others.

Bias: In some ways Seidman fails to exhibit some of the major biases I’m used to seeing in this sort of work, and that’s good. There are, however, tiny biases scattered throughout the text. They’re small, but they do add up. He assumes automatically that you’ll start with an outline (true for some writers and types of writing, but not for all). In one place he makes a statement about what a “sophisticated reader” would get out of reading a certain book (by implication, if you didn’t get it, you’re a bad reader?). Again, small things, but over time they add up.

Muddled Information: There are a couple of topics that perhaps should have been left for another book. Seidman’s discussion of which points of view are commonly used is strongly colored by his experience in the mystery genre (and self-contradictory in places); I also found the material muddled and difficult to make sense of. (I highly recommend Szeman’s Mastering Point of View instead if you can find it.) His material on metaphor and imagery is so abortive as to be almost useless – I recommend reading Rebecca McClanahan’s Word Painting instead.

Other Little Things: The example manuscripts take up a disproportionate amount of space in this book. I know the author felt them to be important, and to a certain extent I agree, but I feel he went overboard. He tacked material about endings onto the end of a chapter on “further revising,” which was confusing. And ultimately, for someone who talks about the importance of every last word, I felt he didn’t really do a good enough job practicing what he preached.

This certainly isn’t a bad book; Seidman writes well. But I can’t help feeling that someone who’s writing a book about revision and the importance of getting every word right had better write very well indeed! Take “Word Painting,” for example – there was no doubt in my mind at the end of the book that McClanahan knew exactly what she was talking about and practiced every last word of what she preached.

The Balance of It

Each problem mentioned above is small. Some are tiny and nit-picky. But they did all add up to leave me with a negative impression of what is otherwise a very good book.

I do recommend this book to novices who are not yet convinced of the value of the revision process (and who might not notice the really nit-picky problems). Give Seidman a chance to change your mind – it could help your career immensely. More experienced writers might prefer something along the lines of Self-Editing for Fiction Writers (perhaps combined with “Word Painting”) unless they can find “The Complete Guide to Editing Your Fiction” in the library or on sale.

Posted in Reviews, Writing

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