Editing Trauma

Writing, by nature, is emotional. Truly wonderful pieces of writing always come from a genuine and engaged author. Authors and their writing are so intertwined that it is nearly impossible to edit your own book—which is why editors are so integral to the publishing process. William Faulkner said, “In writing, you must kill all your darlings.” A good editor knows that this process is sometimes painful to the author because their words are their babies. How, then, is an editor to approach nonfiction trauma manuscripts when an author’s words are their nightmares? When submitting a story that includes traumatic events, especially real-life events, an author bares their soul on the page. It can be a form of therapy for some; a way to get their truth out to the world. But it still needs to be edited if it is going to be a published piece of work.

Publisher and founder of Forest Avenue Press, Laura Stanfill, shared her experiences giving and receiving feedback about traumatic events with me. There are ways we can edit trauma with kindness and without lowering our standards. Based on our chat, I’ve divided this post into two sections: the mechanics of a trauma scene and what to look for, and how an editor should deliver feedback on a traumatic scene.

The Mechanics: An editor must consider how the traumatic event or scene fits within the narrative structure of the story. According to Stanfill, sometimes a trauma scene can be really “loud” if it follows a key plot point. It can overshadow other events that the author might not intend it to.

Another consideration is the pacing of the scene. Does it match what is happening to the character? As an author herself, Stanfill said that pacing is hard because memory can slow or speed things up, and the velocity of the read needs to guide the audience through a similar pattern in order to feel authentic.

Details are an important factor as well. There needs to be enough detail to convince the reader that it is the author’s story to tell, but they also need to mind the “gap” that trauma creates in a person’s memory. Too confident of a retelling can feel like someone else’s trauma or, even worse, trauma sensationalized. There is also the question of chronology. How an author chooses to tell the story can make it feel truer to the experience because memories can sometimes come through in fragments and flashes.

The Delivery: An editor needs to have some sort of trust built between them and the author before offering feedback on their darkest secrets. The author needs to feel like they can be open and vulnerable throughout the process in order to add what details may need to be added, or to cut details that could stir legal trouble. This honesty and vulnerability happens when both the author and editor start from a place of respect.

As an editor, Stanfill starts building that trust and respect in the acquisitions phase by telling the author everything she loves about the manuscript. Then, during the developmental editing stage, along with notes on structure and plot, she reiterates how she sees the book as a whole and what positive qualities she sees. As far as what doesn’t work, Stanfill shared that she makes notes in her margins to look back on when giving feedback. This is to make sure it is consistent, author-centric, feeling-driven (concerned with how the writing makes her feel) feedback. Stanfill added that she gives notes—through email or sometimes a phone call—with an awareness of the toll dredging up old, repressed memories takes on the author.

Sometimes it’s as simple as saying: I see you. This doesn’t work. This does work.

What Happens In Between: Line Editing for Manuscripts

So it’s not a developmental edit?
No. It’s not. While developmental editing does look at language as a function of the entire manuscript, its primary focus is on larger structural functions of the story like timeline, pacing, character development, and authenticity. Developmental editing is taking a macroscopic look at the book, while line editing is applying a mesoscopic (middle or intermediate) lens to the content.

And it’s not a copyedit?
Nope again. Copyediting is the final microscopic lens of editing. Copyedits correct errors in spelling, punctuation, grammar, fact-checking, word usage, and style. A copyedit wants consistency, and it seeks to eliminate glaring language errors that will distract readers and pull them out of the story.

What might a line edit look like?
There might be some elements of both developmental editing and copyediting involved in a line edit, especially because the goal of this type of edit is to upgrade the language for clarity. A reader will not achieve that blissful feeling of sinking into your text if it has glaring inconsistencies. So along the way, line editors will likely address any or all of the following elements:

  • Words or phrases that could be changed to enhance meaning
  • Suggestions for improving scene pacing
  • Redundancies from repeating the same information in different ways (you’d be surprised how often authors don’t trust their readers to retain important details)
  • Scenes with confusing or slow-paced action sequences
  • Bad transitions, especially between chapters
  • Shifts in tone and awkward phrasing
  • Bland or uninspired language
  • Confusing breaks in narrative
  • Overused or superfluous words and phrases
  • Run-on sentences
  • Opportunities to tighten up paragraphs or dialogue (especially by eliminating filler words like that, can, feel, and see)

Why is it important to know the difference?
You might be looking to hire a freelance editor for a manuscript, and they’ll likely be versed in a wide variety of editorial services. You need to know the right one to select for your manuscript and how to most effectively communicate your desires. Of course, any freelance editor worth their salt is going to help you select the right service from the get-go, but arming yourself with knowledge even before approaching a contract is highly suggested.

