First, it’s important to note that everyone is different. Your writing style, your reading habits, your opinions, and your technique- are all a part of what makes you, YOU. Editing is no different. Everyone either has a system they are comfortable with, or seeks one that offers them the least amount of anxiety. I am not here to tell you there is a ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ way to approach your editing process. I am merely here to share what works for me, and hope it may be helpful to someone else.
Having said that, keep in mind, there are as many ‘types’ of editors, as there are writers. Some work line by line, some focus on grammar, others cut and slash piecemeal. I am a structural editor; that is to say, I edit for content and flow. As a writer, I am neither infallible, nor impervious to critique myself. I am not here to judge you, indeed, I sympathize. WE ALL MISS SOMETHING. No one is perfect, and we ALL need a little help sometimes. That sentiment does not exclude the most successful writers.
Now that you know I’m not going to judge you, let’s get to it, shall we?
If you’re like me, you dread editing your own work. It’s frustrating, complicated, nerve-wracking, and time-consuming. You’ve already busted your hump writing an incredible story. You’ve spent months, years, decades even- crafting this world; its complex characters, snappy dialogue and pace. You’re already exhausted. You’ve put your heart and soul into this work. You feel like you have nothing left…then, you let someone else read it. They tell you it isn’t finished. They don’t understand your plot, your characters, or your timeline. They say your syntax and POV are confusing. They think you use too much exposition- or not enough. They tell you your dialogue is excessive, and you reuse words and phrases too often. They ask you to defend your overuse of ‘y’ ending adverbs. They want to know why every paragraph features a half-dozen unnecessary adjectives. They spit things at you, like ‘verb-agreement’, ‘tense’, ‘scene’, ‘purple’, and ‘redundant’.
Your heart breaks. Someone has just told you, your baby is ugly. You get angry, defensive. You deny these claims. Assure yourself that you know what you’re doing, and don’t need their nasty opinion anyway. You make a few light adjustments, and give your work to another reader. The process begins anew.
Sound familiar? Of course it does. We ALL must suffer these slings and arrows (shameless Shakespeare plug), my friend. I am not exempt. I’ve been through this countless times myself- and I AM AN EDITOR. For me, it is very easy to root out problems in another writer’s MS (manuscript). It’s another story entirely, when the work is mine. In fact, I’ve yet to meet any editor/writer who doesn’t feel the same way. Why? It’s simple. As a writer, you know the intent behind every word, every scene, every line of dialogue. You are operating from a front-row seat; where everything makes sense, is visual, vibrant, and immediate. Trouble is, no one else has that front row seat…you have to provide one for them. When the text is confusing, the reader is pulled away from your intent. They don’t know what you know. They can’t see what’s in your head, what you meant. You have to show them, and you need to make your intent clear, from the very first line.
Let me put it this way, when you write a screenplay, you can only write what the camera sees. In a book, you have a bit more room to elaborate on every scene, but the sentiment remains imperative. I’m sure you’ve heard this before, but I’m going to repeat it now: SHOW, MORE THAN YOU TELL. From a reader’s perspective, we want to experience your story with your characters. We want to smell what they smell, see what they see, hear…you get the idea. You might have some gorgeous prose (I’m the guiltiest purple writer that ever purpled, btw) to add, but RESTRAIN yourself. It’s distracting for the reader, when overdone. Think sprinkle, rather than shower. Keeping this in mind, let’s move on.
Today, let’s focus on priming for editing. We’ll get into the meaty stuff; structure, POV, and exposition, in Part 2. For now, we’re going to talk about getting ready.
