Joslyn Pine on Editing Fiction

We asked publishing professional Joslyn Pine to offer advice for writers on editing fiction to fix common problems and improve the chances of getting published.

Joslyn Pine has previously worked as a literary agent and as the managing editor of Dover Publications. Currently, she offers editing and manuscript evaluation services on a freelance basis. She can be contacted at wordcrafter47 (at) yahoo.com.


"Don’t try to second guess what others are looking for in order to be successful. Rather, focus on being genuine and pulling out the best from yourself."

- Joslyn Pine on Editing Fiction


A Conversation with Joslyn Pine

CWN: What are some of the most important aspects of a fiction manuscript for writers to look at during the revision stage in order to improve their chances at publication?

Joslyn Pine:

  • TIME AND PLACE

    There are some elements that tend to be overlooked by some writers more than others. Among them are time stamping—there should be clues early on if the novel’s setting is other than obviously contemporary. You don’t want your reader wondering about such a simple matter as that, since anything that distracts the reader is undesirable.

    Likewise, the physical setting is equally important. Don’t leave your reader guessing about: which room, which building, which country the characters are inhabiting at any given point. This element may seem obvious to some writers, but to others it needs to be underscored. Identifying specifics is very important. If the character is sitting, is it clear what they are sitting on? If the character is writing a letter, are they at their desk? When the reader has to stop and figure out these details, it means they’re no longer engrossed in your book. To hold their attention throughout should be one of your primary goals.

    Also, while I’m on the subject of place, make sure that the scenes have continuity, that when the character starts out in one place and in the next scene ends up in another, there is just enough information to make this transition seamless and logical. In general, continuity is a very important element for details large and small.

  • LESS IS MORE

    Try to resist the temptation to overwrite descriptions or state the obvious. Be alert to redundancies as well: i.e., repeating what you’ve already said in another way as if it were new information. Overdescribing is also undesirable: e.g., solemn gloom—gloom is sufficient to convey the point. Too many descriptive words can actually diffuse the impact of what you want to communicate. Keep it simple!

  • WORD VARIETY

    Keep a thesaurus handy so you don’t find yourself relying on the same words over and over again. Also, avoid overworked words like beautiful. In dialogue, it is also important to avoid repetition when you add a descriptive word after the spoken line(s) of dialogue. For example, using smiled, nodded, shrugged with great frequency to convey emotion or state of mind, etc. Finally, try to avoid using the same descriptive word (adjective, adverb) in too close a proximity with another instance. For one thing, it can feel to the reader like the writer is too lazy to vary their word choices. This last may seem like nitpicking, but every writer I’ve pointed that out to has been glad I did.

  • PUNCTUATION

    Commas seem to be the most ill-used form of punctuation. They’re either overused or underused, and both usages are undesirable. For example, the overuse of commas can make the writing very choppy and fragmented, while the underuse of commas can cause a loss of clarity leading to confusion, and/or lend a breathless, hurried quality to the prose.

  • VOICE

    A common pitfall in my experience is different characters sounding alike because they share the same speech and thought mannerisms, both in the dialogue and narrative, respectively. The whole subject of voice in fiction is an important one, and if a fiction writer hasn’t carefully considered the ramifications of voice, they ought to make a study of it—even if only a brief one.


"A common pitfall in my experience is different characters sounding alike because they share the same speech and thought mannerisms, both in the dialogue and narrative, respectively."

- Joslyn Pine on Editing Fiction


CWN: Could you talk about some of the problems you've seen in fiction manuscripts in terms of plot structure?

Joslyn Pine:

Plot structure (and continuity) can suffer when the writer makes revisions, and inadvertently leaves in details in other parts of the book pertaining to these scenes that no longer apply.

CWN: What about common problems related to character development?

Joslyn Pine: The absence of physical details—facial features, build, unique characteristics—so that the reader has a difficult time visualizing the character. This also has the effect of diminishing the verisimilitude of the world of the novel the reader is creating in their mind.

CWN: What kinds of problems do you often see in terms of manuscript pacing?

Joslyn Pine: Pacing should evolve naturally from all the other story elements, and depends entirely on the individual material. In this matter too, less is more applies, and it’s a good watchword for keeping a good pace: don’t get bogged down in too much explanation or description. Pacing tends to bog down from excess.

CWN: Are there specific issues related to dialogue that fiction writers should watch out for?

Joslyn Pine: So often I’ve come across dialogue that sounds very stilted simply because the writer didn’t use contractions to reflect the patterns of everyday speech. (When appropriate, of course, since stiltedness in speech may be a quality peculiar to a specific character.)

CWN: Do you have any advice about strengthening manuscript beginnings?

Beginnings carry a lot of weight because they are usually the most closely scrutinized portion of a novel with both agents and editors. Certainly, the beginning shouldn’t outshine or in any other way eclipse the rest of the novel—or be unrepresentative of it—but a carefully crafted beginning will definitely help the book’s chances. This seems unfair, I know, but it is what it is.


"Beginnings carry a lot of weight because they are usually the most closely scrutinized portion of a novel with both agents and editors."

- Joslyn Pine on Editing Fiction


CWN: Do you have any other words of advice for writers who are in the process of editing fiction manuscripts?

Joslyn Pine: Don’t be formulaic. Don’t try to second guess what others are looking for in order to be successful. Rather, focus on being genuine and pulling out the best from yourself. Of course, you’re also writing for your reader, but you will serve your reader best by writing for yourself. I’ve recently encountered too many writers who feel their novel must fit a certain genre in order to be marketable. If your novel is inherently genre fiction, fine; if not, don’t try to make it so.


"Of course, you’re also writing for your reader, but you will serve your reader best by writing for yourself."

- Joslyn Pine on Editing Fiction




Editing Fiction - Next Steps

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