A few days ago YA Fanatic posted that she'd finished the first draft of her novel. In this post she asked if anyone had tips on editing. I responded in the comments but then realised the comment was going to be ginormous and so I ended up saying that I'd make a post instead.
What follows is my own personal method for editing. After a decade+ of editing my own work and digging around for advice from other writers, I think most can agree that many of these steps are necessary. You don't have to follow all of them and you should find your own order. I'm still working on perfecting this system and that process will probably never end. If you are a writer, please leave your own methods and experience down in the comments. :)
I'm adding a short description below because this post is HUGE. I've run out of time and, as hilarious as it is with this being about editing, I don't have time to edit this post before I leave on Monday. Such is life! Also, apologies for how 'know-it-all' this post might come off as. I spent so many years writing technical FAQs for websites (and working tech support) that I developed an odd voice I'm not quite fond of.
There are three major steps in editing. Developmental, structural and professional. Revising can take twice as long as it took you to write your first draft. Hang in there. Good luck!
*formatting change so this wall of text does not cause permanent eye damage*
You've just finished your first draft. What should you do now?
Celebrate! Take a moment to savour the accomplishment and bask in the moment of grandeur. The following day you will feel compelled to start work on editing your masterpiece. STOP! DO NOT PASS GO. I'd say 'do not collect $200', but in truth, you should at this moment squirrel away $200 into your savings to start a fund for your future editor + proof readers. If you don't have that sort of cash just lying around, start small... but start now. Even if you plan to go the traditional publishing route, having a writer's fund is a good idea.
Whichever path you take, you still need to have your manuscript in decent shape before anyone else gets the chance to read it. So, here we go...
Ignore the urge to start editing. You need to take a break. Nothing short of a month. If you start to edit right away, you will be too close to the work and you won't be able to see what is missing or what's gone wrong. This piece of advice has been given by too many to be ignored. Your first steps in editing will not be a major creative endeavour. You must be objective (and brutal!), like an editor who has never set eyes on your manuscript before. I personally think that three months is the best amount of time. Not too much and not too little. Use this time to read and to write in other worlds. It will help you forget and you want to forget as much as possible before you begin step #1.
Step #1: First Read Through - Quick and Dirty
You will be tempted to do line edits at this early stage. Don't. During this first read through you will need to focus on the big picture. Many writers suggest setting aside enough time to read it from start to finish. If you write on an epic scale, this might not be possible. Try to break it up so that you can read the middle on its own as this area is probably where you will find the most problems. It's a good idea to print out your manuscript so that you are viewing it differently than when you wrote it. While you are reading, do the following:
- Write a single sentence description of each scene to create a plot outline.
- Keep score! Have several pieces of paper handy to take notes on the following:
- Your MC accomplishes or fails at something.
- Internal and external conflicts.
- Turning points and character growth moments.
- Character choices.
- Tag plot holes but don't go in and try to fix them just yet.
- Tag continuity issues.
- Tag areas where you start to skim and/or lose interest.
Step #2: Plot Analysis - Putting the Pieces Together
Read your single sentence scene descriptions in order. Now read them in reverse. Does each scene count? If you find fluff, tag it for removal. Are your scenes out of order? Are there missing scenes? Read the plot outline again and identify whether your plot seems contrived. Take note on where you might need to plant a setup for a future scene if you find your plot lacks surprise. Read the outline again and verify that all your character conflicts and plot points belong and have been resolved.
Take a day or two off. You've worked hard and you want to give your brain a little time to unwind. If you're like any writer, you'll still be thinking of all these things, but you want to give yourself a little distance so that you don't become overwhelmed. These little breaks are really important.
Step #3: Second Read Through + Character Analysis
This might seem redundant, but you're going to read it again without making any changes. At this point you will have picked up patterns on your writing that you didn't notice before. More note taking! Find more plot holes! But also focus on the following:
- Missing information.
- Description mistakes, such as eye colour changing from one scene to the next.
- Character dialogue. Do your character reactions fit in the next scene?
- Character emotion. Are you missing emotional transitions? Is your character happy at the end of one scene and then completely mortified in the next? Did you forget to fill in the blanks?
Tag each of these problem areas and then move on to character analysis. What are your characters motivations? Does each cause have an effect and each action have a reaction? If you answered no, you might need to plant more information as in step #2. Beware of too much planting. Don't go overboard. Leave some suspense. Using your notes from step #1, you can get a clearer picture of your character goals and motivations.
Once you are done, it's time for another break. If you've done a good job at note taking then you can rest easy knowing that only a quick review will be necessary before you begin step #4.
Step #4: First Revision - Fix What's Broken!
Before getting into this section I think it's important to point out that proper document saving techniques can be very helpful. Always save your revisions to a new document each day. I do this while writing, too. I also save these to a flash drive and to my netbook. This might seem excessive but I've dealt with one too many computer meltdowns. You might even consider saving it to the cloud or sending it to yourself via email. It's always smart to have more than one copy.
The first thing I do is insert my notes into the document. This part might be different for others, I use the writing software called Scrivener — this software has an 'Inspector' that lets you attach scene synopsis information, meta-data and notes. This makes it easier to reference your notes and saves a lot of time. If you don't own software that has this option, I highly recommend checking out the Scrivener website for more information.
