A Three-step Editing guide

Editing is the hardest part of the writing cycle. I don’t know many writers who jump up and down and say “yay! Let’s get down to Editing!” Half of the problem with most writers is that we don’t know where to begin, we’ve lost interest in the project, or we don’t know how to distance ourselves from our work. Others act like the editing stage doesn’t exist and think they’re stories are perfect as-is. I’ve rarely seen a manuscript that was perfect on the first run through. I’ve rarely written an essay that was perfect at the first draft. That’s why it’s called a draft. It’s just one iteration of what will eventually become a full fledged novel that people will want to read.

Several professors of mine have told us that the editing phase of the process can easily be described more accurately as Revisioning. Given that you’ve provided yourself with enough distance, revisioning allows you to revisit your work and see the work through new eyes. It gives you a chance to fine tune your vision for your story, or even rework it so that it works even better. This quick little guide to editing assumes that you’ve finished your manuscript – if you haven’t finished your first draft, I’d advise you finish that first. There’s no point in editing an incomplete manuscript. I’ve distilled it down to three steps that I think capture the essence of the re-visioning process.

  1. If you’re a National Novel Writing Month participant like myself, I’d recommend maybe a first pass for egregious spelling and grammar errors that impede understanding. As someone with next to no accuracy when she’s typing furiously during a word war, this becomes a problem very fast. Additionally, I stopped correcting spelling mistakes and turned off auto-correct during NaNo because it slows me down, I get more critical of my work and then I stop believing in what I’m writing.I do not advise, however, to wholesale edit lines and make your sentences sound more flashy, that’s for later, when you’re story is tight and in place. What I am merely suggesting is that if you find yourself like I do at the end of NaNo, with a first draft riddled with spelling errors and grammatical mistakes that render the whole story unreadable, go back and make them readable – not perfect, just readable. There’s nothing more frustrating than slogging through a passage that you can’t understand, much less read, months after the first draft has been completed. It’s even worse when you’re reading through it to find the parts that obviously need some more fleshing out.
  2. Once you’ve freed your manuscript up of egregious spelling mistakes, go through and read it with fresh eyes – The eyes of someone reading this novel. Look for scenes that need to be enhanced and make notes. If you’re inner editor is telling you to cut something out, highlight it and cut it out later. If you can’t resist the urge to not cut it out, copy and paste it into an external notes file. You may find you need it in later drafts in a different spot of your novel. I only ever feel confident about advising permanent deletion of something if you are so appalled by its existence that you can’t stand the sight of it. Once you’ve finished your reading, go back and write out the scenes that need to be expanded on, and cut down on the fat. This step may be repeated several times before you get to a place where you’re satisfied with your novel. You can stop when, as one professor eloquently put it, you come to the place where you feel like you’re polishing a turd. Once you think you can safely say that your story is in place, then you can move on to the final step.
  3. The final step is the mechanics, the spelling and grammar mistakes that slipped past your radar as you were working on your draft. It also gives you the opportunity to make your sentences tighter, flashier, and more to your personal writing style. No one wants to read a story that is a heaping mess of grammatical mistakes, spelling errors, and unfortunate word choices. You may repeat this step several times, but you’ll know when you’re done. Everything reads like it should, all of your sentences have a perfect rhythm to them, and the words bring strong, vivid images and scenes in your mind, and the characters come so alive that you forget their fictional. Unlike the last step, it’s obvious when you’re done with this stage.

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