Editing 101

As I head into edits for Book 2 of The Broken Line Series (The Porcelain Child, for those who are wondering), I have been asked for some editing tips for when you are taking a stab at going through the several thousand words of a rough draft.

Of course, there are no set rules anyone must follow when it comes to editing your own work. Much like writing, it’s about developing a style that works for you. To help take the first steps, however, I have included the “standard” advice I have heard when it comes to editing and my own thoughts on each.

1. Take a break after you have written it. Whether it’s a day or Stephen King’s suggested six weeks, the first piece of advice most writers hear when it comes to thinking of editing. In my own opinion, this isn’t bad advice, if you start right into editing the moment you write “the end” you will likely still be in writing mode and miss a lot of problems you might otherwise. Of course, if there are still large portions of the story you know you will have to rewrite, taking yourself out of this mindset might be detrimental.

Verdict: If you are ready for straight editing, take a break. Possibly even work on another project that will take your mind off things. If you need large swaths of rewrites/changes, go ahead and start right away. (Personal caveat–if you are writing a series and have a publisher waiting for books 2 and 3, it’s probably best to go right into edits so you can send that off before they yell at you…)

2. Just do a read through. After you have taken a break, the most common advice I’ve heard is to read through the manuscript without making any changes. While this is good if you need to put yourself in another mindset (if you need “editor” brain, rather than “writer” brain) I have never personally followed this advice. I never make big changes on the first read through (unless I was already rewriting a section, as mentioned in Step 1) but reworking wording here and there to fix problems will not make or break how you edit.

Verdict: It is a good idea not to start making sweeping changes on your first go through (otherwise you might find yourself causing more problems than you fix) but, unless you need “editor” brain to work, you can feel free to make changes as you go along on your first read through.

3. Don’t sweat the small stuff. Yes, grammar is important, but it is not the most important thing at the beginning stages of editing. If you realize after your first read through that a character simply isn’t working or there’s a plot hole that needs to be taken care of, deal with that before you work on the exact wording for one sentence and worry about if you should have subjunctive tense or not in another. If you end up reworking entire scenes, you’ll likely find new typos popping up anyway. Don’t worry about those until the big pieces have all fallen into place.

Verdict: Definitely good advice for an early go through. There’s a reason copy edits always come after content edits when working with a publisher. Grammar and spelling are important, but not until everything else is taken care of.

Note, “big pieces” generally include:

  • Plot holes
  • Characterization problems
  • Info dumps rather than interwoven back story
  • Inconsistent tone
  • Unnecessary/repetitive scenes
  • Missing scenes

Along with anything that will perhaps require substantial rewrites and/or added/deleted text.

4. Read it Out Loud. Once you’ve gotten the big things ironed out, one of the best ways to hear if a sentence is off is to read it out loud. I find this especially helps people who have trouble with dialogue. Dialogue is about capturing how people speak, so if seems stiff to say aloud, it’s probably too stiff for the page.

Verdict: If you are still developing your voice as a writer, or have a specific problem with clunky sentences/dialogue, reading aloud is a great way of fixing that. If you are more seasoned/can “hear” how it sounds in your head, it isn’t as necessary, though it can still be helpful.

5. Read it Backwards. Having moved on from the large problems, reading backwards is what I have often heard suggested for catching typos. Not caught up in the story, you are more likely to see that that “the” was supposed to be “they”. Since half of grammar to me is being able to pause over what doesn’t sound correct in a sentence, personally, I don’t find this as helpful a step as others, but the idea holds: Find some way to take yourself away from the story and focus on the words themselves.

Verdict: While the principle holds true, this might be more helpful in finding spelling mistakes than grammar if you “write by ear” like I do. (Personal note, I prefer running my stories through a text-to-speech program. While may miss a typo, since I know what I meant to say in a sentence, hearing a mechanical voice say “The walked down…” will let you catch the/they just as easily [if not more so] than reading backwards).

Once you have gone through a story this far (and are perhaps sick of reading it over and over again) it’s time to call in the beta readers–which means you’re done, until you get all their notes back and have to edit to fix those.

But that’s a post for another time.

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