Yeah, I see you – you with your hard drive packed full of ‘finished’ work. You prolific bastard, so proudly telling everyone ‘I write every day, no matter what – a thousand words at least!’. So cocksure, so professional. Maybe you’re even pretty good. Maybe you’ve been published in pro markets before, and have written more novels than you can count. I see you, with your giant body of work, your hours of dedication, and your well-thumbed hard copies of On Writing and The Hero’s Journey… and I call bullshit!
You can be as professional and consistent in your writing as you want, but if you don’t take the same attitude toward editing, it’s all useless. If you think I’m being harsh, read the first paragraph again with the knowledge that I am addressing my younger self as much as anyone else. I have made the mistake, and seen the results, over and over.
See, I hate editing. The very thing that makes you a good editor – self criticism – is also the thing that makes you hate your work. It’s impossible to love your work and be a good editor at the same time.
In the past, I did everything I could to minimize the amount of editing necessary. It paid off, to a degree: I put a disproportionate amount of thought, rewriting, and overall effort into my first draft, specifically so that I don’t need to edit as much later. You never catch me slacking off in the first draft with the justification I’ll fix it in post-production. Hell no – if it was up to me there wouldn’t be any post production, the first draft would be IT.
But there’s the crux of the problem: you can’t get away from editing. No matter how hard you try, the first draft (even if you rewrote it ten times) needs to be edited.
Over time, my computer began to get awfully cluttered up with shitty drafts, and each one inhabited a space in the back of my mind like a gnawing parasite. Hey buddy, remember me, that short story you wrote three months ago and haven’t looked at since? I’m alright, you know – or at least I could be… with some work. I was like a man with a rotting leg who refuses to look down, insisting on going about his day while the infection grows and festers, spreading up his thigh and then his hip, eating him alive.
I couldn’t go on like that. Here and there I’d give a story a read through and send it out, but it was never quite what it could be and I knew it.
When I began work on my most recent novel, I promised myself I was going to do all the work. I was going look down at the rotting leg, take stock of every maggot, pustule, and patch of black flesh – and then I was going to grab the scalpel and get to work. I can write like a pro, no problem there, but now I was going to have to learn how to edit like one, too.
This is the method I’ve developed slowly over the last few books that hopefully removed as much pain from the editing process as possible. This is the best way I know how to edit a novel when you would rather just amputate…
Phase One: Identify the Problems.
When I finished the book, the first thing I did was print the entire thing out, double spaced. I did this for two reasons: one, it’s a lot easier to sit down and edit when all you have to do is grab a pen, as opposed to turning on the computer, finding the file, etc. Two, it’s way more satisfying to see pages with pen marks all over them, and to watch that pile of edited pages build up. Not only that, but being able to see those marks allows you to note where you haven’t made many changes and where you have. What scenes were so good you didn’t need to fix them? Maybe you should take a look again. The goal is to make the manuscript as dirty as possible.
These might seem like dumb reasons when you consider how much more tedious it is to use pen instead of the more efficient word processor, but remember that this is for me – someone who despises editing – and doing things this way definitely made the process more rewarding and satisfying. If you love nothing more than tweaking and revising, this post isn’t for you.
Anyway, once I have the printed thing, I read it the same way I’d read a normal book. If you’re naturally critical, like me, you’ll immediately start noticing inconsistencies, bad grammar, and other jarring mistakes. If it’s an easy, obvious fix, I change it there and then with the pen or else remove it completely with a line through the middle.
Of course, if you only ever come across problems that can be easily addressed with a few strokes of the red pen, you won’t be reading this post, because you don’t exist. With a short story, mayyyyyybe. With a book? Impossible! The only way to end up with a manuscript that flawless would be if it was so ridiculously simple nothing actually happens in it.