After this I move on to cuts (everything from step #2's fluff removal). I move these scenes to a separate document just in case I need them later on. It's good to save writing, even if it's shit. :) Removing is the best place to start because if you try to move or change them, you fall into the trap of becoming even more attached to your words... making it even harder, later, to remove them when they aren't needed.
Now it's time to get to work. Fix everything! Insert, move and change. You might even have to cut some more. You'll be in semi-creator/semi-editor mode, make sure that you stick to your notes and don't go off in an entirely different direction. I wish I could go into more detail here but you really have to learn this portion on your own. Applying your notes to your work is a personal experience.
I've scheduled about a month (with an extra week added in, just in case) for this portion of edits. The amount of work you have to do here really depends on your writing style. If you are a pantser then you might have more work to do than someone who plotted/outlined before they wrote their first draft. You might be a genius and have very little work to do or the opposite. No shame! You learn how to write by writing and revising (and reading). If this is your first time then you will probably have more work to do. This is normal!
When you are done revising, it's break time again. I usually wait one week and then redo steps #1-3. Again, your mileage may vary. I'm a big time perfectionist and have only recently been trying to force myself to let go (my blog posts, no edits!) but something I learnt early on was that rushing to the finish line was unwise. If you did well the first time around you should probably be just about done with this portion of edits... for now.
Things To Consider - Critique & Beta Readers
At this point, depending on your ability to write, you might want to consider sending out this version for a critique. If you are experienced, this will save you time. If you are a newbie, you'll want to do step #5 first to save your readers from suffering through terrible writing.
Critique comments will help you shape your plot and characters even more. No matter how much you try to distance yourself, other eyes on your work is an absolute necessity. If you do this step now, make sure to emphasise that you are looking for plot/characterisation issues and not line-edits/proofing. You can use free services for this, such as Scribophile or send it out to a professional structural editor. After this, you will have to revise again!
A choice you will have after your critique revision will be to send the work out to beta readers. Beta readers are usually those that read in your genre, your target audience. They will be able to point out when they start to skim, offer up opinions on characters and how the plot feels to them. Even though you've already done so much to strengthen your plot, don't be surprised if they actually find more plot holes or continuity issues. Keep in mind this wonderful quote from Neil Gaiman:
"Remember: when people tell you somethings wrong or doesn't work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong."
In the meantime, read a book or do just about anything to distance yourself from your work. Then on to the final stretch...
Step #5 (or 8, depending): Highlighter Bliss + Line Edits
This read through is meant to catch problems that deal specifically with your words. You might want to change format back to paper for this. Highlight the following:
- Cliches/Tired Tropes/Stereotypes (blue pen - because these things make your readers cry)
- Spelling and/or Grammatical Errors (red pen - because these things make your readers angry)
- Unnecessary words, weak writing. (pink pen - because this is fluffy like cotton candy)
- If you don't know what these are, take a moment to read up on the basics. I like this website, although there are tons of websites (and books) out there that provide the same useful information.
Get to work! Fix everything you've highlighted — this means cut, cut, cut it all away! Only leave what is vital to the scene. Rework sentences for pacing/flow. Add in better descriptions, metaphors, etc. Pay attention to all the senses. Don't go too crazy here. If you didn't speed through your first draft then you might not have much work to do here. Remember, over-editing can be as bad as no edits at all. Also, you aren't even close to finished yet, so in truth, this line edit is only to make your work tighter and brighter to cut down on professional line edit fees.
I give myself two months for this section. I have issues with mixing British and US standards and they can be super difficult to catch. I'm terrible with grammar, especially commas and the overuse of semi-colons. My first drafts are always rife with passive voice and tense issues. You learn and better yourself through this process, so don't give up!
Step #6: Final Read Through
I like to read it aloud at this stage and look for any last mistakes. Word repetition, spelling errors (not the kind spell check can catch), and excessive wordiness.
Now you are ready to send your manuscript to a professional line-editor if you want to self-publish or to an agent/publishing house if you are going the traditional route. This post isn't going to cover how to do those things, so I'm going to end this on the self-publishing approach. I hope you've been saving money during the above steps!
Step #7: Copy Editor + More Revisions + Proof Read
First, take a look at this article by Writer Beware: Vetting an Independent Editor
Once you've found an editor, be prepared for heartbreak. You are probably so attached to your words by now that you will weep at the loss of them. Suck it up! After you get this feedback, it's revision time again. It's a tough road but you (and your writing) will end up stronger and wiser.
After this, it's time to send it out for a proof read. You might want to consider sending it out to one proofer and then when you get it back to yet another.
A final line up of beta readers. These should be different than your first group during the developmental stage. You want beta readers that have excellent grammar skills and who will be able to spot errors that have slipped through the cracks. Not necessary, but helpful none-the-less.
My ending words of advice... resist the urge to line-edit early on. Take breaks so that you aren't overwhelmed. Don't give up! I'm not the type that enjoys this process but over they years I've come to understand that it is a necessary evil.
Final note, really. Take some time to do some research. Google keywords such as 'writing editing advice', 'plot structure writing', 'how to writing outline', etc. Don't shy away from websites that aren't directly for novelists. I find that screenwriter websites are very helpful. The more you absorb through other writer's advice the better equipped you will be when you get down to it.