Wednesday Writing Tip: The 5 Stages of Editing

When I reach the editing stage of my wip (work in progress) I use a handy little check-list, which I made in Excel (but would work in any program or paper with columns or boxes) with seven stages of editing.

For those of you who have found typos in my books, I know this astounds you. As I've explained, pixies are entirely to blame for any typos that leap back into my books after editing!

Believe me, if you think there are mistakes after editing, just imagine how many mistakes there are BEFORE editing!

As I wring my wip through each round of edits, I save an entirely new draft, appropriately labeled in a folder on my desktop. That way, if a round of edits somehow screws up my manuscript, I can always take a step back without losing everything.

Save multiple copies of your manuscript. Keep older versions. Rename new versions. You can save yourself a world of agony, because, believe me, accidents happen.

Step One: First read. (Basic Editing)

I often start my wips with a draft which is rough in the extreme, because it has been dictated, speed-written or shot through a straw in a series of spit-wads against a wall with wet paint.

The quality of writing, is, in a word, crap.

The first "edit" simply consists of re-reading what I've written, cringing extensively, and then trying to apply the rules of basic English grammar or at least the laws of physics to the mess.

It's best, for me, at least, to do this stage of editing right away, while I still remember what I meant to say in this scene. If I put the rough draft away, uncorrected, then return to it, I sometimes have NO CLUE what I was getting at when I wrote, "He flwwe the ms with her and him." Like... what??? 

If I dictate in the morning, it's best to edit in the afternoon. Not a full edit, just a swift check to make sure I wrote something in human instead of chimpanzee.

Tip: The only aide to this stage is a stiff spine. Not a stiff drink. That may how you wrote this mess in the first place--though my additives of choice are caffeine and sugar--but you need to be sober and critical at this stage. 

Reading what you wrote may convince you that you are the worst writer in the history of ficiton. Who cares? Ignore that. Carry on. Editing your own work takes nerves of steel, mate.

Step Two: Scene Edits. (Content Editing) 

Next, I consider each scene as a scene. Does it have a hook? Is it adequately grounded in sensory detail... without wallowing in excessive boring description or purple prose? Is there conflict? Is there a twist? Does it end on a hook? Basically, I make sure that I use the six-point or four-block scene method here.

See my post how the four block scene-writing method here. Or read my entire book of tips on writing here.

I also ask myself how this scene fits into the larger story. Is this scene critical to the plot? What purpose does it serve? What feelings and expectations does it evoke in the reader? Does it advance the story? 

Every scene needs to fight for its inclusion in the book. No scene should be given a free ride because you feel sorry for it. It must serve the work. If it doesn't, cut it or shorten it and roll it into a different scene.

Are the events and emotions shown in this scene consistent in terms of location, timing, the emotional journey of the characters and their previous actions?

Do you have a character leaping off a building and running a mile right after he was shot? Do you have a character exchanging witty banter with her pals right after she found her mum is dying of cancer?

If this is a mystery or a quest, am I planting the right clues or explaining the right bit of world-building that I need here? If it's a romance, have I remembered to put sizzle and chemistry between the hero and heroine?

Mistakes like this are hard to catch if you're too close to the work, so try to read it cold. 

This is why it sometimes helps to set aside a manuscript before you do this second stage of edits. (This is a contrast to the first stage of editing, where you straighten the sword while the metal is hot.)

Tip: Read the scene out loud, if possible, to a partner; if you don't have a writing partner or life partner who will sit through it, read it to yourself. 

Step Three: Line Edits. (Style Editing.) 

The final stage of Content Editing overlaps with the first stages of Proofreading. This is what I call line editing.

In certain books, I have two entirely different layers of writing. One is the Plot, and the other is the Style. 

Not all books have a fancy Style. In certain genres, my aim is a fast, clean read. For instance, in my young adult science fiction novel The Seastead Girl or in my paranormal romance The Magician & the Fool, what you see is what you get. Focus is on the action, adventure and romance.

