AUTHOR’S TIP: How I Edit

It’s been too long since I posted something helpful for writers.  I really do intend to do that more often here, but as life around me is chaotic, so goes my blogging and everything else.  So if you found the previous posts helpful and were waiting, sincerest apologies.  I hope I haven’t chased you off.

Since I am currently halfway through a polish draft of my first novel, which has a contract pending from Diminished Media, I wanted to talk about how I edit.  Everyone has a different method and approach to such things, and there is no wrong or right way.  This is just how I’ve come to do it and I’m sure even that will evolve with time.

Before I talk about how I edit though, it might first be helpful to talk about my writing process.  I am a writer who doesn’t rely on outlines much.  I tend to like to know who my characters are in some rough sense, know a few key plot points, have a TV Guide story pitch sentence and then write and see where the story takes me.  This works well with first novels in series, but as I approach sequels, I am finding outlining a more necessary evil and I’ll likely be embracing that more and more.

My first drafts have one goal:  get the plot, characters and basic arcs down as fast as possible.  I want to get the major characters, scenes, and a sense of the pacing all on paper.  I don’t spend as much time on fancy descriptions or even in depth emotional monologues.  Those I can flesh out later.  I just want the framework to build on.  Now as I learn my craft and develop my skills, I find I put more of this stuff in first drafts, but my goal is just to get the story told.  I have plenty of time to fix things and make it all pretty and bow-wrapped later.

Because writing is a series of questions and answers for me, I aim to ask questions in each scene.  I keep track of these questions on a list and as I go along try and answer one for every new one I ask once the set up has been done.  This helps keep readers satisfied that they are figuring things out and that the story has more surprises.  It keeps them turning pages.  But forgetting to answer any of these questions is deadly annoying, so I keep a list to make sure they all get addressed by the end.

The second draft, at least a month after the first draft’s done with no peeking in between, I go back and read and pay special attention to setting descriptions, character descriptions, character arcs, etc.  I also look for themes or motifs I can use which have just appeared naturally and I find ways to work all of these things into the story and strengthen them, building on my basic blocks.

My third draft is my Ken Rand’s 10% Solution draft where I go back and cut absolutely every non-essential word.  I look at overused or overly repeated words, and I use a thesaurus to find words which can replace these and make the prose more interesting.  I also aim to just tighten wherever I can.

There are often subsequent drafts or even drafts in between some of these to work on particular specifics, but those are the three basic drafts.  Each is usually spread apart by 3 weeks to a month for some perspective and I do my best to immerse myself in other projects and flush the thing from my mind as best I can in between.  It’s very hard to have fresh eyes for your own work, and you cannot hope to make it the best it can be if you don’t find a way to do it.

So that’s how I write, in succinct summary.  How do I edit?

The one advantage of editing is it uses a different half of your brain.  It’s a different thought process and focus than the writing itself, so once you’ve done all those other things you can really start looking at mechanics like grammar, punctuation, word usage, etc.  The Ken Rand draft is editing in a way, and I do much the same in my editing phases, cutting whatever unneeded words I can, etc.  But on the other hand, I am looking primarily for how can I make this as shiny as it can be.  What repeated sentence patterns have I gotten stuck in that I can rework in places to keep it fresh?  Which places can I use more emotion to make action more powerful or build the character-reader connection?  Where can I use more of the five senses to make it more real to readers?  What questions did I fail to answer?  Which did I answer incorrectly or incompletely?  Is anything unclear or convoluted?  Is anything missing — holes, etc.?

I also read the manuscript out loud, word for word.  It’s different when you read out loud.  First of all, most readers read like this only silently to themselves, so you’ll get a sense of the flow for readers by doing this.  You’ll also find awkward phrasings, run-ons and other issues which you don’t always find just by reading your overly familiar prose.  You can find where you need a better mix of sentence sizes.  You can find where you need to break up paragraphs differently.

I always find I’m overly wordy.  No matter how many times I’ve tried to cut before.  Here’s where I find out how much I overstated and how much I needed more color.  I add more interesting setting decriptions or emotional descriptions.  I trim repeated dialogue and phrases.  I realize I have repeated things too many times and annoyed the reader and cut as many of those as I can.  If I have to keep them, I make them tighter and rephrase them so they don’t sound the same each time.  I also look at where the story lags in pace.  Are things out of order in sentences or paragraphs.  Etc.

The editing can take a while or go quickly, but I always make at least three passes on these things, the middle being the read aloud one, to make sure I don’t miss anything.  After all, when this book gets printed it will represent me potentially well after I die.  I want to be represented well.  Oh I know I’ll write better as time goes on, the more I learn my craft.  And I know publishers, agents, editors will all jump in with improvements as well beta readers.  But I don’t want any of those people to feel their time was wasted so I’ve got to make this the best it can be before they even see it.

I am impatient.  I don’t like to wait.  And I have jumped the gun on stories and novels with betas, agents, etc. too many times.  Burned markets and readers.  It’s too bad.  Because now they might never realize what the book and story came to be.  The potential they saw or didn’t see won’t be realized in their eyes.  Hey, I want everyone to read my stories, because I think I have something important to say.  That’s why I write.  Isn’t that why anyone writes?

In any case, when I’m done I get that feedback and make adjustments to that.  It takes a lot of effort to do all these drafts and editing phases, I know.  It takes a lot of time to wait through them.  But in the end, I want to be proud of what I write, and as I prepare to sign a contract on this novel, my second ever novel attempt and first science fiction novel, despite all the missteps I’ve made in sending it out too early, etc., I’m proud of it.  I’m pleased how it’s come out and I know all the work has made it better.  I can’t wait to see what it becomes after the publisher and editor do their thing.  And I hope it pleases you, reader, so I can write another one and another after that.

In any case, that’s a summary of my editing process.  If you have questions or want more details or just want to say hi, please comment below.  I look forward to hearing from you.

For what it’s worth…

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