E. B. White declared, “The best writing is rewriting.” In other words, the best writing is editing. We find all kinds of info on how to write. But editing can be a little more slippery. Basically, this is because good editing skills are no different from good writing skills. If you know how to write a good plot, you’ll know how to edit one. If you know how to edit a great beginning, you’ll know how to write one. The storycraft is no different in writing than it is in editing.
And yet we all know the analytic editing process is totally different from the creative writing process. When I ran a poll a few months back, asking what subjects Wordplayers would like me to write about, one of your most frequent requests was for more info on how I self-edit my novels. Today, I’d like to share my top-to-bottom editing process: from first draft to publication.
Step #1: The Outline
Okay, I admit, at first glance, that header probably makes no sense. But outlining is a crucial part of my editing approach. Why? Because if I put the time in up front to get my story right from the very beginning, I save myself a ton of editing effort later on. One of my most intensive editing excursions was on the only story I failed to outline at the outset.
Step #2: The Daily Edit
Before I dive into my daily writing sessions, I always take the time to run through a little warm-up. This warm-up consists of reviewing research notes, reviewing character sketches—and editing what I wrote the day before. Usually, this will be a section of about 1,500 words, which will take me about twenty minutes to run through. I’ll fix any problems that jump out at me, but for the most part, I’m focusing on correcting typos, cleaning up prose, and fact checking.
If I know something I wrote the previous day created an inconsistency within the earlier story, I also take this opportunity to go back and correct it. I can’t stress enough the importance of not over-censoring yourself during the first draft. But, at the same time, the tighter you keep this draft, the less editing you’ll have to do later on. Don’t sweat the small stuff, but try to keep on top of inconsistencies before they get out of hand later on.
Step #3: The 50-Page Edit
One of my favorite editing tricks is what I call the “50-Page Edit” (James Scott Bell calls it the “20,000-Word Step Back”). The number is just a rough estimate. What I’m really doing is stopping every quarter of the book (after every major plot point) and going back to edit the whole thing. Sometimes I’ll print it out; sometimes I’ll just read it on the computer.
As I read through the manuscript, I’ll stop and correct anything that jumps out me—mostly just rough prose. But the true reason for this edit is to halt my mad dash to “the end,” regroup, and regain a focus on the story’s big picture. Over the many weeks, or even months, it takes me to write fifty pages, I can get so caught up in my story’s minutiae that I lose sight of how the whole thing is hanging together—or, worse, I forget about little details or even whole scenes that went before. Stopping every quarter of the book not only allows me to stay on top of my story, it also makes the first big edit at the end of the book that much easier.
Step #4: The “Final” 3 Edits
Once I’ve finished the first draft, I immediately print it off and start editing. I do this three times in a row. At this point, thanks to my outline and my earlier partial edits, my story should be pretty much how I originally envisioned it. It doesn’t always work out that way, of course, so I am open to making any large changes necessary at this point (a recent WIP required I rewrite the ending six times).But the real point of these “final” edits is to, first, gain an overall view of how the story turned out, and, second, to clean it up for critique partners. If I feel the manuscript is particularly sloppy in the typo department, I may use my third edit to have my computer or Kindle read aloud to me while I read along. This is, bar none, the best way I know to catch typos.
Step #5: The Beta Readers Round One
After I’ve finished my three post-first draft edits, I ship the manuscript off to my first round of critique partners. This group consists of four people, one who is a freelance editor, two who are critical readers, and one who is a superfan (guess whose opinion I like best?). As their responses trickle back in, I will go ahead and make minor changes, while writing notes about any big changes they suggest.
Step #6: The Rest
Once I’ve sent the manuscript to the first round of critters, I don’t even think about it for a while. Let me say that again: I do not even think about it. This is a tremendously important section. When in the heat of writing and editing (and rewriting and editing and rinsing and repeating), we will inevitably lose all objectivity about our stories. We have to give ourselves some time and space to let go emotionally and to stop seeing through the rosy lenses of what we think we’ve written, instead of what’s really there. I’m often amazed by how differently a story looks after a few months of away time.