The first step in preparing to edit, is to accept that you need to edit. YOU NEED TO EDIT. I’m sorry to break it to you, but none of us, no matter how brilliant we think our story is, or how good a writer we know we are; none of us are immune. If you’re a writer, you need to be an editor. Yes, yes…let the hate flow through you…
Personally, I think I’m a pretty dandy writer. Been at it for years. I know my craft; I can hold my own in any cafe reading, can write complex plots without much effort, my dialogue is pretty crisp, my characters are interesting, and did I mention my prose? My adjectives, slay. Know what else? MY FIRST THREE DRAFTS, ALWAYS SUCK! Did I say suck? I’m sorry, what I meant to say was, they are abysmal, abominable, atrocious, and arrogant. That crisp dialogue? A hot mess. My complex plot? Like reading stereo instructions. My prose? Let me put it this way, there are only so many times any writer should dare to place ‘glimmering’ in a paragraph. Paint me purple, ye mighty editing gods…
My point is, I need to edit, you need to edit, and everyone writing anything longer than a tweet (even then), needs to edit. I am not perfect, and neither are you. You know what? THAT’S TOTALLY OKAY. Stop telling yourself you’re a bad writer because you didn’t nail it in your first draft. I know some pretty famous authors, and I promise you, they feel the same way you do, most of the time. That’s what editing is FOR. It’s polish, plain and simple. You wouldn’t try to sell someone a half-darned sweater, would you?
Revisions are a necessary part of the process. The faster you accept your fate, the easier it’ll be to finish.
The second step in preparing to edit, is to get organized. Gather all your notes, your outline (refer to my previous post- Outlining, A How-To), your chapter logs, supplementary materials, and your ugly, infuriating draft. Read through them once or twice, to make sure you’re on track. Then read through them all again. Take more notes. Then read them one more time- ALOUD.
The fastest way to root out fixable issues in your text, is to hear them aloud. This is how your reader is going to experience your work, as if it’s being spoken to them. Remember that, and take notes when you find something distracting. Done? Okay. Let’s move on.
Now that you’ve read through your draft a few times, and have taken notes, it’s time to compare them. What worked? What didn’t work? When you read that first chapter aloud, what made you stutter or stumble? Did you have to read a phrase more than once? This is all pertinent information, you are going to need. If YOU have a hard time reading your story out loud, your reader is going to have a hard time making it through your text.
Notes at hand, write a list:
- Is this scene clear? (Setting, Timeline, Exposition)
- Who is talking? (POV, Characterization, Dialogue)
- What’s happening? (Action, Pace, Event)
- Does it flow naturally? (Tense, Structure, Syntax)
- Immediate or redundant? (Repetition, Alliteration, Attribution)
Every scene you write, needs to be experienced, not read. Avoid unnecessary explanations, clogging backstory, plodding dialogue, and repetitive words and phrases. Remember to keep your tense tight (who is narrating this thing, and how much they should reveal to the reader. Unless specified in your story as an ability- your characters CAN’T READ EACH OTHERS MINDS, nor should your narrator, if they are observing the scene from ‘above’). Prose is important for style to a point, but never forget that every ‘telling’ scene (setting- the where, what, and who), gives the reader pause.
3. Start Fresh
Now, everyone has their own approach to a second-draft. I’m not going to tell you how to rewrite your book, but I am going to tell you what I hope you already know; take it from the top. Never edit from the end, or the middle. Your reader isn’t starting in the middle, are they? No. They start from the beginning, and that’s where you should start your rewrite.
You have your notes. You’ve identified problems in your text. Now, do something about it.
Personally, once I have my BME (Beginning, Middle, and End) completely nailed down; that is, I know where I’m going, every character is accounted for, their backstories and motivations are all hammered out, and the structure of each chapter is relatively solid. Now, I edit, line by line. Starting with the first paragraph, I read every word aloud for the twentieth time, and make changes that read as naturally as possible.
This is not a speedy process, but it works. Every. Single. Time.
That horrid jumble of nonsense I thought was so brilliant in my first draft; actually reads like fiction. By the time I make it to the end, it’s starting to look like a real book! Hell, someone is going to LOVE this! It’s a fun read! I did it! I really did it!
Then, in pure masochistic fashion…I take it from the top, all over again.
Editing, like writing, takes practice. Don’t let it discourage you. Let it help you become the writer you want to be.
