Nothing can strike fear in the hearts of writers like editing. But if you’re going to improve your story, a thorough book edit is something that must happen. With the right tools, mindset, and preparation, it doesn’t have to be scary at all!
The fun thing about the writing and editing process is that everyone approaches it differently. Sometimes writers approach different books with different methods, since each new book is not the same as the last. You’ll take bits and pieces of what you’ve done in the past and mix it up with tips you’ve read in a book or blog, trying to find the magic that makes this book sparkle.
My own editing process continues to evolve as I grow as a writer, and as I learn more about the craft. Most recently, I tackled the edit on my just-released novel Omission, the fourth book in the Darby Shaw Chronicles. You’d think by now, I’d have my path mostly set in stone, but life has a tendency to force change, and this time was no different.
Inspired by my most recent round of editing, here’s how you can tackle a thorough book edit, based on suggestions made by your beta readers.
1. Read Through the Suggestions
I count myself blessed to have K.M. Weiland as one of my beta readers, and her suggestions are gold. That being said, there were a LOT of things to address, from simple word choice all the way to dramatic changes in structure, to scenes to remove, and chapters that needed relocation.
Over two days, I read through everything she’d sent me (and my book was huge, a little over 150,000 words at the time) and would sometimes verbalize my assent to what she’d said or ask a question aloud—“What did she mean by this?” Or, “Gosh, that’s really one of my weak areas, I’m going to need help with that.”
When I completed the read-through, I had a lot to mull over, especially since I was on a deadline.
2. Ask Preliminary Questions
I had a lot of questions, right off the bat, the most pressing of which I sent back to Katie. Other things needed to stew in my mind before I could tackle them.
I also have the tendency to want to talk things out. Why is this scene not working? If I did this, would it work better? Should I change POV?
I’ve been known to talk with beta readers for two or even three hours at the local Panera as we discuss a handful of chapters of our books. Not an option with Katie, since we live about 600 miles apart, but our e-mails back and forth were probably more on point anyway. Sometimes, the mere act of just asking a question would be enough to spur me into a possible answer, and at that point, I just waited for Katie to confirm my gut reaction.
3. Work the Problems
One of my favorite movies is Apollo 13. One of the lesser quoted quotables is from flight director Gene Kranz. In it, he states,
Let’s work the problem, people. Let’s not make it worse by guessing.
I approach things the same way when I’m editing. Not only is my editing style peculiar, but I can be a bit neurotic. I desperately want to get things right. I’m sure this can drive my beta readers insane.
Depending on the project and my time constraints, I might go through and tackle major issues first, then work down to minor things like word choice and punctuation.
Or, as I did with Omission, I might start at the beginning and work every problem as I come to it. This second approach is not one I’d recommend, but I was under time constraints both due to my own deadlines for publication, as well as personal goings on. (Side note: I do not recommend having a book deadline in the same time frame as you’re attempting to move. It makes for a very scatter-brained writer.) However, it did get the job done, even if it meant dealing with both small and large issues in the blink of an eye.
4. Ask Follow-Up Questions
Sometimes the initial questions you ask are all you need, especially if you’re thorough.
I’m not. Really.
I’m scatter-brained to begin with on most days, and after three or four issues, my brain gets muddled and I just can’t think beyond that. When you’re initially reading through suggested changes from your beta readers, a concept may seem straightforward enough, but when it comes to actually doing the edits, you can be staring at the page wondering “Wut r werds?”
Having a beta reader who is willing to answer questions days, even weeks after they sent you their thoughts is crucial. For at least three weeks, I would shoot Katie questions about scenes and issues, frequently with screenshots to jog her memory. I’m sure I drove her a bit nuts. One email thread alone had over 70 e-mails exchanged! When I could, I tried to tackle more than one issue, but sometimes it didn’t happen.
After an in-depth edit, the most important thing you can do is go back and make sure you didn’t accidentally cut out something critical to the story. Just as importantly, you need to clean up any new typos you’ve created. Since I write mysteries, I’m careful about making sure my clues stay in place, but as I was going through and cutting chapters out, I’d recognize I hadn’t kept an important element and that I’d have to go back and pull it from the trash bin. Working in Scrivener is tremendously helpful since it’s never truly gone.
Another tip: use a program that will read to you as you read through the file yourself. You’ll be amazed how many typos and missed words you’ll find!
Editing can be the most rewarding phase in the writing process. A lot of writers approach it grudgingly, but it’s really where we get to see our ideas shine. Whether you follow a process similar to what I’ve outlined above, or do something totally different, finding the right process for a thorough book edit will enhance your writing over the years. It should be a constantly evolving process, and no two edits will look the same. When in doubt, follow the writing and editing advice of Sean Platt:
Say it. Say what you mean. Say it well.
You can’t go wrong with that.