Editing is for some writers the bane of their existence, and for others the opportunity to perfect a story, and purify it into a work of art. I’ll discuss several methods in this this post. If you’re friends ask if you are “done with your book, yet,” feel free to refer them to this post so they can learn about the hell you have put yourself in.
The editor is very different from the writer. A writer’s job is to craft a story in it’s raw form, and to do that well, I’ll repeat over and over that the creative process should not be interrupted with editing. In the same fashion, the editing process is a monster all it’s own.
For many, especially budding writers, editing is often mistakingly viewed as a refinement of sentences. Well, it is and it isn’t. Before you start tinkering with sentences and prose, your story must go through several refinements. Editing goes way beyond “where do I put this comma?” It’s a creative art all it’s own, and one that every writer must perfect for themselves. We all edit differently, but the more you do it, the more the bigger picture of the editing process will make it clear. Hopefully, for the writer who has just finished crafting their first draft of their first novel, this will stave off some early mistakes that I made, and give you a jump-start into the bigger world of editing.
The Structure of a Story
You might think this is part of the writing process, and to some degree it is. Having a structured story outline makes it easier to write your story, but equally important is refining that structure, and the first step is to evaluate your draft on those grounds.
When I begin the editing process, I don’t fix anything that can’t be resolved instantly, and try to read through the whole draft as a reader would. If I can finish in a day or two, even better. I keep my notebook handy, and make mention in it of every disjointed part, every plot hole no matter how small, and often cite page numbers. I want to see the whole story again, unrefined, so that I can look at the “big picture” first.
Just as I say you will have plenty of time to fix while drafting, so draft fast, the same goes for this editing pass. You might be moving scenes or whole chapters in the block edit. Right now, making sure the story flows the way you want it to is more important than the actual words. You are likely to find dangling threads of side plots that still need to be woven in, scenes that need to be moved or eliminated for one reason or another, scenes that still need to be written, details that you totally forgot, or inconsistent world-building issues. The reader of the final copy is going to be concerned with these things first, and because of the messy nature of fixing these issues, I like to concentrate on this first.
The Block Edit
Probably the most crucial part of telling a story, is making sure that the pacing is right. Making sure that each scene flows gently into the next. Adding or removing important story elements.
In the block edit, you address these issues. I grab my notebook from the read-through, and look over all of my story notes before passing through each chapter. Those loose threads are either woven into the story, or plucked from it. Multiple characters are combined into one where only one is necessary, some complex characters are split in two. Useless scenes and chapters are eliminated, and new scenes/chapters are written to enrich the story.
This is a big edit, and sometimes involves completely rewriting the whole book. Don’t worry, you did it once, and you can do it again. In fact, I recommend it, as it will iterate the need for a solid outline and make you consciously aware of these pitfalls while drafting your next book. It will also keep your typing skills sharp, and let you exercise some of those new writing tricks you learned while drafting the book.
If you let yourself get too bogged down with sentence structure, then this edit is going to take forever. If it helps, think of it as a second draft rather than refining your product. This isn’t a nit-picky line edit, it’s a full-blown revision, and a chance to breath more life and depth into your story.
If you end up changing a LOT, then I recommend doing the whole process of read-thru and block edit over again. Once the story is where you want it, then proceed to the next phase.
Prose and Refinement – Content Edit
This is NOT a line edit!
While this pass (read these passes) has much to do with fixing sentences, we aren’t talking about commas and little grammatical fixes. In this pass, you will be working on voice, and the structure of your sentences. The process of refining your voice will likely consume the rest of your life, but this is the time to put your best foot forward.
Find all those wonderful descriptive words. Strengthen verbs. Get rid of poison words. And filter everything from draft to sentences aimed at your audience. This process is akin to distillation, where you take something good (wine, yum!) and turn it into something pure that will persist through the ages (brandy). This purification comes through making every word count, making the reading as intense as you can, and really driving those finer points home for the reader. Here’s one possible example of a revision:
He walked into the room. His heart raced. In the dim light, he noticed a leg sticking out of the bathroom through the door, which rested against it.
A cadence played in his chest as he entered the dim light of the hotel room. A narrow column of light bled in from the misty bathroom, the door held open by her pale leg.
Both of these verses say pretty much the same thing, but the second paints a better picture for the reader. This refinement could continue forever, so I like to do multiple passes, each one making the story a little better, until I’m happy with the chosen words, and a read-through becomes so colorful that I find myself missing things to correct. The story becomes visual rather than words on a page. I’m in the story instead of reading it.
This is the fun part about editing, so take your time and have fun. It’s also the reason that most of us have several works in progress at the same time. One pass through each, and then start again at the beginning. When finished stories start coming out, they will pass one after another, and you will appear to have gone from “taking forever” on that first project to “cranking out novels like your typewriter is on fire.”
The Line Edit
Also know as “The Lesser Pain in the Ass.” This is where all of those wonderful editing tips that you’ve been reading about come into play. Print the story out, or at least shift to another medium. At the very least, zoom in or out on your document to change the way it looks. You can also modify the font. Make it look different, bust out the red pen collection, and get ready to bleed all over your typewriter.
You want to be checking for typos, comma placement, fragments and run-ons, etc. This also gives you yet another chance to choose those perfect words to enhance the power of your prose. Kill helper and poison words too. Without doubt, you will still have quite a few in your manuscript. Think of the line edit as a way to bolster your story, or possibly a good polishing to take a great story and make it shine.
The secret is to go slow. Force yourself to trickle through your manuscript by reading out loud, or reading it backwards. The focus is sentences, so do whatever you can to prevent yourself from getting lost in your manuscript. You could also edit chapters or scenes out of order. Don’t let your brain get lost in the story, or you will miss the little details.
As you iterate successive line edits, you will find yourself moving the same commas back and forth. At that point, the story is essentially “done,” and in my opinion, ready to send out to agents. Any agent that is going to reject a manuscript because of a couple of typos probably isn’t someone you want to work with, especially since more editing awaits after a publisher picks you up, and you will likely start this whole process over. But heh, at least you’ll be comfortable doing it.
The final phase of the editing process. The last spit-n-polish. Typo hunts are “The Greater Pain in the Ass,” as the focus is on individual words rather than sentences. Reading backwards is probably the most effective technique here. Go through each sentence, one by one, making certain that the words in your text are the right words. Synonyms are your primary target, so load up the chopper, and go to war against them.
This phase of the writing process is pretty much the meat grinder. It’s work. It’s a huge pain in the rear, and when it gets to be too much, I remind myself that at least I have a laptop, and I don’t have to hammer out every single page again on a typewriter. I shudder to think about what writers went through before that invention. That’s probably the reason that most books from the ancient world were so small.
The typo hunt will test your resolve as a writer. But it’s a necessary step before publication, and even then, there might still be a few slippery mistakes that get through. I read Fight Club and thought to myself, “What the hell is an AR150? Really, Chuck?” And that was the new version! So don’t beat yourself up too much if a typo gets through here or there. It happens to the best.
Best of luck on the editing. My hope is that this article will prove helpful to your efforts.