I’ve talked about my writing process (and how to make the muse work for you slash keep track of rabid characters and twisty plots), so now it’s time to talk about editing (and how to keep your sanity).
For the curious, there are three reasons why I’m blogging about this: one, it forces me to explain it coherently, which means I understand what and why I’m doing better and can improve upon it; two, people seem to find it helpful; and three, because procrastination 🙂
So without further ado, here are all the multiple stages of editing I go through from the moment the first draft is finished till the book is ready for layout. This is how the books end up at professional quality, ready to stand on any shelf with pride, while still controlling the costs.
You know why I write? Because I want to read those stories. So, happily, doing the first read-through of the novel is exhilarating. Never mind all the problems, all the to-do notes in the margins, the horrible typos — I enjoy reading it for the sake of the story itself. If I get that tingly sensation in all the right places, I know I hit it right.
… which doesn’t preclude dealing with all those to-do items, fixing plot holes, cringing at typos, and re-writing the bits that don’t tingle as much as they should. This is also where I go back to my planning notes, check if there is anything I wanted to include but missed, double-check timelines, etc.
There is a bit of jumping around. Writing the novel likely took several months, but the read-through is only a few weeks — so I notice things that have changed in the months between writing different sections, wrong references to past / future events, etc. This first pass it aimed at fixing the story.
Have you heard that Murder Your Darling advice? I call bullshit. Or, to be more precise, I claim that this advice has been hashed and abused to the point on irrelevancy. Here are my observations.
- Show vs Tell: another piece of much abused advice. However, when I write the story the first time, I do concentrate on moving things along. During this read-through, opportunities to expand on things and show events in a deeper, more immersive way present themselves. I therefore end up with a higher word count than when I started.
Which brings me to…
- Murdering the darlings: As noted in the link above, this is about sub-plots and characters that need to be completely removed, not about turn of phrases you like or characters that need to be killed as part of the plot. Back when I wrote the original article, I had a very tight and specific word-count goal to work towards. With a novel, unless it’s commissioned to a purpose this often isn’t the case.
The trick is to see which bits don’t add anything (and thus, effectively, detract from the novel) and should be removed. My ‘darlings’ are the bits that made me tingle as I wrote them, and still do as I read them. Those, obviously, need to stay. But for everything else, which could be anything from a small sub-plot to a phrase, I find that often sharpening the section makes it fall into place. By this I mean that I concentrate on the original message I tried to convey with that element, and fix my initial, bungled, attempt by better expressing it on the page, rather than apply a machete too quickly.
Since I leave myself to-do notes in the margins (the notes section in Scrivener), it’s easy to search for them across all scenes. Sometime I leave things even during this first read-through for later. If you do that or end up with a major rewrite of some section, or moving bits around (more of a problem with multiple-POV third-person narratives than first-person, which tend to be more linear as the protagonist experiences them), then a second full read-through is in order, to ensure that the story still flows logically and at a good pace.
Once I’ve finished with the story and am happy with it, I do a few passes that concentrate on the language itself. This is both to give me time away from the story (so when I get back to looking at it as a whole, it will be with fresher eyes), and because a lot of the magic of story-telling happens in polishing, just like with diamonds.
Spell check: yeah, it’s trivial, but it catches a few things. Generally, I don’t hold much truck with automated tools (e.g. Grammerly or ProWritingAid). I find that they tend to drag you to the simplistic common denominator, and I like my prose a bit more complex than that. It does depend on the style of novel — sometimes you want the prose out of the way, so readers can just tear through your thriller. Still, some basic spell checking, usually at the free level of such services, will catch the more egregious typos and help with my editors’ sanity.
Look, Get, and other filtering words: As with the more showing, when I write in a hurry to move the plot, the language I use can be a bit mundane. Searching for permutations of these words helps me locate those instances, and I can then replace them with stronger verbs or adjectives (take a look > investigate, got back to > returned, etc).
Scripts: because many winters ago I was a programmer, I built some scripts that help me look for my particular bugbears. These are things words that repeat in close proximity (damn you brain!), consecutive sentences starting with “I”, and even passive voice. I export the novel from Scrivener as text, and run the scans. I then go through the reports, checking to see how (and sometimes if) I should address what they highlighted. Sometimes it isn’t really a problem (the repeat is an emphasis I wish to keep in the text), but often it results in a stronger, sharper, more crisp prose.
This is also the most time-consuming, aggravating, and infuriating phase, which not only takes the longest but also drives me to procrastinate by writing blog posts such as these.
