On Editing

Editing is necessary to polish a work into excellence. First drafts, for the majority of writers, are not ready for publication – there are usually logic problems, inconsistencies, spelling errors, and so on, and all of this needs to be fixed as much as possible before a manuscript is ready to be sent to an agent or publisher. And that’s where this list comes in handy – it provides a logical order to editing, something you can check off as you finish each item if that helps you.

Before you start editing, a few quick tips.

  1. Before you begin, make a backup. If you wrote your first draft by hand, make a photocopy or scan it into your computer. Whatever you do, make a backup. For that matter, make a backup at least once between every drafting cycle. Yes, Virginia, paranoia is a good thing. 🙂
  2. Give yourself some time away from your manuscript after finishing your first draft. You need some space away so that you don’t read it the way you think you wrote it, but instead you read it the way it really is written. The mind is powerful and can fool us into thinking something is written a certain way when it isn’t. We can miss spelling errors, punctuation errors, or logic problems because it’s still too recent. How much time? That depends on you. Some writers say two weeks. Others say a couple of months. I just switch to another project and finish that one (ie, a completely different first draft or editing a completely different WIP) before returning to this one. Since I have anywhere between three and eight WIPs at any given point in time, that’s easy for me.
  3. As you edit, if you think you’re going blind or otherwise missing things, or even if you don’t, change your draft to an entirely different font with different spacings, etc. If it visually looks significantly different, you’ll notice different things. You can also experiment with editing on-screen and printing it out on paper – you’ll notice different things on-screen vs. printed. Change things around so the brain isn’t getting tired of the same old thing.

Onward and upward, ho!

Things to check for:

Bringing order out of chaos

Yeah, I really can’t help my Borg references. 😀

  1. If you don’t already have one, create an outline of your story as you have written it. It doesn’t have to be too detailed, but it does need to give you an overview of where the story is going.
  2. Re-work that outline, marking which scenes need to be deleted (don’t move the story along), moved (fix logic problems), or need to be added to fill in gaps. This is the time to fix plot holes and/or logic problems and any foreshadowing you want to add to the story. Make notes of all the changes you want to make.
  3. Make those changes to your draft now, adding, deleting, or moving those necessary scenes, and adding the foreshadowing.

Make the story come alive

Does this qualify as a Frankenstein reference?

  1. Add detail and description where needed – build in more character traits or description. (In the natural flow of writing, I frequently fail to add enough description in my first draft.)
  2. Check the first paragraph of each chapter for hooks.
  3. Check the end of each chapter for cliffhangers.
  4. Ensure that each page is balanced between description, dialogue, introspection, and action. Too much description can be boring, too much dialogue and introspection doesn’t move a story ahead, too much action can be tiring to read.

Delete anything that doesn’t move your story forward.

  1. Get to the point. Don’t waste time with meaningless sentences, generalizations, or other deadwood. Delete all the unnecessary bits that don’t move your story forward.
  2. Avoid overdoing eye movements (stare, gaze, glance, glare look), facial expressions (smile, grin, laugh, chuckle, giggle), and physical features (a character’s eye color or hair color). I know, I know – I said before to add detail and description. You just don’t want to overdo it.

Fix the confusing stuff.

  1. Look for inconsistencies. Blond hair in one chapter, but brown in another? Change of names or names spelled differently? Fix them.
  2. POV shifts. Each scene should have one POV only. If you find that you’re bouncing around in more than one character’s head in a scene, then you have a POV problem.
  3. Fix punctuation, spelling, and grammar.
  4. Passive sentences aren’t as precise as active voice. Get rid of passive voice. (was, were, had, as, was verb+ing, were verb+ing…)*
  5. Simplify your overwriting (“sits down” vs. “sits”).
  6. Replace multiword verbs. You can replace most verb-particle combinations like “leave out” with more precise verbs like “omit” “drop”, “avoid” or “erase”. Try removing all the multi-word verbs and replace them with single words that pack more punch
  7. Shorten complex sentences – most sentences should be around 20 words or fewer. Variable sentence length adds interest to the piece of writing – shorter sentences=faster pace, and longer sentences=slower pace. If your sentences are too long, consider dividing them. Your work will be come more readable.
  8. Get rid of adverbs (-ly words) and replace with better words. *
  9. Ditch waffle words and phrases – they add nothing. For example, somewhat, rather, always, very, so, well, even, just, so, more, already, that, quite, some, okay.
  10. Look for repetition – words and phrases repeated too often, too close to each other. *
  11. Avoid using conjunctions to start your sentences (And, But, Or…)
  12. Avoid empty, weak subjects like “it is” or “there are”. Focus on the real subject of the sentence.
  13. Find typos and grammatical errors. As you go through your novel for the first items on the list, you’ll make changes, and if you did the typos and grammatical errors first, you’d still have to do it again, so I leave it for last.

Summary

All of the above are generalities only, and like all generalities, can be ignored if there’s a specific purpose to serve, like emphasis, or are otherwise done very well. You know, that whole “You can’t break the rules until you know the rules” thing.

I suggest going through the manuscript, each time focusing on just one item on the list. It’s hard to catch everything when you’re distracted by, well, everything. If you look for just one thing on each pass, you’re that much more likely to catch the mistakes.

Finally, I’ll go through the manuscript paragraph by paragraph in reverse order. Yup, start at the end and work my way to the beginning. Rate each paragraph on a scale of 1 to 10. Everything that’s an 8 or above, leave alone. Paragraphs rated between a 4 and a 7, look at how you can improve it. How does the paragraph rate now? 8 or above? You’re done. Below an eight? Rework. Paragraphs 3 or below – delete them. If the paragraph was essential to the story, rewrite it until it’s above an 8.

That’s it. You’re done. Theoretically…

Writing without editing. Also known as Blitz-drafting.

This was difficult for me, but I figured out a way to train myself to do it. It sounds hokey (I don’t know how to spell that word – never seen it in print before – but I think you all will probably know what I mean) but it worked.

I sat down in front of my computer with a mask over my eyes so I couldn’t look at the screen. It helps that I can touch type, of course. After a few days, I had myself trained to just shut my eyes and not look, and didn’t need the mask anymore. I still do this.

I find that if I look at what I’m typing, I’m more inclined to want to edit, but if I type with eyes shut, it’s a lot easier to turn of the infernal editor (yes, that spelling was intentional).

Hey, if it works, use it. If not, well, you can at least laugh at it.

(I havne’t written a damn thing all week except for emails cuz I’m still too sick to use any brain cells.)