One of the reasons editing a novel can sometimes feel like the insurmountable Mt. Never Gonna Get There is because you don’t have a clear path forward. Facing a big edit–with lots of feedback from various sources–is like facing down the mopping up after a hurricane. You’ve got the manpower and the know-how. But first you have to figure out how to put them to use. After all, you can’t move forward until you know the first step.
Reader Megan LaCroix emailed me recently with this fabulously pertinent question:
I’ve been collecting feedback I’ve received from agents, and I’ve also sent my manuscript out to a few betas to get even more feedback. My question is this: What is the best method for organizing multiple sets of feedback?
If your eyes are crossing at just the mention of multiple streams of feedback coming in at once, you’re not alone. Fortunately, organizing anything is my favorite subject! Today, I’m going to show you how to organize your novel’s edits in six simple steps.
Should You Try to Simultaneously Handle Multiple Sources of Feedback?
In a perfect world, you would have all the time you wanted to send your manuscript to one beta reader, ingest his suggestions, make your edits, then send it out to another beta reader.
However, since perfection has yet to be achieved, you will undoubtedly face the challenge of figuring out how to organize your novel’s edits in the light of multiple suggestion streams. There are any number of reasons this might be so, but the main one is probably a simple time crunch.
For example, my novels get three years from first draft to publication. During that time, I need to get as many as ten sets of eyes on the book. Most beta readers need at least a couple months to thoughtfully peruse a manuscript–which means those three years get eaten up fast. There isn’t time enough to give the manuscript to one reader at a time. Just as aptly, there isn’t enough time for me to do a major edit for every single reader.
6 Steps for How to Organize Your Novel’s Edits
Since I want to get as many eyes as possible on each new draft, I divide my readers into “layers”–usually about three at a time. Then I’ll wait to receive all three sets of feedback before doing an edit–and then sending the new draft onto the next layer of readers.
The result? Inevitably, I must exert some forethought to organize my novel’s edits and streamline the process to make sure I’m taking full advantage of each early reader’s suggestions. To that end, I use this six-step process.
Step 1: Clear Out the Small Stuff First
When you first receive notes back from a reader, go through them right away (not that you could resist, right?). At this stage, you won’t need to worry about any big changes. But go ahead and take care of all the small stuff.
I’m talking about:
- Incorrect facts
- Grammar tweaks
- General mistakes
What you’re doing here is just a quick sweep to take care of all the easy fixes that don’t require much thought. These are things you know the reader is right about and that don’t require any more correction than a little typing on your part.
If your reader has used Word’s Track Changes feature, you can then go ahead and “Accept” all of these small changes. They’ll disappear, lessening the clutter in the doc and clearing your way to focus on the big stuff.
Step 2: Create a Running List of Acceptable Suggestions
Once you’ve finished receiving feedback from all your current sources, you’re ready to figure out how to organize your novel’s edits on a bigger scale. This is the part where the edits can start feeling overwhelming. You have all this stuff coming in from every direction. It’s hard to get your brain around it all, much less figure out which suggestions are worth integrating into your manuscript–and which aren’t.
Where do you start?
Repeat after me: when in doubt, make a list.
Create a master doc in Word or Scrivener, where you can start a list of all the major changes that need to be incorporated into this round of edits. Then, one by one, go through each of your readers’ suggestions.
Agree with a suggestion? Then write it down in your master list. (Remember, at this point, you’ve already accepted and incorporated all the minor changes, which means what you’re left with are only big changes–changes that require you to add whole scenes or tweak whole subplots.)
Keep all the suggestions in chronological order. This is important because as you move onto the second or third reader’s suggestions, you’re going to incorporate them into your master list in order. You’re combining them all into what is, essentially, one big “editing outline.”
Step 3: Divide Your List Into Two Parts: Easy and Not-So-Easy
When you’ve finished your list of necessary edits, divide it into two sections:
1. Fixes You Understand
These are things that may require some work, but that won’t require much advance brainstorming. In other words, you know exactly what you need to do to fix them.
2. Fixes You Have to Think About
These are problems you know need to be fixed–but which you don’t necessarily know how to fix right away. You need to do some serious brainstorming to work through these plot holes.
Step 4: Prep the Easy Fixes First
Open your story’s master file in Word and turn on Track Changes. This will allow you to add comments to your document.
One by one, sort through your list of “easy fixes” from Step 3. Search through your manuscript to find the scene where the change will have to be made and leave yourself a comment. Usually, you can just copy/paste your beta reader’s original comment, but you can also add any further thoughts you have on the matter.
At this point, you’re not actually changing anything in your manuscript. You’re just starting to create a beat-by-beat road map you can easily follow to make all the necessary changes when you are actually ready to start editing.
Step 5: Brainstorm Solutions to the Not-So-Easy Fixes
This is where you have to step away from organizing your novel’s edits and move back into the full-on creative zone. What you’re left with at this point are the handful of tough fixes. These are major problems in your story–things that absolutely must be corrected, but that don’t present easy solutions.
Sit down with your brainstorming tools of choice (I prefer a notebook and a pen, since writing longhand is the best way to free my creativity). One by one, start working through your story’s major problems. Ask yourself lots of questions:
- What is the real issue here?
- What needs to happen to fix it?
- What new changes will this new solution prompt throughout the rest of the story?
- What new problems will these changes create and how can you anticipate and correct them?
- What if you tried something totally new?
- What’s expected here?
- What’s unexpected?
Work through each problem to its logical conclusion. Once you know what you need to do, use Track Changes to add your notes to the pertinent section of your manuscript, just as you did above in Step 4.
Step 6: Start Editing
Congratulations! You’ve successfully organized that mass of editing notes from your readers and editors. Thanks to your list of Track Changes comments, you now have an easy road map you can follow in making changes.
Now where do you start?
Whenever I tackle a major edit like this, I always read through the entire manuscript. I want to be able to keep the whole story in view, and I want to be sure I’m catching and adjusting all the little tweaks that will ripple throughout the entire story thanks to these new changes.
Start reading at the beginning of your manuscript. Whenever you reach one of the comments you’ve left yourself, stop and make the necessary changes. Some of the changes will be easy and you’ll fly through them. Others will require you to add or rewrite entire pages. Keep at it steadily, and before you know it, you’ll have a brand new shiny draft ready to send out to the next round of beta readers or agents!
The question of how to organize your novel’s edits can seem like a complicated one. But its answer isn’t complicated at all. Make things simple and straightforward for yourself by employing these easy organizational tactics to streamline the process. That way, you can devote the majority of your brainpower to what really matters: the edits themselves!
Wordplayers, tell me your opinion! What process do you use in figuring out how to organize your novel’s edits? Tell me in the comments!