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A Modern Day Edit of the Opening Paragraph from A Tale of Two Cities

2015 May 6

Charles DickensCharles Dickens opening line to his novel, A Tale of Two Cities, is cited by some as one of the hundred best opening lines of a novel. As an editor, I stare at that opening and wonder how in the world Mr. Dickens got away with it. The phrases it was and there was/were are two of the vaguest worst phrases an author can use. Half the time, the reader is left wondering what was. The other half of the time an OCD editor (me) tries to arrange the sentence to clarify and tighten the sentence structure.

At the risk of gaining the ire of some readers who are Dickens’ fans, and in a feeble attempt at humor, I want to offer a modern-day editor’s assessment of Mr. Dickens’ opening line as seen in the post’s picture.

As an editor, I’m writhing in pain here. I’m wondering if Dickens editor understood him enough to know that he could carry the rest of the story, and I imagine this manuscript coming across an editor’s desk today.

There’s a chance that today, Mr. Dickens would receive a rejection like the following:

Dear Charles:

Thank you for submitting your manuscript, A Tale of Two Cities, to XYZ Publishing. At this time, I’m sorry that we must decline your submission.

My decision to reject this story comes after reading only the first half of the first sentence that consists of 119 words–all contained within one run-on sentence such as I have not seen prior to this day. The portion I managed to wade through contains sixty words. If you didn’t want to use a period after each declaratory statement, couldn’t you have at least separated the statements with a semicolon? Then there are ten instances of the words “it was.” While I am aware the some repetitiveness lends itself to the author’s style or provides emphasis, neither are achieved in this confusing sentence. Each improperly punctuated sentence in the first sixty words has me asking “What was?” This is a matter of clarification, which should be resolved immediately. I did read to the end of the paragraph because the suspense was killing me (sarcasm intended) to discover that “it was” refers to a period of time. This finding then drew me to the fact that portions of the sentence are redundant, for example: “epoch of belief” and “epoch of incredulity,” actually mean: “The period of time was the period of time of belief; the period of time was the period of time of incredulity.”

Further each statement, which is, again, in need of a period or a semicolon, contradicts the other. How can someone experience the best times while suffering worse times? How can someone live in an age of wisdom when they exist in a time of foolishness? How can they live in a era of belief and disbelief at the same time? Perhaps you mean to say, “This period of time in history had been the best of times; then the worst of times arrived. Perhaps you might say: In an age of wisdom, foolishness crept in. In the least, these suggestions eliminate the vagueness of “it was.”

Perhaps reviewing your manuscript for areas similar to the opening paragraph and revising will assist you in your journey to publication. XYZ Publishing wishes you the best in your endeavors.


Ida Beenwrong

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Fay Lamb (The Tactical Editor)  is an author, editor, and writing coach.

Her emotionally charged stories remind the reader that God is always in the details. Fay has contracted three series. Stalking Willow and Better than Revenge, Art of Characterization Cover FINAL FRONT (2)Books 1 and 2 in the Amazing Grace romantic suspense series are currently available for purchase. Charisse and Libby the first two novels in her The Ties That Bind contemporary romance series have been released. Fay has also collaborated on three romance novellas: The Christmas Three Treasure Hunt, A Ruby Christmas, and the newest A Dozen Apologies. Her adventurous spirit has taken her into the realm of non-fiction with The Art of Characterization: How to Use the Elements of Storytelling to Connect Readers to an Unforgettable Cast.

Future releases from Fay are: Everybody’s Broken and Frozen Notes, Books 3 and 4 of Amazing Grace and Hope and Delilah, Books 3 and 4 from The Ties that Bind. Also, look for Book 1 in Fay’s Serenity Key series entitled Storms in Serenity.

Fay loves to meet readers, and you can find her on her personal Facebook page, her Facebook Author page, and at The Tactical Editor on Facebook. She’s also active on Twitter. Then there are her blogs: On the Ledge, Inner Source, and the Tactical Editor. And, yes, there’s one more: Goodreads.






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