Blog header: Twenty Years a Writer

Twenty Years a Writer, Part 5: Editing Process

Writers frequently talk about their writing process. Editing needs a process too. In the early stages, some call it “rewriting,” reserving the term “editing” for polishing prose and correcting errors.

At first, I had no editing process; I simply read my manuscript, starting at the beginning (again and again), and tweaked in an unstructured way, fixing typos in paragraphs I would end up deleting next time around. Then I joined a critique group and had to figure out how to deal efficiently with feedback from other writers in a way that would improve my work-in-progress.

Eventually, I worked out a process. I can see progress from one session to the next, which wasn’t the case when I was just flailing around. Even more important, I know when I’m finished. Now I find editing much less demanding than the brain-to-text process of the first (or “proto”) draft.

Some writers prefer to print their manuscripts for editing. I actually dislike printing, but I do find it useful to make a copy of the document and mark it up with different colours and notes to myself.

Sometimes, I’ve found, editing is not so much a matter of adding or deleting stuff, as re-ordering it.

I’m always surprised by how much text I move around early in the editing process. Sentences and paragraphs — even entire scenes — go in different directions and end up far from where they started. Some paragraphs get taken apart and the parts moved to different places. Is my thinking that disordered at the first draft stage?

Actually, yes. At that point, I’m intent on turning ideas into words and getting them down. I don’t revisit what I’ve written until the whole thing is finished and typed up with a word processor, which is when I start editing. In the hurly-burly of writing the proto-draft, it’s not surprising that I often overlook the optimal order of occurrence. (Look at all those o’s!)

Order of occurrence is important, not only for physical events but for characters’ thoughts and emotions. Something has to happen before a character reacts to it. Sometimes, story elements that belong together get separated and must be reunited, unless they’re really two instances of the same thing, in which case one of them should be deleted.

Because of what I think of as “word count anxiety,” I crank out a lot of words at the proto-draft stage, so I have to lots to delete at the editing stage. When it comes to sentences or whole paragraphs, I sometimes edge up to deletion by first highlighting the problematic text and adding a note, in all caps so it’s hard to miss: IS THIS NECESSARY? (See image above.) When I revisit that spot later, I move the highlighted stuff to the bottom of the document. If what’s left works without it, I blow that material away or put it into a separate “Deleted Stuff” file. (Torture your darlings before you kill ’em. Or put ’em in jail so you can torture them later.)

I make several passes through the manuscript, targetting specific problems. First I look for plot problems and order of occurrence issues. Then repeated material. Then the list of my personal problem words. I work from big issues to niggly details, leaving the final check for typos, omitted periods, quotation marks, and question marks to the VERY END.

A sad truth is that many small errors are introduced during the editing process. That’s why it’s best to deal with the fiddly stuff (typos, extra spaces, missing punctuation marks) AFTER operations that involve adding, moving, or deleting chunks of text. To borrow a simile from woodworking, there’s no point in polishing something that still needs to be shaped or sanded.

I suggest following something like the following steps, in this order:

  • Structural stuff: deleting or adding scenes, moving paragraphs and sentences
  • Continuity stuff: finding and fixing plot holes and inconsistencies with names, physical characteristics, and similar details.
  • Polishing the prose: finding and fixing clunkiness, repetitions, awkward phrases, sub-optimal words, etc.
  • Finding and fixing grammatical errors, punctuation errors, and typos
  • Final detailed proofreading, paragraph by paragraph, starting at the end and working backwards. (That forces you to see the words and punctuation marks, rather than reading the story.)

Some of my first manuscripts were created before I trained myself not to follow periods with two spaces, and before I started using proper em-dashes. Word’s Find and Replace function is great for hunting these out and fixing them.

In fact, the Find function can be really helpful when searching for many of the infuriating small errors that hide until after a book has been published, and leap out cackling wickedly as the happy author is perusing their newborn. Author and blogger Virginia S. Anderson has compiled detailed tips and suggestions for using Find in several posts, the first of which can be found HERE.

The only word I always search for is “that.” It’s amazing how often it can be removed without harming anything. I wouldn’t do a global search and delete, however; sometimes “that” is just what you need. And each of my works has had its own set of “pet” words, like “glow,” “mutter,” “forces,” or “ultimate.” They’re useful, but are also memorable enough to annoy readers if they turn up too frequently.

Fellow writers, what is your editing process? Methodical or improvised? Do you enjoy editing or think of it as torture?

Next time: Don’t Forget to Justify!

44 comments

  1. Nice to see someone else has the ‘move later’ / ‘move earlier’ / ‘is this necessary?’ notations during the editing process.
    I do a three-stage edit process, and call it RRR for Review, Revise, Rewrite. Because the review is noting stuff, and the revise always brings in new issues, I leave the major rewrite for the last session, and if it all comes together, then comes the proofread/grammar check.
    However, I do have to admit there are several specific purposes for the Review process. I start from the big issues, like structure, etc., and the final one will be transitions/clarity.
    I don’t do the Revise until all the reviews are ready to incorporate. This is a bit messy sometimes, but only if there are a lot of notes for deletion or insertions (there usually aren’t, but it happens). Otherwise, it helps to have them all ready to go into one revise session, then a readthrough for the final product of the first part of the process before it goes to the rewrite — where I often find the speed of the rewrite makes it easier to spot the clumps and lumps that clog up the system.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. That sounds like a good method, to identify issues before actually making changes. I’ve done something like that when a chapter or several scenes needed major work. I used different coloured highlighting in the document. Yellow meant delete, green meant move, and blue meant needs better wording. And of course all those ALL CAPS notes. It was a tough slog, but colourful!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I would try the colour thing, but I’m colour-blind so have to rely on comments/notes, but I do put a code at the open of the comment to indicate what purpose lies behind the comment (if I’m considering deleting, d?).