So you will definitely encounter complicated problems, many of which will require lots of thought and work to solve, and some which will require you to drastically alter large sections of your manuscript. This is one of the reasons I hate editing, and why I decided I would have nothing to do with any of it in the first phase. No, in the first phase, my only job is to identify the problem – not fix it. So I will write something at the bottom of the relevant page like: ‘How did Bill get all that money? You have to explain this.’ Or: ‘You talk about this dark history between these two characters, but you never actually reveal it? Gotta address that, man.’ Yes, I call myself man in my notes. Dude is also common.
This makes the first phase infinitely more appealing. Now it’s low effort. The only problems I need to worry about are the easy ones! Even if I come across a badly worded or structured paragraph, I don’t always fix it – I just circle it and write RW next to it (Re-Write).
Now you know how the first phase works, all you gotta do is decide on how many pages to get through a week, just like you’d decide on a quota for word count in first draft. Before you know it, you’ve got yourself a nice satisfying pile of red-marked pages, and you’re ready for phase two…
Phase Two: Fix the Problems.
This is normally the most difficult aspect of editing, since you really have to use your brain and figure out how to solve the problems without tearing the whole thing to pieces. With my system, however, it’s a little easier, since now you don’t have to worry about any of the stuff in phase one, and you don’t have to read your manuscript through.
I do this part on my computer, with the stack of edited manuscript beside me and again, a quota of pages to get through. The rule is this: every mark I made on the paper in phase one, I must address – however, I don’t have to do or think about anything else. I look at the page, find the first mark, make the adjustment to the file, and move on. I correct the spelling, I re-write where it says RW, and when I come to one of those notes I left myself, I do whatever I can to fix the problem before I move on.
I know it sounds like a lot of work, but here’s a neat trick I learned: you can use your impulsive laziness to make you a smarter editor. Bill Gates said: ‘I choose a lazy person to do a hard job. Because a lazy person will find an easy way to do it.’ So many times I’ve come upon an apparently insurmountable problem in my story, only to discover that I could fix it with nothing more than a word added here and a sentence removed there. Before you start tearing down huge portions of your book or adding chapters to explain something, ask yourself how you’d fix the problem if you had a gun to your head and less than an hour. You’d be amazed how much you can change your story with very little effort.
Phase 3: The Polish
After all that work, we finally have a finished, shining manuscript!
Haha, no, no we don’t. We have something, though – perhaps even a diamond. But while one might be able to get a good price for a hunk of dirty rock, it would be a waste of potential not to take the trouble to cut it, clean it, and set it to a ring so we can really see what we got.
The polish is the last chance you have to edit with the door closed, before strange eyes have forever warped it with their unforeseen judgements. It’s the part of the speech where you ask yourself ‘any questions?’ and also, more commonly: ‘What the hell was the point of this, anyway?’
Here’s how I go about the polish for best results: first, I try to alter my state of mind from that of editor to reader. I pretend I just got given the book by someone else, and when I sit down to read it now it isn’t with the red pen but with the eager eye. And mouth, because for this stage of the draft I do the thing that all writers say you’re supposed to do, and so few actually do: I read aloud.
As I go, I format the book, making sure the chapters and scenes are in the right places, adding quotes and titles here and there, and in general making it look professional. Besides that, I don’t stop except when I hear something wrong in the course of reading. I’m trying to enjoy the story as much as possible, but despite the work I’ve already put in there will be countless missed blunders brought to light as soon as I try to read it with my own voice.
It can be tedious and throat scorching, but the results are undeniably smooth, and I guarantee your dialogue will benefit as well. If you are out of breath, your reader will be, too. If you find yourself droning on, bored of your own voice – your reader will be, too. Problems with language, pacing, and grammar which you weren’t quite sure about in the first and second drafts will suddenly become glaringly obvious, but thankfully so will the solutions.
Finally, when the last word rings in the air (and if it doesn’t ring, maybe you should check that paragraph again), you are done, my friends. The herculean task of editing is over, Sisyphus now stands at the summit of his mountain, the boulder almost in place, and then…
Well, you know. Then you actually give it to other people to read.