If there is one thing in life I can be sure of, especially after years of being told so by many adults as I grew up, no one is perfect first time.
Practice makes perfect. If at first, you don’t succeed, try, try again.
There’s a reason there are so many sayings about not giving up and re-trying things. With writing, that tidying, touching up and retrying has a name: editing.
Starting an Edit
Editing starts with finishing a rough draft. You can’t edit what doesn’t exist yet, despite what my brain keeps trying to tell me.
Probably the hardest part of editing in my case is actually waiting to get started on it. After I get to about 2/3s of the way through my current project, my brain is already engaging in trying to fix perceived problems.
Once I’m done making myself ignore most of the editing while writing, the next step is to put the entire project down and walk away, for at least a couple of weeks if not up to two months.
One cannot edit what one has just finished. It’s all too familiar and I end up either reading what I think I wrote, instead of what’s actually there, or I cant be objective about the content.
Really Actually Starting
Once all the waiting is done, then I can actually start making changes. My first task is usually content and structure concerns.
A simple, single read-through where I can highlight problems in the story (this bit is too slow, that bit is too fast) and start to correct those problems.
I normally start this by checking over my paragraph layout for flow and then making sure I can check what ‘job’ each paragraph is doing. Anything which is not moving the plot along or adding insight related to the story is liable to find its neck on the chopping block.
Then, I’m looking at any foreshadowing in the book. Is it too much? Too little? Does it need any tweaking? Akin to that, I’m looking to make sure the language I have used illustrates the goals at any given point clearly.
Next, I read all the dialogue aloud to make sure it sounds natural and real. This gets very fun when I get to arguments and concern my neighbors by having a shouting match with myself inside my own home.
Style and Prose
After the structure edit, I go through the work again. This time I’m looking for smooth prose after all those changes, that paragraphs flow and chapters end well.
The first stop here for me is to check all my adverbs and ‘ing’ words. I am not one of those people who thinks all adverbs should be outlawed, but too many is a problem and my writing looks lazy if I’m not careful.
I also check for areas I have used words like ‘feel’ and ‘felt’ as this tends to lend to telling, not showing and can be rephrased. Then I try to make sure I haven’t used too many cliche phrases.
At this stage, I’m also looking for my unique style and any ‘voice’ that seems out of place. There are modernisms which creep into my work that need excising, not to mention looking to see if there are more period appropriate words to slot in, without cluttering my tone.
I also tend to do several re-reads here from the mindset of my main characters, making sure their responses throughout the book fit with how I envision them (i.e. Making sure Kez doesn’t respond in X way to a situation just because it suits Leona for him to do so.)
A final step is proof-reading. After all the above has been addressed, only then do I actually worry about spelling and grammar.
The reason is simple – there is no point checking spelling and grammar until you’re done changing the sentences. Only once your words are set in stone is it worth going through with a fine tooth comb for spelling and those pesky commas.
The hardest thing to find at this stage, I find, is ‘like’ words – words with the same sound, or double meanings that may be in there incorrectly. ‘They’re’, ‘their’, ‘there’ is a good example of the sort of thing, especially as they won’t be picked up by most spell checkers. Having another set of eyes looking for similar can be a huge help here, especially as someone else will read what is there, not what I think is there.
Editing with Others
I am in two minds about this. You might think from what I just said above that I would be all on board with other people helping with the editing process, but there must be some major caveats.
For spelling and grammar and general feedback on book pacing, there are so many people out there who can help, and will probably like doing so. That’s great and I make full use of my long-suffering family in these areas.
I often call them my cheerleading squad, and they have been the most helpful overall.
Beware other writers. Having more experienced eyes on your work can be great, but it must be taken in the context of who is helping and why. I have had other writers look over my work (not an easy thing to achieve, writers are always most focused on their own work) and while some were incredibly helpful in letting me know areas of weakness, there is a very real danger of hitting the dreaded echo chamber.
An echo chamber can come in two forms. There is the form where everyone involved just tells each other how great their respective works are, without pointing out areas of weaknesses or zones for improvement. While this is great for personal self-worth, it doesn’t necessarily help the work.
Thankfully, this is the easiest echo chamber to spot.
The more insidious one is the ‘this is the rules’ echo chamber. This is where you will be told prologues are forbidden, adverbs are the devil and that you must never start with dialogue.
And it’s all nonsense. YES, these ‘rules’ exist for a reason, and most traditionally published books follow a series of common guidelines. Do not do these things lightly. But they are not forbidden, and every tool a creator has should be used if it fits your work and what you are trying to do.
I am reminded of a quote from the wonderful Sir Terry Pratchett, about his with Esme Weatherwax.
‘…as you progress in the Craft, you’ll learn there is another rule. Esme’s obeyed it all her life.’
‘And what’s that?’
‘When you break rules, break ‘em good and hard.’
Know the ‘rules’, understand them… and break them where you must. Artists do not refuse to use a certain color of paint or to seek unusual mediums and neither should writers.
For me, writing is not about making the next homogenized top seller, and I have no use for the echo chamber of ‘advice’ to make it such. As a result, I usually put a lot more stock in the feedback of my early readers than anything aspiring writers tend to have to say. For better or for worse remains to be seen.
As a final word, I am not against professionals getting their hands on my work. Professional editors are paid to find flaws and problems in your work, to be practical and detached.
They are also invested in doing the job as they are already paid and rewarded in full so they will give you an honest and detailed feedback document without outside factors (like getting help on their own work…) influencing them.
Picking the right one is important, as is discussing what you are looking for. Professional editors are a great resource once you have already done all your own editing yourself, beginning to end, and are ready to give the work some final polish.
It’s their job, and if they didn’t do it well, they wouldn’t be making any money/still in business. Theirs is an opinion I am much more open to working with.
So! There we go, some insight into my fun with editing, how I do it, what I think about it. Hopefully next week, I’ll be back on my usual schedule, and will have those photos of what tied me up so much this week!