        Liked by 1 person

  2. The Master Class continues! Great stuff here.

    I love editing! I often tell people I’m a better editor than a writer but having only done short stories and not a novel, that might not be true. Although it probably is. Editing a poem is not as complex.

    I was a book editor for two years and the process was straight thru the book, polishing as well as providing comments on glaring problems.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. I like editing too; it’s such a relief to have text to work with, rather than having to dredging stuff up from inside and whacking it into word-shapes. The thing about reading someone else’s writing (as a critique partner or even an editor) is you can’t just dive in and fix stuff; you have to confine your efforts to suggestions only.

      Like

  3. As I print my chapters as I go along I love the moment when I have ‘finished’ the novel and sit and relax in the garden or I even take the manuscript on holiday:; read straight through as a novel to see if it all makes sense.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Hi Audrey,

    Some good advice here. Your comment about proof reading backwards is pure genius. I’m reviewing some early works at the moment and I’m going to try it. I tend to start at the beginning and work through, but like you say, before you know it you’re back into the story and you’ve lost your critical eye. I review stories I wrote ten years ago and which I thought were pretty free of errors but still find myself hooked in the eye by what seems like an obvious blooper and I wonder how I missed it.

    I’m also fond of culling the redundant “that”. You can save a lot of words that way. I also have pet words and short memory, so if I’m not careful they’ll pop up in every paragraph.

    All the best

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I saw the suggestion to edit by working through a piece of text backwards in someone else’s blog, I have to admit. It’s perfect for the final proofreading. Something I didn’t mention in the post is to use Word’s voice or speech feature (can’t remember what it’s called) to read paragraphs or pages aloud. The voice is robotic and sometimes pronounces unusual words incorrectly, but it can highlight errors and typos. It would take a long time to go through a whole novel that way, but is one more tool in the box.

      Like

  5. I write short, creative non-fiction but much of your advice applies. For example, I often find the perfect lead paragraph buried lower in a piece during the editing process. Thanks for this informative post.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I do a lot of these things, not necessarily in the same order as you do, but they happen. I really work by instinct. I’ve started editing out a lot of “thats” although sometimes if you want speech to sound formal (as in my termite dialogue) I leave them in. One place where I think a change of order improved the piece vastly was in The Termite Queen. Orginally the short chapter where the dying termite is speaking was the second chapter of the book. That meant we knew immediately what was going on and it made the termite’s introduction anticlimactical. I thought it was a much better hook to simply let the reader meet Ti’shra on its own terms and then find out what kind of creature this was in the second chapter.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Good stuff, A.

    Before I began this learning to write task in earnest, I’d write just to get the ideas out of my head. Hypotheses, strange concepts I’d contrive, plot lines, whatever, each I’d just write to communicate the basic idea — never with a thought as to the reading process.

    It took 30 years for me to realize that it’s the consumption of the material, its fluid ingestion that matters just as much as the content. If you want others to read your material, it must be presented fully baked, arranged and presented… Raw just won’t do.

    I still have that tendency, buried in a shallow swale, it rises at night and feeds my loathing of the edit process. I’ve become better at beating it back into the moist habit-land where it and all my quirks dwell.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. While there is the fun and surprise of discovery with drafting, I do prefer revising because I have something to work with. My process is similar to the one you describe. And of course the “Deleted Stuff” file is all-important!

    Liked by 1 person

  9. These posts are so helpful to me as I like to compare what I’m doing with others. Not because I think my way is better but because sometimes others come up with a more efficient method. Thanks for sharing, Audrey.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. I’m going to confess that I… edit, restructure, move, delete, ad nauseum…as I go. When I know something is wrong, I am incapable of going forward until I’ve fixed it. Sadly, that sometimes involves a complete rethink. 😦 Did I mention that I write very slowly? -sigh-

    Liked by 1 person

        1. Given how detailed and original your works are, I don’t think you need to feel guilty. The guilt thing I flog myself with is failure to start on my next fiction project. But I’ve found I have to wait until the Thing That Writes in my brain is ready to start. (I can feel it beavering away in there, but the moment hasn’t come. Getting close, though!)

          Liked by 1 person

  11. I write quite differently from you, Audrey. I edit as I go along – a lot. As a result each chapter takes me a long time to finish and I rarely churn out more than 1 000 words in a single sitting. I can’t change, I would like to, but it would require my not being OCD and is impossible to achieve. This being said, I rarely move things around during the editing process as my book is mapped out and edited as I go along. Swings and roundabouts I think, for an overall writing perspective.

    Liked by 1 person

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