4. Done? Nope.
You’ve revised, and revised, until your eyes feel like they might spill out of your nose. You’ve done all you can do. Your MS reads more clearly, more concisely, and more naturally than your draft, by a thousand watts. That’s great. Congratulations.
Are you done now?
There is a such thing as ‘over-editing’, right? Right?
This is the part of the editing process, where really, really good writers tend to get stuck. Why? Remember when I said no one is perfect? You’re going to miss things. We all do. You’re tired of reading. You’re bored of hitting the back-spacer. I get it. It’s hard work. Now, here’s where a developmental edit comes in (not the copy-edit, we’ll get to that VERY LAST step, in a final post on this topic).
You do have some options, but you’re not going to love them all.
- Hire A Developmental Editor.
This is not a ‘cheap’, easy fix, mind you. Most developmental editors will run you up to 3k, for a MS running over 75k words. For those of us who aren’t rolling in piles of cash every night that figure stings. The good news is, it’s almost always money well-spent. A good structural editor will quickly and succinctly, identify and remedy problems in your text, any agent or publisher is sure to notice. The bad news? It’s expensive, and if you’re a first-time author, likely you can’t afford one. That’s okay. The best option, isn’t the ONLY option you have.
2. Find Beta Readers.
This isn’t easy either. You don’t want to trust your hard work, and original ideas to just any shmoe online, do you? You need someone who will read your work, and give you polite, helpful feedback. The best betas, will even help you edit a bit, for free, so long as you’re willing to return the favor.
Most betas, are authors themselves. Expect to barter. If you don’t have time to read and critique someone else’s work, make sure you let them know in advance. I wouldn’t expect a plethora of return emails when you do, but be fair. Betas are wonderful help in the developmental stage, but don’t abuse them. Remember, nothing is truly ‘free’, and these nice folks are doing you a favor. Also consider, they are your first readers, and likely, your first fans.
3. Join A Community
The internet is filled with writer’s groups, pages, clubs, and communities. You don’t even need to leave your house anymore, if you don’t want to. These communities can be a SERIOUS boon, at the developmental stage. The feedback is largely constructive, well-intentioned, and you can reach a lot of readers and fellow writers.
There are some drawbacks, however. A word of caution, though most writing communities are very strict about plagiarism, it can still happen from time to time. Be aware when you post something, there are tons of people there eager to help…and there are tons of people there struggling with their own work. This is the exception, of course, but be on your guard, nonetheless.
If you find a great writer’s niche (I like Goodreads, and many of Twitter’s writing tags), be courteous, be kind…well, you know. Be nice! Say hello. Post snippets of your work, and thank people when they comment. You might be surprised how quickly you find folks to bond with. Make some friends, and build a solid foundation for your work.
Not everyone is going to be on your level in these groups. Some will be baby writers, learning their craft, and others may be professional authors. The point is, what do you have to lose? Helpful critique is never a bad thing, and it’s important to get the hang of it early on. A community of peers, can certainly help you get there.
4. Revise, Revise, Revise
I bet you thought I was kidding about this, didn’t you. Nope.
The best thing you can do for your work, short of hiring a professional, or finding the perfect saintly beta– is READ AND REWRITE your MS, constantly. In my next post, I’m going to help you get through this time-chewing process the best I can, but for now…get reading. Read your work until you’ve memorized nearly every line.
Know how many times I’ve read The Sons Of Mil? Dozens. Scores. Hundreds…and the damn thing STILL needs work. How do I know? Because I catch something each time I reread it. Until I catch nothing, it’s not ready. That’s all there is to it.
Don’t let it get you down. You can’t, if you’re going to make it in this business. What you miss, a publisher won’t. This doesn’t make you a bad writer. I can’t stress this enough. It just makes you a BETTER writer. It makes you a STRONGER writer, and it gives you an EDGE over the thousands of writers out there, who don’t take the time, and pay for it later.
Don’t give up! Your work is fantastic, and like any baby, needs pampering.
For more in-depth editing tips, stay tuned for Part Two in this series; On Editing- coming soon!
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