Step #7: The First Big Edit
Depending on my schedule and what other big projects I have going on, I will usually pull the manuscript out of the closet about six months after sending it to the beta readers. I go over my notes from their edits as well as any thoughts I’ve had during the intervening time, and I organize them chronologically within the story. Using Track Changes in Word, I will write the notes in as comments and attach them to the pertinent points in the story. If I have any notes that apply to the story as a whole, I’ll list them in order of importance and stick them on a blank page at the beginning of the manuscript.
I’ll usually do this edit on the computer, since it often involves big changes. Before each editing session, I’ll review the overall ideas I want to keep I mind. Then, starting at the beginning, I’ll read right on through the whole thing, stopping where necessary to heed my notes. Depending on how messy the story ended up being, this edit might be anything from a basic read-through with a few tweaks or a massive rewrite that takes months.
Step #7.1: The Proofread
If the previous edit/rewrite was particularly massive, I may print off the manuscript and proofread it one to three times to clean up any resulting typos and inconsistencies.
Step #8: The Beta Readers Round Two, Rest Round Two
Once that big edit is over, I send the manuscript on to the next round of readers. More than huge, critical plot tweaks, what I’m looking for from these readers is simply answers to the questions, “Does this work for you?” “Does this make sense?” “Do you like it?” If I’m on the right track, these readers provide a boost of confidence, which is always nice at this point, after the major critical responses from the first batch of critiquers. During this period, I’m once again ignoring the story and letting it “rest.”
Step #9: The Second Big Edit
By the time I get my beta readers’ responses back, probably a year and a half will have passed since I completed the first draft. I stop and do another full read-through of the story. Again, this could be quick pass or a major rewrite.
Step #10: The Beta Readers Round Three, Rest Round Three
I send the manuscript out again, this time to two or three readers. But this time, I don’t send the manuscript out to all of them at once. I’m now nearing the beginning of the end of my editing schedule. The book’s scheduled publication is only a year away. If the book is ever going to be good enough to publish, this is its last chance. If one of these readers suggests major changes, I want to be able to have the next reader read the refreshed manuscript and tell me whether or not I aced those changes.
This round of beta readers are hard-hitting, critical readers. At this point, I want to make certain I’ve either fixed all the major problems or know what to fix. I schedule six months per reader (hoping they’ll be able to get the manuscript back to me sooner than that).
Step #11: The Third Big Edit
After receiving the manuscript back from the last of the heavy-hitting critters, I run through it one more time to polish it up. This is do or die for the book. If I feel it’s good enough to publish, it’s full steam ahead from here. If not, it gets a swift bullet in the head and I move on.
Step #12: The Editor
If the light is still green on the publishing schedule, this is where I hire the services of a professional editor. CathiLyn Dyck has worked on two of my books, and I heartily recommend her services.
Step #13: The Fourth Big Edit
Once I receive Cat’s critiques, I do one more pass. This is the last of what I consider the “big” edits. By this point, I’m probably only six months away from the scheduled pub date.
Step #14: The Final Clean-Up Edits
Depending on how much time I have until the pub date (and how long the book is), I will go through the manuscript two or three more times just to clean up any remaining inconsistencies or rough spots. By this point, there shouldn’t be too many problems, but, if the book has undergone major changes, there are always problems that stick around until the very end.<
Step #15: The Copy Edits and Beta Readers Round Four
Finally, I call it good on the tweaks, tell myself I can’t change anything big unless it’s crucial, and start typo hunting. I use several methods to help me track down those sneaky typos. My favorite is the one I mentioned above about reading along as my Kindle or computer reads aloud to me. I also read the manuscript aloud myself (with plenty of lemon water on hand to soothe my throat). Finally, if the stress injuries in my wrists aren’t acting up too bad, I will print off a hard copy and, as I read, use a highlighter to put a dot beneath each word, to make sure I’m reading what’s on the page—and not what I think is there.
During this section, I also like to send the manuscript out to as many as four final beta readers who are willing to lend me their objective eyeballs in helping me catch any further typos.
James Michener famously said, “I’m not a very good writer, but I’m an excellent rewriter.” As you can see, I take that approach to heart. A novel is a tremendously complicated undertaking. Very few of us can it get it spot-on perfect the first time around, no matter how excellent our grasp of storytelling techniques. To create the best story possible, we have to commit to the long haul with our books. This means not just spending the time to prep and write a book, but also the months and even years necessary to smooth out all its rough spots.
Tell me your opinion: What does your self-editing process look like?
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