You’ve written you book. Now what? It’s time to polish it to perfection. (If your novel is still stuck inside your head, check out my how I write series part 1, part 2, and part 3. You’ll be back to this post in no time.)
I love editing. I love writing, because everything is brand new and exciting and the characters take you places you never planned while outlining. I love story building, because the world is shiny with possibilities and can veer in absolutely any direction. But editing has its own joy. For starters, the words are there. They might not be the perfect words. They might not even make up the right scenes, but they give a place to start. Plus, no matter what your mental state—filled with energy and creativity or sapped and listless—there’s always an editing task you can do and still make progress.
Like my writing process, my editing process is an evolving system as I learn. This is its current form.
List the Problems
The first step is to read through the novel. I don’t put pen to paper or cursor to screen. I don’t fix typos or even check spelling. This step is purely for listing the problems. In a new document, I create a chapter-by-chapter list of all the problems, big and small that need to be fixed: plot holes, repeated information, pacing that goes too fast or slow, conversations that are stilted, etc. For my most recent novel, I had 26 pages of double-spaced notes.
This step takes a lot of internal fortitude. It’s the first step in severing the connection between your soul and the writing. It can feel like you’re listing your personal faults and dwelling on them. But as painful as this step is, it’s vital. The separation between you and your work is important to make it better. Grab a chocolate bar or a tissue, and keep going.
It can be easy to start thinking that your book, your writing, or you, yourself are complete crap at this stage. Ignore these thoughts. They’ll pass, you’ll strengthen your book, and you’ll be so thankful you’ve gone through this process.
Outline, Outline, My Good Friend
Oh yee of outline scoffery. Did you think I’d leave behind my beloved writing strategy after the book was written? Now I create a no-frills outline following the 12 steps of the Hero’s Journey (see The Writer’s Journey) to make sure all the elements made it through the first draft. I inevitably veered from my original extensive outline in little and large ways, and this is an efficient method to make sure nothing important got dropped.
Internal and External Conflict
Every novel should include a main internal and external conflict for the protagonist. Sometimes these can get muddied in the writing, and now’s the time to clarify each point on your mini-outline and then note what changes are necessary to make these conflicts shine.
The timeline gets a similar scrutiny and update. In writing, what should have fit in one day might have become too much for a character to physically handle, or a scene I thought would take longer, didn’t. Some time and date reshuffling might be in order. All timeline problems are added to the editing list.
The Big Edits
Once I have my mondo list of All Things Wrong, I prioritize. Rather than start in chapter 1 and work my way through, I work on the biggest-picture problems first, and worry about the smaller details (conversations that don’t mesh with character’s voices, descriptors that need more umph, etc.) later, so I don’t have to rework anything twice (hopefully). There’s no point in fixing dialog on a scene I later decide to cut.
- rewriting scenes
- reshuffling scenes
- cutting or adding plot lines
- reworking the beginning (this will be done several times)
- reworking the ending (yep, several times)
I do most large edits on the computer for ease when throwing chunks of text around or drafting new scenes.
Once the big-ticket items are crossed off, I print out the novel and start on page one. I enjoy the tactile sensation of working with pen and paper as well as the ease of reprinting a page if my edits veer the wrong direction. While fixing the remaining problems on my list, I edit with the idea of making the book reader-ready. So pacing, tone, word choice, and everything in between are addressed. My pages usually look like a blue-ink mess. This makes me happy. I can see the story becoming stronger.
I enter all these edits into the computer, then move to the next step.
Editing for Words
As much as I try to make the previous draft perfect, there’s room for improvement. Doing a lot of edits can blind me to smaller problems, word echoes, or minor pacing flaws. Now that the story is close to being set, I can read faster, more like a reader. This helps me pick out flaws I missed the first time. This is also a great time to check chapter breaks; the original breaks might no longer make sense now that pacing has changed.
- felt (is it needed, or can I describe what’s being felt? is the phrase passive?)
- was (sometimes was is necessary, sometimes it indicates passive verbs)
- that (that sneaks in all over the place, and about 40% of the time, it isn’t necessary)
- just / only (rarely necessary)
- suddenly (I’m good at not letting this word in when writing, but it’s still on the watch list)
- watch (usually can be deleted)
- very (rarely necessary)
- thing (find a better descriptor)
- still (rarely necessary)
- I knew (writing from the first person makes this redundant; the whole story is from the character’s voice, so of course whatever she says is what she knows)
- there was (passive!)
- seemed (rarely necessary, usually weak)
- nearly (weak)
- a little / almost (weak)
I also check words specific to the unique world. For example, for Madison Fox novels, I make sure all atrum and lux lucis instances are italicized. This is also the time for spell check.
Before entering these edits into the computer, I find it helpful to read out loud only the dialog of each chapter. It makes me sound like a spaz, but it helps pinpoint characters who don’t sound like themselves, too many instances of filler words (well, um, so, etc.), and general stilted exchanges. Writing dialog as people really talk doesn’t work, but writing dialog that reads like prose doesn’t work either. Hearing it helps me find the balance. Once I’ve noted these changes, I go back to the computer and enter my edits.
A Note on Trimming
I’ve yet to write a book that didn’t go over word count, so at every step of the editing process (and outlining and writing), I’m looking for ways to cut text. This takes the form of cutting individual useless filler words (like that) and slashing scenes and dialog. I’m always searching for more succinct ways to convey the story.
Edits continue until the book is as close to perfect as I can make it. I don’t strive for true perfection. That thinking chains books to hard drives.
There will always be room for improvement, and stories I thought were perfect will seem juvenile years later, when I’ve matured as a writer. For now, if I feel I’ve polished my novel to the best it can be, I stop.
Seeking Professional Help
This is a personal decision and a book-by-book decision. Depending on what you think of your story, your writing, and, frankly, what your budget is, it might be time to send your novel to someone who can give you a professional, unbiased opinion of flaws and improvements to make. I have published novels without this, and I’ve used substantive/content editors. No matter what, feedback is essential. If you have some great beta readers, use them. If you’re in a writing group, awesome! If you’ve got a super-critical literary friend, kidnap her for a day. Writing in a vacuum doesn’t often create high-quality stories.
Not everything others believe needs to be changed will ring true for you. My first response to critiques is typically denial, but once I give myself time to think over the proposed changes for the story, I tend to agree to make about 80 percent or more of the changes. Don’t alter your story to suit every critic, but don’t scoff at good advice. Trust yourself; you know what’s best for your story. (Besides, if you thought it was perfect, you wouldn’t bother asking for feedback, right?)
The edits from this round of feedback will vary by novel. It might require you to start at square one with another list of issues, or it might require a light massage of a few scenes.
Editing for Publishing
The importance of a clean copy can’t be stressed enough. Most traditionally published novels are edited by the author, the editor, the copyeditor, and the proofreader. Occasionally, an additional overreader is used for a final polish. That’s a lot of trained eyes on a project, and mistakes can still make it through to print. Don’t rely on just yourself! Hire someone with keen grammar skills and make sure you’re putting out a flawless novel.
The Final Step
Here’s the most important step of the process (and if you’re an aspiring author and have only one takeaway from this post, it should be this):
*All pictures sourced from CuteOverload.com.