Yep. Again. Just to fall in love with the story again. I check that my point-changes hadn’t broken anything in terms of plot and prose flow, and — now that I had some time away from the story (as opposed to just the words) — I refine unclear passages to strengthen the messages behind them.
Note: This is the hardest pass to start for me. I’m horribly impatient, and have a strong desire to skip it and just move on. So I’m writing it down here just as I reach this phase with In Victrix, as a way of forcing some personal accountability. It really is worth taking the time for it!
By this stage I probably polished the story as much as I can by myself, got it to the best shape. So it’s time to ask for help.
Now, the trick with beta-readers is to find those that grok your writing, and that can provide the feedback you need. This often isn’t a random group, but fellow authors that connect to your stories, aren’t afraid to point out things that don’t work, aren’t like that guy, and that you generally trust. Also, you better like their writing, because getting such good people to beta-read often involves trading favours.
My focus with the betas is on story rather than language. Not that I don’t appreciate them pointing out all the typos, but I know that once I receive their comments and address them, my fat fingers will introduce more. I also don’t want to put too many demands on my betas, so I just ask for feedback on the story as a whole — what worked and what didn’t. I don’t try to justify those bits to them, just pick on points I think I can improve.
Development & line editing
This is where real money starts coming into play. Your beta readers, if they’re really good, will likely cover some of this stuff. Still, my own experience was that I learned the most by working with good story editors, the kind that aren’t shy in dragging me kicking and screaming (and crying, and drinking Scotch) into becoming a better author.
If you find someone you trust, who gets your writing, who educates you along the way, it’s worth anything you can afford to pay. Though developmental (story) and line (prose) are two different levels, you’ll find that many freelance editors do both at once. My editor, bless her, does.
Copy-editing and proofing
Once I’ve finished integrating an addressing all that story feedback, you (well, me) fat-fingered a lot of new typos into the manuscript. I get an editor (different from the above) to copy edit my manuscript. I aim for a different person, for two reasons: one, the more eyes the better; and two, different people have different skill-sets. I find that story and language editing is not just a different mind-set, it also requires different people for best result.
Once I’ve finished implementing my copy-editor’s comments, I export the novel one last time, for the proof-reader. In theory it should be a quick read through, but the gremlins of typos like to play jokes on me. Once that’s final nit-picking round is done, I’ll move the book to InDesign as a master copy to produce both the paperback and ebook copies.
After that it’s only the occasional (gods, I hope they’re occasional) post-publication typos that kind readers point out to me.
A note about costs
Yes, that’s multiple people who read the books beside me, and take the time to give thoughtful critique and commentary. Those people have lives and mortgages of their own, so, justifiably, expect to be paid for that time. In an ideal world you’ll have the money to put towards it, knowing that book sales will recover those costs in the short run, and you’ll start making a profit in the longer run of the book’s life.
Of course, one look at the publishing industry will tell you this world isn’t ideal.
I’ve blogged before about the costs of self-publishing and how to control them. So let’s discuss where I feel you can try and cut corners — and just as importantly, where you shouldn’t. As with the beta-reading, this is based on trading favours; ie. you’ll be offering your time instead of money up front. Working with a professional developmental and line editor will do wonders for improving your skills, but admittedly can get costly. If you’re comfortable that your beta-reading did a good job with weeding out plot holes and other implausibilities (hint: if they’re brutal in their commentary, rather than nice about it, you’re doing well), then perhaps you can focus on copy & line edits, and perhaps have a friend from college with an English major do the final proofing for a beer. But if you go down that path, do get feedback from several beta readers. Whatever you do, do employ at least one professional editor along the way. You’ll be amazed at the difference.
I find that a lot of the magic happens in editing. This is where a good story becomes great, when you sharpen the prose to crisp brilliance that shows the story and immerses the reader.
And it’s a learning curve. Something that I’ve learned after rushing to publish my first novel, but a lesson well learnt. I do hope that this article was useful to you. Don’t take it as gospel (I’m not about to threaten JK Rowling nor quit my day job), but it worked well for me. How to edit and how to work with editors are skills like any other, skills that needs to be learnt and practiced.
I’m using these article series (writing, editing, producing, marketing, etc), because I find that “teaching” like this, forcing myself to put it into coherent words and article, increases my own understanding and competency with them.
If you find them useful that’s great too! I have no plans to write a “how to write a bestseller” course with special secret content for subscribers who sign in the next 24 hours! Instead, I let me my own books do the talking. So check them out if you’d like to see how well I practice what I talk about.