Or, if this is your first time stepping into the publishing world with a manuscript, folks are going to be using these terms to inform you of the next steps in their process. And once any type of editing is done, it’s up to the author to incorporate, apply, or revise. Some edits are much more time-consuming than others, and line editing falls into that middle territory. You’ll need to parse through all the individual edits, but it’s not nearly as complicated as a developmental edit. On the other hand, you likely won’t just be clicking “accept all” for all the spelling and punctuation errors to be magically fixed. You’ll want to investigate each line edit, and it might even require some work on your end.

The ultimate goal of a line edit is not only to elevate the manuscript, but also to improve the craft of the writer. A writer cannot address their tics if they can’t see them. They won’t know about the potential power of certain words or phrases until someone looks at their writing and points these things out. All editing seeks to improve a manuscript, but line editing in particular has the ability to have a long-lasting effect on writers themselves.

Five Edits for Sentimentality

What if I told you that Twilight, Fifty Shades of Grey, and Outlander are not literary masterpieces? Would you agree? What if I also told you that those books sold because they were able to effectively evoke emotion in their target audiences? For the record, I didn’t like Twilight, Fifty Shades of Grey, or Outlander. The love plot lines were problematic to me. I didn’t believe an old vampire would fall in love with a seventeen-year-old girl from Forks, Washington. I didn’t believe that a woman who traveled to the 1700s wouldn’t spend the entire time desperately trying to get home, and I didn’t believe, well, really anything about Fifty Shades of Grey. But somebody did. In fact, lots of people did. The earnings of those three books combined is mind boggling.

I sat next to a woman on a cross-country flight that read Fifty Shades of Grey from cover to cover with such rapt attention that she didn’t respond to the flight attendant. When we landed, the woman looked confused and not too happy to step back into real life. She collected her things with the glazed, glassy eyes of the fictive spell. I painstakingly read Fifty Shades of Grey over the course of a few weeks and argued with every scene and theme. I was never in it. It was too sentimental. But what does that mean? The literary world has argued sentimentality for ages. Oscar Wilde wrote that sentimentality is the result of unearned emotion. It’s the moment where you are pushed out of the story. You know you should be feeling the emotion, but you aren’t. The question is how to elicit a genuine emotion.

A few easy changes can help an emotion land. Here are five ways to edit for sentimentality:

  1. Tense. Is the tense right? Is it adding tension? Is it placing the reader in the moment of the action? Is the tense allowing the story to progress back and forth through time with a fluidity that keeps the reader engaged? Does the tense stay consistent? Changing tense can change the immediacy of a scene and can also give life to memory.
  2. Point of view. Does the story need an omniscient point of view so the reader can watch all of the events unfolding? Does the story need limited third person so the reader can see through the eyes of the protagonist? Or does it need first person in order for the reader to dive into the mind of the protagonist?
  3. Structure. Often, reorganizing the writing can help draw in the reader. Is there a better place to begin the story? Is there a better place to end it? Will changing the sections help with pacing?
  4. Show don’t tell. The reader would rather decide if they like the character based on dialogue and action rather than being told to, and they need to experience before they can feel. As the writer, you are often already feeling the emotions, so slow down and give the reader a chance to get on the ride.
  5. Know your audience. Picking a specific person to represent the target audience can help the writer’s voice stay consistent. E. L. James wrote Fifty Shades of Grey for the lady on the plane.

The idea of sentimentality is largely subjective, and just because the author is feeling it doesn’t mean the reader will. However, eliciting emotion is also an art. When the reader does feel it, the world melts away and the story takes over.