I’m editing a manuscript today, so naturally, I have revisions on the brain. Thus, my column this month will be all about…editing.
I hate editing. Let me just put that out there from the start. Editing is, by far, my least favorite part of the process. So, over my three-year writing career, I have tried to hammer out a technique that makes editing as painless as possible. Short of pawning it off on someone else or consuming large doses of controlled substances, I’m pretty sure there’s no way to make it a euphoric step in the journey toward a finished book. It is, however, a very necessary step.
So what I’m going to share is my way of editing without feeling like I’m using a dull Black & Decker drill with a low battery to give myself a root canal. Your mileage may vary, but this is what works for me.
Step 1: Print the manuscript. I find editing so much easier on paper, plus it’s not quite so painful on the eyes. Also, several wise writers over the years have suggested editing with the text in a different font than you used to write it because you’ll actually see it differently, and problems you may have skimmed right over will jump out at you. I wholeheartedly agree. I write in Times New Roman, edit in Bookman Antiqua.
Step 2: No pens. No pencils. No highlighters. Put away thy writing instruments, grab a cup of coffee and the nearest willing lap animal, and just read it straight through. Don’t make any notes, don’t make any changes, just read it. Any choppiness in the story, repeated words/phrases, plot holes, etc., will be much easier to see if you’re not stopping every eleven seconds to make a comment. I promise, the problems will still be there when you read it the second time.
Step 3: Make some notes. Now that you’re finished reading the manuscript, jot down on a separate piece of paper any problems that stuck with you. Certain words/phrases that kept coming up. Gaping, festering plot holes. (Incidentally, I think plot holes are the literary equivalent of a kid getting ready to go play in the snow. You ask time and again if they have to use the bathroom, they insist they’re fine, so you go through all the steps of wrapping them in seven layers of extreme weather gear, and just as you’re about to shove them out the door to discover how much it sucks getting a snowball down the back of your jacket… “I have to go potty!”) Anyway, where was I? Oh yes. You’re making notes of problems you remember from your first read-through. Don’t panic if you’re sure there was something else; it’ll come back to you in step 4.
Step 4: Arm thyself, gird thy loins, and attack thy manuscript. This is the part where you break out the pens, pencils, highlighters, sharpened sticks dipped in ash, or whatever you prefer as an editing utensil. Rip that sucker to shreds. Attack every comma and plot hole with extreme prejudice. Write notes in the margins, in a notebook, on your sleeping spouse’s forehead. Slice, dice, grate, and chop. On sticky notes, on index cards, on Donner, on Blitzen.
Step 5: Polish like a mighty polishing thing that polishes. All those changes and notes? Apply them generously to the manuscript on your computer. (word to the wise: save a copy of the original. It never hurts to have copies of every version along the way, just in case something goes horribly wrong.)
Step 6: Take a break. How long? That’s up to you. For me, it’s usually about as long as it takes to consume a meal with the spouse I’ve neglected during the editing process. And the writing process before that. And…yeah, you get the idea. Anyway. You might just need an hour or two to clear your head, you might prefer to wait until the next day, or you might need a week. It’s up to you. But give your eyes, brain, and fingers a rest. I usually try to do something besides reading or writing during this time, whether it’s catching up on a few episodes of Burn Notice or making my cats run up and down the hall in a futile attempt to apprehend the mysterious glowing dot. Whatever floats your take-a-break boat.
Step 7: Read it one more time. I don’t like to burn through paper or toner if I can help it (when you live overseas and it takes 6 weeks to get a new toner cartridge, you learn to be a bit stingy with it), so I usually do this step on my Kindle. Again, your mileage may vary. Give it a read, make sure it all flows nicely and you’ve cleaned it up properly. If you run into any major problems, it’s off to Rewriteville. If not, send it off to your beta readers, and move on to the next project.
Resist the urge to keep editing. Of course we all want our manuscripts to be bright, shiny, and flawlessly polished, but recognize when you’re just tweaking for the sake of tweaking. When you’ve added and replaced the same comma twelve times, or agonized over whether one particular sentence should precede or follow another, you’re just spinning your tires. Don’t wind up in Editing Purgatory.
Now, later in the game, when your book is contracted and you start getting edits from your editor, I find it’s a good idea to give it another pen-and-pencils-in-hand editing pass during that time. Go through the manuscript and make all the changes your editor has requested. Once you’re finished, print it out and go through it once on your own. You shouldn’t find nearly as many issues as you did in the first editing steps (certainly hope not at this point!), but it’s worth giving it a read just for some extra clean-up. And believe me, it’s better to catch those minor annoying tweakie (that’s a word) things at this stage than when you’re reading the galley copy. It’s a lot easier to change them now.
So there’s my relatively painless editing routine. As always, your mileage may vary, but following these steps keep me out of Editing Purgatory.
Now, back to editing for me. Happy writing!