In my hard science fiction novel STRAT, while full of battle action, the changing style of the prose indicates the successive memes that the hero is downloading into his brain to fight in different wars. In my epic fantasy The Unfinished Song, I have sections of the story where I've hidden poems in the prose. I also strive to replace any idioms or metaphors that feel too modern with idioms and metaphors more congruent with their more primitive, magical culture.

So at this stage, I may apply the Style. As I do, I look at the paragraphs sentence by sentence and word by word. And if I have no special style to add--I still look at the paragraphs sentence by sentence and word by word.

I re-read each scene again, but this time, I am trusting that the scene belongs in the book and makes sense. All I care about is the prose.

One way or another, a simple book or a more complex one, I look at each sentence and ask:

Is it grammatically correct?

Is it clear? 

Is it elegant?

That's in order of importance, by the way. No sentence can be elegant if it's not first grammatically correct and clear.

If you are a new author, it's worth your while to hire a Content Editor (different than proofreader, which I mention below.) A Content Editor is sometimes called a Book Doctor.

Don't let your pride or stinginess get in your way. If it's your first book, this is worth the investment.

Have I done this? 

You betcha. 

Even though I had a great writing partner, a professional editor and belonged to a writing group, when I was starting out, I still hired a book doctor to read my first version of The Unfinished Song and discuss it with me. As it happens, the book changed considerably before it was finally published, but I still consider that experience worth its value.

If you want to be a professional writer, treat your writing as a profession. Invest in your own career. Hone you trade.

Tip: Read books on how to write beautiful prose. Also, during this stage of editing, read books with beautiful prose. Although I'm not a fan of the literary genre, in general, I have to admit such books often have more lyrical and powerful prose than many genre books. I read literary fiction while doing line edits because I want my genre fiction to be at the same level of lyrical and powerful prose as that.

Step Four: Professional Editor. (Proofreading)

This is both the easiest and the most difficult stage for me. 

It's the easiest because all I do is send my manuscript to my editor and let her do all the work.

It's difficult because I need to budget money and time for this.

It's critical to make sure to schedule the time she needs. (I'm not her only client; and for some reason, she doesn't want to drop everything else in her life to work on editing my manuscript 22 hours a day.)

So schedule this well ahead, be sure to save up the money, and communicate, communicate, communicate.

Tip: If you can't afford a pro editor right now, you can do a manuscript exchange with another qualified writer. In that case, you have to be certain that YOU can edit at a professional level. And you have to budget your own time to edit someone else's manuscript.

Step Five: Beta Readers. (Content Editing and Proofreading.) 

Superfans are your biggest asset as you bring forward books in a series. They will catch every plot hole and remember every character's story arc even better than you, the author. Ask your fans who wants to be a beta reader, schedule time for them to read it, and let them have at it.

Respect them and thank them.

This stage isn't easy to do as a new writer because you have no fans yet.

So where can you find Beta Readers?

Don't ask family members or friends, unless they have a genuine interest in you genre. If you write mysteries and your gran-gran reads mysteries, then by all means, let her have a crack at it.

But don't be too surprised if, when you ask her what she thought of it, all she can tell you is, "It was good." 

Better to search out writer's groups and do book exchanges, where each of you reads the other's books and gives honest feedback.

Be genial and thankful to those who give you feedback. 

You don't have to accept every suggestion, by the way. Carefully consider all the feedback. Take what works. Leave aside the rest. Don't try to give feedback on the feedback. (Unless a Beta Reader specifically asks you to do so.) Be kind, be grateful, and be fun to work with.

Tip: Check your ego at the door. Realize that a part of you feels like this book is your pinky toe and if some dude says a single bad word about it, it feels like he is stomping on your pinky toe. If several people give you a series of criticism in a row, if feels like your whole foot is being amputated.

Buck up, meditate, punch a pillow, whatever you need to do, but take the pain. Your toes are fine. You aren't going to bleed to death just because someone told you that you overuse the passive tense and the phrase, "as heavy as a bag of bricks."

It can't be emphasized too much: be grateful and gracious to your Beta Readers. Treat them as the princes and princesses of your literary realm.