How to Edit (and not destroy your work)
Writing a book is huge.
Anyone who can sit down and write 80,000 (or more) words that coalesce into a coherent book – be it fiction or otherwise – deserves our boundless respect.
But once the writing is done the real work begins.
We refer, of course, to editing.
Whilst editing services exist and there is merit to working with a professional editor – especially if you get picked up by a publisher – editing should always start with the writer. The reason for this is simple – you, the author, have to own the work. Handing over a manuscript to a publisher or a printer, that’s rife with mistakes, is a very quick way or torpedoing your dreams of becoming a published writer. Editing your own work – aside from weeding out mistakes – allows you to make sure that what you’ve written is what you intended, that it makes sense and the subplot introduced in chapter 2 actually follows through to the end. And so on.
We won’t lie, editing can be challenging and takes the average person three reads to spot all the typos but it’s necessary and worth it.
Here’s our guide to editing your novel…without destroying it.
You’ve just written a book. That’s a big deal. Whether you took a sabbatical and blitzed out your magnum opus in a matter of weeks or it’s been the work of years, completing a book is a moment to savour. So do so. Put your work aside for at least a week and let your mind decompress because before you can edit you need to stop thinking about the work as its author and start to think of it as an editor. Anyone who writes – journalists, marketers etc. – will find this far easier to do than others but regardless, give yourself time to become detached from the work.
2. Pass To Your Critics
Whilst you are letting your work settle, give the manuscript to a select few honest and well-meaning friends or family members to read through and let them tear it apart.
Beta readers (as they are known) are there to provide an objective view of your work. They’ll also spot a raft of errors that it may take you three or four read-throughs to spot. Whoever you ask, just make sure that they will (a) actually read the book, (b) read it in good time and (c) give you honest feedback. Consider setting deadlines and define how you’d like the feedback to be given to you – tracked changes in a word document for example – so everyone knows exactly what’s being asked of them. This early feedback is vitally important to the success of your manuscript so emphasise the need for honesty, as brutal as it could be.
3. Word Search
We all have words we either use incorrectly or spell incorrectly, no matter how hard we try. Effect or affect, alot or a lot, less or fewer, whom or who.
The list is long and embarrassing and we’re all guilty of it. The author (and public speaker) Natalie Goldburg believes that when you write you should do exactly that. Focus exclusively on the writing. Don’t read back, don’t edit, just write.
The upside of this approach is a finished manuscript. The downside is your work could be littered with typos, incorrect usage, grammar errors, punctuation errors and the like. Committing one of your read-throughs to just fixing these mistakes will make the work far more readable when you edit for the story. If you don’t know what a word means or you’re not sure on when to use effect verses affect – look it up. Pride is a terrible reason to have an editor pick you up on a silly mistake.
It’s also a good time to remove all double spacing after sentences, it’s not needed and you’ll save your editor/publisher a job.
4. Kick the Crutch
We all have words we over use be it in written form or conversationally. A turn of phrase or an opener to a sentence that is as distinctive to use as individuals as our finger prints.
Although hardly noticeable to us and tolerated by our friends, family and colleagues it simply doesn’t fly in a work of fiction. Mainly because it sticks out like the proverbial sore thumb,
Identifying these crutch words and either removing them or replacing them can make the difference between a good book and a bad one.
Depending on the software you’re using there are features of plugins available to make this easier. Scrivener – a popular tool amongst professional writers – offers a feature that allows you to analyse the word frequency of your document, identifying how often you have used certain words. Various third party plugins are also available for Word that performs a similar function.
Now for the hard part.
Assuming you’ve worked through steps 1-4 then you’re in a much stronger position to accurately edit your work without impulsively, and emotionally cutting hue swathes of text or dogmatically clinging on to a page that doesn’t work simply because you like it. Before you do anything, save a copy as a new document and switch on track changes (or equivalent). It makes comparing drafts much easier. We recommend you save a new draft for each round of edits.
Assuming you’ve weeded out all of the spelling mistakes and other minor issues that slow down the editing process, you can get down to the nitty gritty of reviewing the story itself and making revisions. Remember the beta readers? Now is the time to consolidate it all down into a single master list of notes and suggestions that you can review all at once. As hard as it may be, try and look at it from a state of detachment. If you become a successful novelist this won’t be the last negative feedback you get. As you go through your work, bare that list in mind and make changes where appropriate. Don’t forget, it’s entirely up to you how you choose to action those suggestions. Always refer back to your structure, and dramatis personae to make sure that what’s happening and what’s being said reflects the world you have created.
If not then you need to make a decision on whether or not the structure needs to change or the writing. You can learn more on structuring your book here.
Once you’ve completed your edits it’s time to start the process all again.
• Take a breath.
• Pass to your critics
• Word Search
• Kick the Crutch
By the second round of edits you should start to feel your work has tightened up nicely and it may even be ready to go to a professional editor and beyond.