In last week’s post, I began sharing with you the sample edit I did for DF Roberts on the prologue to his novel The Scholars. If you missed it, you can find it here. If you’d like to know what it would be like to have me edit your work, check out my post from April where I offer a free sample edit when time permits.

Since my last post, Mr. Roberts and I have exchanged a couple more emails about the edit, and we talked about whether that prologue should really be chapter 1, which is what I figured it should be. He told me more about the book, and it turns out that my recommendation is to omit the prologue altogether.

As I mentioned last time, prologues are tricky and usually unnecessary. They’re often a crutch or a backstory dump, neither of which is a good way to start your book. In Mr. Roberts’ case, it seems he has two characters who don’t meet for a while, and he hoped the prologue would interest the reader in these two separate story lines enough to keep reading. Do you see the red flag waving? My question to him was, “Aren’t the story lines themselves interesting enough to engage the reader?”

If the true beginning of your book isn’t going to engage the reader, if you feel like you need to add a prologue to do that because your true opening isn’t good enough, then that’s a problem. Lots of writers add a prologue for just this reason.

Your work: If you have a prologue in your WIP, go back and look at the opening through these new glasses. Are you relying on the prologue to support a weak opening to the book? If so, methinks you have some rewriting to do.

Okay, enough about prologues for now. Let’s get back to the particulars of my edit of Mr. Roberts’ work.

Issue #1 – Original

… then he showed the doctor the book he carried. “This ought to cheer him up.”

     “Advanced Non-Euclidian Geometry,” the doctor read the title aloud, then continued in a neutral tone, “Hmmm…I’m sure it will.”

     “Here is the verandah,” Doctor Dettweiler announced shortly.

Issue #1 – My edits

… then he showed the doctor the book he carried. “This ought to cheer him up.”

     “Advanced Non-Euclidian Geometry,” the doctor read the title aloud, then continued in a neutral tone, “Hmm … I’m sure it will.” The two men continued to walk.

     “Here is the verandah,” Dr. Dettweiler announced shortly.

I made four changes to this section, indicated in blue under “My edits.”

  1. There is actually a correct spelling for “hmm” (Merriam-Webster is my spelling bible for US English because the Chicago Manual of Style is my guide), so I changed that.
  2. You’ll notice I inserted spaces around the ellipsis (…). Again, the Chicago Manual dictates this; however, lots of authors do their own thing with ellipses, and I follow the author’s preferences.
  3. The biggest change I made was inserting the short sentence, “The two men continued to walk.” Without it, we have the doctor looking at the book and then all the sudden he announces their arrival on the verandah. I felt a transition smoothed that out and got the men from point A to point B. You don’t want to narrate every single action your characters take, but this originally read as though they magically appeared at the verandah; it just didn’t work without the transition.
  4. There’s nothing wrong with shortening “Doctor” to “Dr.” This is a bit of style preference. If my client wanted to keep “Doctor,” I wouldn’t fuss.

Your work: So take a look at what you’re characters are doing. Are you telling your readers too much and getting bogged down in the minutiae? Or are you leaving too much unsaid and failing to create the scene?

Issue #2 – Original

     “Good morning, Eduard.”

     “Vice-Chancellor,” came the brief, expressionless reply.

Issue #2 – My edits

     “Good morning, Eduard.”

     “Vice Chancellor,” came the expressionless reply.

I made only two changes to this, but I suggested a third.

  1. The hyphen between “Vice” and “Chancellor” is incorrect, so I removed it. If you remember from last week’s post, I mentioned that titles such as “vice chancellor” aren’t capitalized unless they’re used in front of a person’s name as part of the name or if they’re used in place of a name, as this one is here.
  2. I deleted the word “brief” in the dialogue tag. All the man said was, “Vice Chancellor.” You can trust your readers to know that it was a brief reply without telling them so. Elmore Leonard said not to use anything other than “said”–ever. Your Work: How much more than “said” are you saying?
  3. My suggestion was to completely delete this dialogue tag. I can understand an inclination to leave it because of the word “expressionless.” However, Mr. Roberts does a good job shortly after this of describing Eduard in a way that makes it clear he’s lacking all sorts of expression. Dialogue tags can get cumbersome and they can slow down a reader’s progress through a conversation.

Your work: Take a look at your dialogue and the tags you’ve used. Do you have a tag after every single line that’s spoken? If so, I bet you can safely remove at least a third of them. However, you don’t want to eliminate so many of them that the reader gets confused as to who’s talking and has to back up and basically trace the conversation from one person to another (e.g., “OK, he said this line, so she said this line, so he said this line, etc.”). That’s no good either. Try to balance it.

I hope that you’re enjoying this dissection of Mr. Roberts’ sample. I’m very grateful he was willing to put his prologue under the knife and agree to share it with all of you at the same time. That shows a real dedication to his craft–to wanting to learn and to being open to different perspectives.

We’re not done! I’ll have a new post next week and we’ll go farther into his sample. I hope you’re finding it helpful and that you can apply something from this to your own writing.

Please leave your comments and questions about this post in the space below. I look forward to hearing your thoughts!

And I also encourage you to send me me an email at and tell me about your WIP. What are you writing? How can I help? Drop me a line and let’s talk.