While there are lots and lots and lots of ways of going about writing a book, I actually feel like editing is a little more of a uniform process. It’s all about first turning a critical eye at your book in order to get as far as you can on your own, and then repeating that process when you have some good feedback from an editor or critique partner or both.
Over the course of writing and editing three books I’ve developed a system for editing that I hope you’ll find useful! My best advice is in my guide: How to Write a Novel: 47 Rules for Writing a Stupendously Awesome Novel You Will Love Forever.
But hope this post helps you out in the meantime:
Step #1: Pre-editing
Some of my most important editing work happens as I’m writing the novel. Before I start my writing day I’ll often re-read sections I wrote earlier to see if I can improve them and make sure the plot arcs are fitting together. I plan ahead so that I know vaguely what’s going to happen in a scene before I write it.
This can be a time-consuming way to write, but the end result is that I don’t usually have an overwhelming amount of editing to do by the time I’m done.
Another form of pre-editing is to float some plot points to people I trust when they ask what I’m working on and see how the ideas resonate. But other than a few informal discussions or test-reads of scenes I’m not sure about, I don’t really share too much about what I’m writing as I’m writing it and instead focus on getting it done.
Step #2: Self-editing
After I’ve finished a draft I let the manuscript sit for at least a couple of weeks and then go back and read it over. I start first by only looking for big things that aren’t working, I don’t sweat things on the line or scene level. As I’m doing this I try to keep myself as distanced from the manuscript as possible and really listen to my gut. If I’m feeling a little uncertain about a scene or a stretch in the book, chances are something’s not right with it.
When I’ve made all the changes I want to make and have all of the big pieces in place I go down my revision checklist and make sure I haven’t missed anything. And when I have everything as good as possible and am feeling like if I have to read one more word I’ve written I’ll go completely insane… that’s when I know I’ve gotten as far as I can on my own.
Step #3: How I Respond to Feedback
One of the most difficult things about an editorial letter or beta critique is the sheer number of different things that need changing. It can be daunting to get a huge list of suggestions. How do you decide what to keep and what to change? How do you go about implementing the changes when changing just one thing can mean a million different things then have to change afterward? It’s impossible to keep all of those things in your head all at once. And that’s on top of the inevitable difficulty of reading someone else’s critique of your work, no matter how polite they are.
Here’s how I go about it:
- I take the editorial letter and ease into it very, very slowly. I read it once and then put it away for a few days. Take it back out, read it one more time. I try not to leap to any conclusions and wait until my defenses have come down a bit. Like most writers I sometimes find it hard to have my work critiqued (especially when the changes feel daunting), so it takes a little time to get acclimated.
- I color code the editorial letter. I mark all of the changes I’m definitely going to make green, all of the ones I don’t plan to change red (I try to make sure there’s way way more green than red), and mark the suggestions I’m not sure about yellow (these have a tendency to turn green). Then I have a nice color-coded editorial letter and action plan.
- I start with the most significant changes and work from there down to the smallest line edits. Here’s the reasoning for that: It’s kind of pointless to work on the line edits first if that chapter is going to come out or if those small changes are going to be later consumed by the bigger changes. So I start with the biggest changes and then work my way down.
- And rather than working chronologically through the book, I take one change and trace it all the way through. This way, rather than having to try to keep all the moving parts in my head all at once I can just focus on making sure one thread makes sense throughout the book. Then I move on to the next thread, and repeat.
Once all the scenes are roughly in place I move to the low-hanging fruit and start polishing on a scene-by-scene and then line-by-line level.
(See also this post about responding to a critique)
Step #4: How I Know When It’s Done
It’s definitely possible to tinker with a book endlessly, and it’s important to resist that temptation. At some point the novel has to be done, whether you’ve made it as good as you can make it or it’s time to move on to your next project.
I try to really take a mental step back from the book and evaluate it as objectively as I possibly can. When I’m both as satisfied as possible with how everything fits together and how it reads and when I also am feeling exhausted from working on it and can’t think of any more to do… that’s when I think I’m done.
When I know I’m done is when my editor says it’s done.
What’s your editing process like? Do you have any editing tips that have worked for you?
I’m available for manuscript edits, query critiques, and consultations! And if you like this post, check out my guide to writing a novel.