So many writers I’ve talked to hate the editing process. And for a long time, I did too. But I learned to love the benefits. I treat the task as an adventure, a game, a series of levels my work must travel through to become better. It sounds a bit silly, I know… but if you want to improve and produce your very best work, a writer has to find a way to accept the necessary time and effort it takes to edit their manuscript/ book. Having now published eight books, I’ve got a few pointers I’d like to share with any budding authors who care to listen. Here are the reasons we all dread the editing process and how I’ve learned to handle it.
Unlike the rush of discovery that occurs when creating your first draft… editing the first, second, third, and fourth effort is a slow, time-consuming, and soul-sucking endeavor. Or is it?
- My first edit pass usually begins with a massive copy edit. That means I look for obvious plot holes while I am cutting unnecessary action and my propensity to over-explain the situation. This is where I allow Microsoft Word’s spell-check and Grammarly to help me catch hyphenated and misspelled words. There are usually tons of them.
- The second pass I start concentrating on unnecessary words like all those extra then‘s and now‘s. A few are fine, but too many in a book sounds as if the author is thinking aloud as you read. I also try to spot the words I left out, like an a or the because I was typing so fast during the first draft stage that I couldn’t be bothered with putting every single word on the page. At this point, I also eliminate entire paragraphs that aren’t moving the plot along in any meaningful way.
- By the third pass, I’m honing in on repeated words and phrases. I’ve broken out the thesaurus to look for more unique ways of saying something. I am also searching for imaginative words to support the emotional aspects of the story I’m telling. Why cry when you can weep. Why yell when you can bellow. Why see when you can glimpse.
- When I get to the forth pass in a manuscript, my focus has narrowed to double-checking the appropriate word for the meaning I intended. This is where I discover I’ve correctly spelled a word but it’s the wrong word. It is very embarrassing and sometimes unintendedly funny when I find these. This callous does not have the same meaning as this callus. Shutter versus shudder. I’ve begun to keep a running list for myself because it happens far too often. Don’t forget the occasional loose verse lose. Choose and chose. It’s and its. Through, though, thought… and all those other words your bratty fingers automatically typed when you weren’t paying attention.
The editing process requires rereading. Over and over again. And again. And again. Eventually, you begin to dread the work. Sometimes.
- This is a definite problem for me. By the second edit, I’m pretty sure my plot is weak, I’m a hack writer, everyone knows I can’t spell, and the entire book is a waste of everyone’s time. By the end of the fourth edit, I’m fairly certain I don’t suck, but I’ve stopped seeing ways to improve my novel.
- To get me through this ordeal, I make deals with myself. Edit 2 chapters today and then go do something fun. Somedays I end up spending all day engrossed in the editing process. Somedays I can only get through one chapter before I walk away in disgust. As long as I’m making some progress, I count it as a win.
Allow your book/manuscript time to sit undisturbed between edit efforts. Edit one, two, and three are fairly easy to accomplish back to back because the mistakes are obvious. That’s not true by the time you’ve read your book from beginning to end four times. Allowing distractions between the fourth, fifth, and even sixth’s edit is your friend. You might even get hit with an OMG moment!
- I’ve definitely found this hack to be true. By the time I’ve done four complete passes, it’s time to give myself a full month or two of not even opening the document file. Without this break, there’s no way I can see the book with fresh eyes. This is when I usually get an OMG moment. An extra level of understanding I didn’t have before. It could be… OMG that’s the real reason that character reacted that way. Or it can be in the form of an inspired sentence that sums up something I had been trying but failing to say in an entire paragraph.
- During that planned vacation from my book, I read other people’s work. I binge watch Netflix and I work on new writing projects like poetry or an entirely new book I’ve plotted. I basically do whatever I can to distance myself from the story I’ve been editing. The movie-watching helps me write realistic dialogue. The book reading keeps my narrative-voice remain sharp and flowing. Poetry helps me better understand the musicality of prose.
Your last planned edit-pass needs to be read aloud. After this pass is complete, you have to stop tinkering with the book. Really.
- Reading aloud is my secret to catching any remaining sentences that clunk. I’m listening to how the words flow, how they sound musically. Where are the pauses, the breaths for the reader? Readers unconsciously notice when the prose of a book sounds off in some way. Prose, like poetry, should have a cadence. A rhythm that is pleasing to the eye and ear. Too many short sentences strung together sounds choppy. Jarking. Too many long sentences in a row slow the book’s pacing and bogs a reader down in comma-punctuated phrases that never seem to end.
- Having Microsoft Word read a book aloud in its unflattering computer-generated voice will catch any last-minute mistakes that cutting and adding words during your previous edit attempts have created. The missing a or the double the the becomes apparent because the program is going to read exactly what’s typed on the page, not what your mind imagines should be there.
Lastly, have your polished manuscript edited by a professional after you have done everything you can as the author to improve the book’s writing.
- Don’t skip this part and publish without having a professional’s help. I have found that turning my book over to my editor is never a waste of my money.
- You’re a writer. You dream. You write. That’s your job. Editors edit. Editing is their job. They will approach your work differently than you do. And you need that. You need a trained eye to comb through the 50-90K words you’ve strung together. Their sole purpose is to make your book the best it can possibly be.
- Editors know grammar rules you don’t. A good editor will know the difference between by the by and by and by. They will tell you that a British author can use the word alright, but an American author should spell it all right. And when rules and standard change, a professional editor will let you know. They will clean up the mistakes you didn’t know you’d made, and oftentimes, push you to be better.
When you get your book back from the professional…
- It can be crushing or a not so bad experience to see all the corrections an editor thinks you should make. It all depends on the level of edit you purchased and the relationship you have with the editor. I’m lucky that after publishing so many books with the same editor, I feel comfortable with her level of expertise. I can trust her judgment and not beat myself up for not knowing what she knows. I almost always accept her suggested changes. She understands my writing style/narrative voice and doesn’t attempt to make me sound like anyone but me.
- Never forget to do one more pass of the final draft after you’ve accepted the changes. I usually have Microsoft Word read the book to me over the span of two days as a final opportunity to catch any weirdness that might have occurred because I accepted my editor’s suggestions. Leftover formatting issues sometimes pop-up. Double the the‘s, or a misplaced or extra punctuation mark because that sentence of dialogue now ends in a period instead of a comma.
Writing the first draft of any book can take as little time as a month. Editing a book from first-pass to publish-ready often takes a year or more.
This time paradigm is just something every author has to accept. Whether you choose to self-publish or traditionally publish, producing a polished manuscript takes time. Rushing this process can only harm you. Readers expect quite a lot from authors. They want to be hooked. They want to be surprised. They want to escape into a world different from their own. Crafting those unique worlds using only words takes time and dedication. It also takes a willingness to admit to your mistakes. A willingness to accept criticism. Correct what you can. And then, be willing to accept more corrections by a professional.
The goal of editing is to reach a point where the reader can no longer feel the author’s presence behind the story they’re reading. That’s the best sort of magick and well worth your time.