The importance of editing: 6 tips to help make the most of your manuscript
This is a post by Novel Publicity President, Emlyn Chand/ If you’re a wordsmith, you’re sure to have heard the following saying (or some variant of it) many times over: “Most of writing is actually rewriting.”
True as this is, a great many more resources are dedicated to the craft of writing rather than the skill of revision. Perhaps this is due to the general assumption that if an author is able to pen an entire first draft of a novel, surely she will be able to complete the editing process without much trouble.
This is not necessarily true. Writing and editing are very different skills. And in the end, good editing might be more important than good first-drafting. In revision, an author must know when to remove extraneous details, when to add more information or new plot points and, as the most challenging of all, when her book is finally ready for her to pursue publication.
My good friend, author Sean Keefer, suggested that I cover the editing process with the careful attention that it needs and deserves. Well, that's much more easily said than done.
This article has undergone a fair amount of revision itself. The first draft was a roadmap of my own editing process; half-way through I realized I was unable to nail down an exact step-by-step guide detailing how I edit or how others should edit.
Editing is a fluid process, one that everyone is sure to do differently. Keeping that in mind, I’ve chosen instead to present you with six key editing tips. I hope you will consider these points the next time you have in your possession a fresh first draft just begging for the red pen.
1. Write through your first draft. This is the beauty of NaNoWriMo; it forces the author to write quickly and productively, reminding writers that the most important first step in writing a novel is getting its basic frame down onto paper. Many writers are sidetracked by the compulsive need to edit while they create, doing so tends to hinder both processes.
I suggest writing your first draft straight through employing minimal editing. If you think of a point that you would like to add to a previous section, or if you realize you’re repeating the same grammatical mistake over and over, make a note of it in a separate file. Don’t go in and make these changes until you’ve completed your first draft. The exception I make to this rule is in characterization — if you drastically change the personality or importance of a character mid-draft, you probably should go back and edit scenes relating to that character.
2. Learn to pinpoint your most common mistakes. I have a tendency to slip into passive voice, and apparently I have a strong preference for adjectives and adverbs beginning with a vowel. Each writer has little quirks like this, writing habits that can hang together to form an irritating pattern if not addressed in editing. Maybe your mistakes are more general — you might struggle with differentiating dialogue, or you might consistently forget to describe your setting. Your mistakes might be more specific — perhaps you have a strong tendency to describe your characters’ eyes over and over (I do this), or you might have a penchant for the words “certainly” or “surely” (I do this too).
In a file separate from your general editing notes, keep track of these issues as you notice them. You can hunt down and correct these problems later in the editing process; you can also ask your beta readers to keep an eye out for them.
3. Your beta reader is your new best friend. The beta reader for my first novel actually did become my best friend and still is. It’s important to employ the talents of someone both knowledgeable of basic writing conventions and willing to be direct and honest with you. For each of my novels, I have at least three beta readers — my go-to all-rounder beta, a member of my target audience, and a non-reader.
I’ve found my husband’s feedback invaluable; since he is a non-reader, he’s very ready to point out the places in the story that lag. For my second novel, which is of the Young Adult genre, I’ve enlisted the help of my 14-year-old friend, Connor.
4. Never underestimate the usefulness of Ctrl+F. Look down at your keyboard. Over in the far left corner, you’ll see the mysterious “CTRL” key; more towards the middle an unassuming little “F” key lies in wait. Press both together, and a search box will pop up. This search box is your new best editing friend, or at least it can share that title with your beta reader.
Enter in the words that you have identified as potentially overused, one-by-one, and then use Ctrl+F to find and highlight each occurrence. If you’re worried that your manuscript might have an overabundance of adverbs, Ctrl+F “l-y-space” and highlight those instances in a distinct color. Go through Strunk and White’s “Elements of Style” and enter search parameters according to their rules.
In the past, I have highlighted “which” and “that” to make sure that I was using them correctly. You may choose to deal with each of these issues in turn; I, however, like to take them all on at once (usually in a third or fourth draft).
5. Don’t box yourself in by insisting upon a precise number of drafts. In his well-loved writer’s reference guide “On Writing,” Stephen King confesses that most of his novels are finalized in only two drafts. My first novel is currently undergoing its eighth round of revisions. Your writing group buddy may insist that three is the perfect number; someone else might demand more.
The truth is there is no magic number when it comes to how many drafts you need. Each writer edits in her own unique way — some are more meticulous, others require less editing due to stronger first drafts. Whatever works is what’s best for you. My personal preference is for five — the so-called “shitty first draft” (see Anne Lamott’s “Bird by Bird”), a second to solidify plot, a third to strengthen my characterization, a fourth focusing on grammar and style and a fifth to clean up any lingering issues.
6. When you think you’re finished, you’re probably not. Reference guide after reference guide admonishes writers to gain some distance from their manuscripts before moving forth with the revision process. If you’re anything like me, you’re probably so excited to start editing that you ignore this well-informed and intelligent advice. I learned the hard way that this is not advice which is meant to be ignored, which is probably why I’ve had to write eight drafts (so far) of my first novel.
Distance is vital. You need a cooling down period during which you can either relax or, more preferably, begin working on something new. You need this time to emerge from the world you left behind. You need to come back to your manuscript with a clear head and a new outlook.
I thought I was done with my first novel’s manuscript after five rounds of revision, then for whatever reason I revisited it four months later. Boy, I was not done! I noticed some annoying stylistic issues that had escaped my editorial eye months earlier. I recognized the dialogue lines that didn’t ring authentic. I was better able to judge when the plot was moving too slowly or when a reference was too trite or esoteric.
That’s my advice. Remember, each writer will approach editing in a completely unique way, and that’s okay. Do what works best for you, and, as always, don’t be afraid to “murder your darlings.”
Emlyn Chand was born with a fountain pen grasped firmly in her left hand (true story). Novel Publicity's mascot is a Sun Conure, thanks to her obsession with birds–and she gets to decide anyway since she is the company's founder and president. Although her first novel Farsighted won the prestigious Writer's Digest Self-Published Novel of the Year award in 2012 for the YA category, she now writes most of her fiction under her “real” name, Melissa Storm. Learn more or connect with her (or her Sun Conure, Ducky!) on either of her author websites: www.emlynchand.com or www.melstorm.com. You can also friend her on Facebook, tweet with her @novelpublicity, or send her an email via [email protected].