The art of editing – When and how to edit – 3 of 7

Put down everything that comes into your head and then you’re a writer. But an author is one who can judge his own stuff’s worth, without pity, and destroy most of it – Colette

 

Last time I talked to you about what editing is, this week I want to move on to discuss when and how you edit your novel.

Before we look at a three stage process for the how of editing, I want you to think about when you’re going to do it.

You might wonder why I mention it. I mean, after you finish seems a bit of an obvious time to start. But:

  • Not everybody does it that way. You may prefer to work by writing in sections and then doing the rewrites on each section immediately so that you finish that part before moving on to any others.
  • If you do all of your editing once you’ve finished drafting, you still need to be clear about how soon you start it – immediately? After a day or two? A week? A month? I’ve seen recommendations from two days to six months.

Realistically you can only decide on this for yourself. I’d definitely recommend leaving some time but you are going to have to judge when you have enough distance from the writing experience to start to, in Colette’s words, destroy most of it.

Regardless of when you start the process, it pays to be organised and structured about how you approach it. I’m speaking from painful experience when I say that a piecemeal, half-hearted review is as bad as no review at all. You need to put in some serious time and effort. Below, I’ve outlined a three-stage process that I’ve found works for me.

1. Helicopter

You need to get a sense of the entire manuscript and ask yourself a list of questions including:

  • Do all the scenes fit or should any be deleted;
  • Now that the whole book has played out are there any areas where a scene needs to be added or an existing one rewritten to show why and how you got from point a to b – or more likely from point a to h;
  • Are there any unnecessary characters, ones who move the plot along at some point but otherwise are redundant and where a main character could do it instead? As an aside, Chuck Wendig wrote a fantastic post on doing this and deciding he had to sacrifice a much loved secondary character;
  • Are there any plot holes or random coincidences that the reader is going to balk at accepting;
  • Do the right characters take the right actions, by which I mean does any character do something out of character that readers will feel doesn’t ring true; and crucially,
  • What could you drop without affecting the flow of the narrative.

2. Chapter by chapter

Having taken a top down approach I then move on to the mechanics of the piece and review chapter by chapter. Having made sure that the overarching beginning to end of your story works this part should be easier but don’t be surprised if work you do here sends you back to stage 1 with further revisions. What you are doing here is making sure that the detailed structure works. For example:

  • Do some of the chapters need to move round, do you refer back to an event that doesn’t actually happen until a later chapter?
  • Do you get your characters’ names right throughout – don’t laugh, this occurs more often than you might think! It’s especially easy to have this happen if you decide part way through writing to change a character’s name. It can also happen if you find as part of stage 1 that you decide to edit out a character. You need to ensure that the correct name is used and that it’s spelt consistently throughout – again a regular error.
  • Is everything factually accurate? If you refer to a metro station in Paris or New York, do they exist? If a key part of the plot action needs steps as street access does the station have steps? If you refer to an historic event, are the details correct such as the year that it happened and where it took place?

3. Word by word

And now we get to the real nuts and bolts: spelling mistakes; layout issues; repetition; sentence length and pacing etc.

One of the important things to review here is favourite phrases and expressions. I overuse ‘indeed’ in conversation, for my Mum it’s ‘actually’. When writing dialogue I have to really watch out for this. I read a book recently where in the first 2%, or approximately 5 pages, the phrase ‘for the hundredth time’ had been used multiple times. There is a very handy feature on Scrivener that allows you to see how many times a particular word has been used in a document but you need to review which ones to take out and which to keep in. Compile a list of the words that you want to look out for e.g. that, of, anything ending in ly.

I admit to a pet peeve about spelling and grammar checker packages. Far too often they make mistakes. I’d strongly advise you not to rely on them, but, if you do, make sure that you regularly add to the dictionary and correct the grammar rules so that you don’t end up introducing errors into your manuscript. I share an early experience where a children’s book had all uses of the word ‘wellies’ autocorrected to ‘willies’.

Editing your novel is vital but you need to recognise when you’ve done as much as you can. I’m not saying to send a totally unchecked manuscript out to a proof reader or an editor; that would be a poor use of their time and your money. But, it’s hard to be truly objective about your own work and you need to be honest with yourself about how far you are going to be able to do it. There are options available to you. Next week I’ll take a look at these options and the different types of professional help available.

To your book’s success!

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