Hello there my lovelies!
It’s the Sunday before Thanksgiving and because it was my goal this year to post once a week (and I haven’t quite done it) I’ll attempt to finish the year strong! Today I’m giving you My Two Cents on Editing.
As is tradition (if it’s been more than three times it’s tradition, right?) Anyway, as is tradition I’ll first provide you with more qualified sources of educational material:
I’m not an expert, but these “self-editing” aids, from people who are, all say basically the same thing, so let me break down what I think is the most important information from all of for you.
In case you’re new here, I’m going to explain my journey so you can get a sense of my editing experience. I’ve written four complete manuscripts (none of which have been published yet), I have several more novels in various states of completion and I’ve written dozens of short stories several of which have been (or are about to be) published to online literary journals/magazines. Plus, many would count the blog you’re reading as a writing credit and this week is my 35th post this year. Now I don’t list these ‘accomplishments’ to toot my own horn (but honestly tootmotherfuckingtoot).
Anyway, I list them this way to let you know I’m no stranger to editing. I’m a relatively new writer (having only been seriously writing for about three years), but I’ve learned through trial and error that the above resources have it right so maybe you can learn from my mistakes and don’t dismiss them.
The first step you’ll notice in all of these resources is to take a break from your book. I can tell you from experience that this is simultaneously the hardest step in the process and the most important. The easiest trap to fall into as a new writer is to get excited about completing your work and want to get it out there immediately. So if you’re anything like me, you will try to rush the process, but let me tell you that’s a mistake!
In my experience, there’s a cycle you experience once you complete a manuscript. The first step in the cycle is elation. You’ll never love your writing as much as you do the day/days after you finish your first draft (or major rewrite). You feel high on life. You think there’s nothing better in the world and there’s absolutely no way your writing could get any better. Hold on to that feeling because I’m sorry to say—it won’t last!
Unfortunately, the next step in the cycle is you hate everything and you want to throw it away. This period is marked by imposter syndrome, disdain for your writing (and maybe words in general), and a complete belief that you may have written the biggest piece of dribble in the world. This stage comes during your second or third read through and is usually amplified by 100 if you rush the take a break step of the editing process.
Here’s what I mean… Think of your book like a baby (because it is your baby, right?). Anyway, when a baby’s first born, they need help with everything. And a parent’s first instinct is to rush to solve every problem for an infant because they’re helpless. But when your kid grows up, to a middle grade or high school aged kid, you can more reasonably expect that not every issue needs your help and you can allow said kid to flounder on their own for a bit before you rush to help him/her. So if you skip over the take a break step of the process, your baby is still a newborn. Your initial instinct is going to be to fix everything and trust me when I say that often leads to creating more problems than you fix. You’ll want to edit your pre-teen or teenage book, because at that point it’s easier as a parent to pick and choose the things you want to help with, and leave some things to flounder until later.
So here’s the advice again (and I hope you listen better than I did)… take a break from your writing. Like seriously, a LONG BREAK. I recommend at least ninety days but longer if you can stand it. Some of my resources above say six weeks, two months, but the point is, months not days. After my first book I did some research on self editing, read ‘wait ninety days’ and scoffed at my computer. “I don’t need to wait THAT long, do I?” Yes, my former self. The answer is yes. You do need to wait that long. When you first finish your book, your brain is all gooey and you need the space and time to gain perspective and be able to help it with clear thoughts. So don’t rush this time.
And the waiting period is necessary after every round of rewrites. I had a conversation with a fellow writer recently where I suggested she wait, and while I know she means well, I also know she didn’t. And it’s causing her more grief because she’s struggling with self doubt which is significantly slowing down the process. So If you’re like her (and me), remember that idle hands and minds will drive you crazy. So you’ll need to fill that writing time with some kind of task. And if you can’t take a break from writing completely, move on. Write something else, start a website, research the publishing process, write a query, write a blurb/synopsis, write a blog, read a book, write a short story, enter a contest, basically—do ANYTHING else. Don’t read your book for at least ninety days. I promise you’ll have a new perspective on it when you come back, so don’t rush the process.
Now I know I spent a long time on that step, but in my opinion, step 1 is the most important, and the one that I had the most trouble listening to advice on, so don’t be like me. Please. Listen to the people who’ve tried. Ok, I feel like I’ve said it enough, so I'll move on.
The next step that these resources all suggest is—fix big picture things first. Even if you do take a break, on your second or third read-through, you’ll still be emotional about what you’ve written, so don’t fool yourself into thinking you have the perspective to make all the right decisions the first time around. Plus it’s too hard to try to fix everything at once. It will overwhelm you and make none of the changes as effective as they could be.
So don’t jump into editing thinking you’re only going to do one pass, because you aren’t. Get real comfortable because if you do it right, before you’re done, you’ll have read your manuscript probably a hundred times. The point is, on this second/third pass, ignore small picture things. Yes I’m talking grammar, spelling, punctuation but also not so tiny things like world building, pacing, dialogue tags, and sentence structure.
