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Death to All Line-Editing: Maggie’s Epic Critiquing/ Editing Post

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Okay, first of all, Kelly Fineman interviewed me and that’s up at her blog. I answer crucial questions like what the last movie I memorized lines from, my thoughts on urban fantasy vs. paranormal romance, and other fun things.

Second of all, As I’ve mentioned before, I’m a regular at the blueboards over at Verla Kay’s, and there’s a thread on being edited over there that caught my eye. Several authors there weigh in with their experiences, and I was going to say something about what I’ve learned now that I’ve been through the process four times with four books and four editors in various combinations and permutations (editors! collect them all!). But all I’ve really learned is that it’s different every time, for every book, with every editor.

I will say that with the best editors, the process is very much like the process I go through with my critique partners, and there is a very vague process. And since I’d been asked what my crit partners were like/ what made a good crit/ how to be a good critique partner, I figured I’d talk a little bit about it here.

I would to take a moment, however, to say


Not that I have anything against line editing. I’m a big fan of it, actually, because word choice and typos and grammar are all very important things. It’s something I see from a lot of beginning critiquers.

However, in the relative scheme of things, I would say that this is the least important aspect of editing. I know there will be shocked gasps and generally fainting and Victorian hysterics from the crowd at this statement, but it’s true. No one will care if your grammar is perfect and your sentences flawless if your characters are flat as paninis and you have plot holes big enough to drive Mini-Coopers through.

Personally, I don’t line edit my crit partners’ manuscripts. At all. I will point out awkward bits that pull me out if I don’t think that they will notice on their final read through or metaphors that make me snort tea out of my nose, but otherwise, I’m not really big on picking apart word choice.

My friends, there are bigger battles to wage. Like the battle against Egregious Pacing.

The Battle Against Egregious Pacing, Moth-Eaten Plots, and Silly, Silly Character Motivations

So, if not line-editing, then what? What I do do is examine things like character relationships, motives, pacing, plot, scene structure, and underlying meaning and tone. And I’m going to use my latest editorial phone call with Editor MixTape as an example of this. On the phone, he gave me seven areas to tackle with LINGER and I’m going to share them with you, with all spoilery elements scrubbed from the record. Hopefully they aren’t too generic! Here they are:

1. In early chapters, increase tension between Grace and her parents to better foreshadow the mumblemumblespoileryplotpoint. (pacing, tone)

2. Stronger consequence for one of Grace’s actions: add in a big fight, which will also better shore up and explain the mumblemumblespoileryplotpoint. (pacing, character motivation)

3. A bit more character interaction between Grace and another key character, especially in the early chapters. To increase tension and sense of fear for this character in the last third of the book. (pacing, character building, plot clarification)

4. In the middle of the book, increase Grace’s knowledge of a plot point that becomes relevant during the climax, to up the tension of the middle third (pacing, tone)

5. Find a better rationale for Grace withholding a certain piece of information from another character. (plot, character motivation)

6. Give supporting character more scenes describing his life in a Minnesota spring to establish what is “normal” in this book before we take it away. (tone, character building)

7. Tweak the mood of a scene where another POV character has the rug pulled out from under him; it’s a mismatch with what the plot has been leading up to. (plot, tone)

As you can see, they’re all very big picture edits. Before Editor MixTape saw it, the manuscript went through several rounds with my critique partners. Which brings me to the next section.

Critique Partners, or People Who Do Lots of Work for You & Don’t Even Get Paid

Critique partners — I don’t know how I lived without mine for so long. It is not that they write the manuscript for me or that they change my work. It’s more like . . . you have a certain ideal destination, and you can take a car, or you can walk. You would get there eventually on foot (probably) but it would be a heck of a lot faster and painlessly in the car. Plus, air-conditioning. And depending on the critique partners, heated seats, sun roof, and third-row-seating.

I have deluxe crit partners.

It’s absolutely crucial for your crit partners to be on the same page as you. They should be critical readers of everything they read, and their reading tastes should be pretty similar to yours. They should, at the very least, be very well-versed in the genre you’re writing in, so they can shout “YOU CAN’T WRITE ABOUT ALL POWERFUL RINGS!” when needed. They should also be at least as good as you, which sounds terrible to say out loud, but it’s true. You’ll just frustrate both of you otherwise. You should also have them in duplicate or triplicate, so that you can compare their opinions. And also, because if you ever get together, you can finish off an entire pizza without any pesky leftovers. These things are important.

Useful Things That Crit Partners Do

Critique partners do things like point out where the pacing feels slow, scenes that feel long or short, misleading plot points, unnecessary side plots, character inconsistencies, and whether or not your tension is working. They also, sometimes, call you on the phone and tell you that your characters can not compare himself to Demeter.

Which is true. Objectivity is priceless.

I have saved that phone message for posterity.

For LINGER, my crit partners said useful things like “I did want X to try harder with Y, because I think people like that save up kindnesses, even when they seem to be rejecting them” and “it would make for tense scenes to use Z, but I don’t see her advancing the plot” and “what feels missing to me is Y. i know he’s all numb and stuff, but i think he needs to have a stronger reaction to X’s reaction.”*

Clearly my characters are not really named X or Y or Z (I have not yet achieved that level of desperation), but you see the sort of statements that guide me.

*real excerpts from real chats with real crit partners.

And now I think this post has gotten far longer than I expected, just like the second Harry Potter movie. So I’m going to stop here and if you guys have questions or angry shouts or Victorian faintings and hysteria you’d like to do in the comments, you can do that.

Maggie Stiefvater
Hi, I'm Maggie Stiefvater

Professional novelist by day and artist by night. I live an eccentric life in the middle of nowhere, Virginia with my charmingly straight-laced husband, two kids, and neurotic dogs. I’m the author of the Books of Faerie (LAMENT and BALLAD); the bestselling SHIVER trilogy (SHIVER, LINGER, FOREVER), and THE SCORPIO RACES.

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Copyright 2012