So what do you look for? On the first pass, you should look for plot holes, character development and story structure issues.
Plot: Does the plot make sense? Do all the twists belong? Do they make sense in the genre you’re writing? For example, romance plots typically take a specific format: they have a meet-cute, they fall in love, they have a conflict/black moment they have to overcome, then they live happily ever after. I can’t know what you’re writing, but the thing to ask yourself when examining your plot is—does your story follow the conventions of the genre? Plus the story needs to have momentum, and engage the reader throughout, so make sure your plot is achieving that goal.
Character: Do your characters have believable backstories? Are their motivations clear? Do they have growth from the beginning to the end of the story? Do they have their own agency (ie they aren’t just being affected by the people/things around them but their growth is internal as well)? Does every character belong? Are the characters' reactions believable and consistent throughout?
These are all questions to consider while you re-read your story. Every story is different, so only you know how many of your characters are “main characters” but focus on main character(s) first and work your way out from there. Make sure that every character matters, and make sure they’re consistent and believable, plus make sure you know why the reader should care about them.
Story: Story structure changes depending on the genre/writers style, but it basically always follows this format:
[Main Character] must [do something] to achieve [goal] or else [reason why the audience should care]
These are also called the stakes. So as you read your story, see if you fill in the blanks. And here’s a trap people fall into—you’re the writer so you know the stakes, but your reader doesn’t, so make sure not only can you fill in the blanks, but also that those blanks are filled in on the page. If you’re reading and you can fill them in from the words on your page, your story is clearly defined. If not, you have work to do. It’s that simple.
The above resources tend to vary on the next point, but I recommend that the third readthrough of your manuscript be read out loud. There are tons of ways to achieve this. You can simply read it to yourself—though the problem with that is that since you’ve written it, your mind can tend to make edits on its own because you know what you meant. So I recommend having someone read it to you or because we have so much wonderful technology now, you can have an app/reader read it to you.
If you use Word, they have reading built in, but if not HIGHLY RECOMMEND the Natural Reader app. I pay for the premium subscription because I’m picky about how the voices sound, but if robotic voices don’t bother you, their free version works really well (Pro tip: the British voices in the free version sound less robotic to my American ear because it already has a different accent).
Anyway, the point is—listening to your book out loud allows you to hear problematic things. You’ll hear dropped words, awkward sentence structure, overused words and places where pacing gets awkward. It’s easier to hear choppy (or long winded) writing when you listen vs when you read. Plus, you’ll catch way more errors in grammar/sentence structure because if you aren’t reading it, your mind can’t fix it. Make sure you're also reading the words on the page so you can make corrections along the way and so you're getting the full effect (so don't just listen).
Do a scene by scene edit. Once you feel like any big picture issues are fixed, you’ve listened to your book completely once, I recommend reading chapter by chapter and doing more line level edits. This is the time you focus on world building (making your reader see the setting you see in your head), connecting the dialogue to the world (add action beats to replace ‘he said’ or ‘she said’), and building out each individual scene to connect one to another.
During this time you’ll ensure every scene earns its place in the book. You should be asking yourself does this scene matter? If I take it out would the overall book suffer? If the answer is no, then you need to either a.) make it matter, or b.) take it out.
Also, at this point you should be examining if the scene opens in the right place, is it well paced, and does it transition smoothly and provide adequate foreshadowing/breadcrumbs for scenes to come. Plus, does the dialogue sound believable, and does it represent the characters accurately?
In my opinion, a best practice is to do one chapter/scene at a time, because it’s easy to get overwhelmed if you try to do more than that. I don’t know your life, but if you’re anything like me, writing gets a very small slice of your time, so it can be easy to try to cram more than is smart into the time you have. But trust me, your work will thank you if you take breaks in between scenes or chapters to reset your brain. It’s draining to examine each section of your book closely, and it can be hard to do it adequately without taking time in between scenes to rest. I can generally edit 2 chapters thoroughly at a time (if I have an entire day of uninterrupted time). So pace yourself, give yourself breaks and be sure you’re examining every line. I also like to listen to each chapter after I’ve made edits to see how they sound and if my changes were impactful enough.
Eliminate sentence level mistakes. This section could be the longest, but I’m going to try to make it as short as possible because I know this is already going on too long. But what I mean by eliminating sentence level mistakes is not just correct grammar, spelling and punctuation issues, though that’s definitely included. I mean, examine each sentence to be sure every word earns its place and make sure each sentence is written as well as it can be.
Here are a few examples:
Eliminate passive voice (could “the cup was picked up” be “she picked up the cup”)
Adverbs (ly words) in dialogue tags mean you’re telling instead of showing (‘he said angrily’ should be described by what angry action he’s doing)
Delete crutch words (may, seem, might, could, etc). These words make your characters weaker and it seems like you (the author) don’t understand their motivations so how can you expect your reader to?
Replace overused words. Every writer has their own, so you have to figure out yours and replace them. Sometimes they can be hard to identify so here’s a couple resources for helping you find word other people overuse: Grammarly But generally, once you start sharing your work, people will point yours out. And this is a great question to ask betas/editors if you have trouble pinpointing your own.
Simplify language (could ‘in close proximity’ be ‘near’ could ‘a very small thing’ be ‘tiny’) The point is, if you have three words instead of one there'd better be a good reason. So just make sure you know what the reason is and if there isn’t one, replace it.
Dialogue formatting. This is something I struggle with, and I tend to rely on my editors to fix for me, but I’ve been taught that if the word following the “" comes from your mouth/is a sound it’s a comma if not it’s a period. I honestly feel like I never get it quite right, so use my resources to better help you with this because I’m not going to give examples. Here’s another helpful resource for dialogue specifically Grammarly
Make sure your POV stays consistent. This means if you’re writing in 3rd person (a narrator is telling the story) stay with the narrator. Don’t switch to “I.” If you’re writing first person (the main character is the narrator) then don’t describe things from the outside. I also write dual POV (my male main character and my female main character each tell parts of the story from their own POV). So while I’m editing, to keep it straight in my mind I have the male character’s chapters in bold type, so if I walk away I won’t forget who I’m with.
Make sure the tense is consistent. If you’re writing in past tense verbs should end in -ed. if present they shouldn’t.
Here’s an example of POV and tense. The main character is Sally.
Sally walked to the store—Past tense tense 3rd person POV
Sally walks to the store—Present tense 3rd person POV
I walked to the store—Past tense 1st person POV
I walk to the store—Present tense 1st person POV
I could go on forever—but these are some of the main issues that you need to concentrate on. And my resources list a lot more so if you read these you should be in good shape. And once you feel these things are good you can move on to the next step.
Beta readers/professional edits
Once you’ve read your book, by this time a minimum of 4-6 times, you should be feeling like it’s in good shape. At this point, you’re so close to it you won’t always be objective. So it’s time to move on and share your work with other people. I generally do several rounds of beta readers before I consider what the next steps are for my book. My rounds are generally 2-3 people and I give them specific things I want them to look for (i.e. Plot, Story, Character consistency, etc). And these people should be familiar/specialize in your genre and hopefully be writers as well. I wrote a beta readers post a while back that I plan to edit/adjust so I won’t go into this too much, but the point is, getting feedback from other people is a really important part of editing. They’ll be able to see things you can’t, and beta readers are not a step that should be skipped.
There are so many other steps probably, and each of my original resources has a different amount but if you do these six, your manuscript will probably be in really good shape. But here’s the thing, after you’re finished with step 6 there’s a step that often gets skipped which is
Do it all again. Once you’ve received feedback from your betas, you’re likely to feel raw, and maybe vulnerable from their criticism. And it’s an important part of the process but not the end. Keep in mind, the feedback any beta/editor gives you is always going to be their opinion. And while this is important to implement because no matter who they are, (hopefully you found people who are your target audience), as a reader their opinion matters. But their opinion might not resonate with your vision. And that’s hard to discern when you’re feeling raw about what they think doesn’t work.
So while I know it’s going to be hard, here’s my suggestion. Read their feedback and then start from step one again. While it might be the most difficult thing you ever do, take a break. Read the feedback, let it sink in, ask questions if you need clarity, then do nothing. Don’t make changes right away. Wait at least a week (two or three, maybe even six if you can--step 1) and then start the editing process over again from step 2 armed with the feedback from your betas. I like to send my betas my work in Google Docs so they can make suggestions in the doc as they’re reading. (Be warned some do and some don’t, so this doesn’t always work). But then, I start reading my book again from the beginning, considering all the notes they left. If they leave notes in my Google doc, I read them (chapter by chapter) then read the chapter and consider if I should implement their notes or not. If I don’t use their suggestion, I need to have a reason I don’t. If I do, I need to have a reason I do. It’s that simple.
Ok folks, I know this was a long one, and if you made it down here, CONGRATS! I hope that means you’re as committed to your own manuscript and I can’t wait to read it, because you’re likely the type of author who isn’t going to push out a sub-par piece of writing. You’re taking your time, editing thoroughly and doing your research and due-diligence to have the best piece you can.
Hopefully my ramblings help, and you’ll be able to avoid some of the editing pitfalls I’ve managed to stumble into. But if not, take heart, we’ve all been there, just pick up and start from step 1 again. That’s it for now,
If you’re American, have a Happy Thanksgiving my lovelies! (If not, have a great week--and remember to tell someone you're thankful for them)
-Rose Rayne Rivers
Do you have any editing advice? Comment below and let me know! Also, let me know if you have any topics you want me to cover in the upcoming weeks!
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