Writers perhaps dread and avoid editing their work more than they dread and avoid any other aspect of the writing process. Creation is the fun part, after all, and some of us have weak stomachs for purging the words, lines, paragraphs and even entire sections that don’t benefit the story as a whole. We’ll make excuses to keep those empty words around, make excuses for the grammatical inconsistencies and make excuses for out-of-character moments, all because we’re either bored with the editing process, afraid to look foolish or amateurish (and would prefer to act as though our mistakes were intentional stylistic choices) or we are too emotionally attached to our book exactly as it is and can’t bear to change anything about it.
If you approach the editing process in a deliberate and planned manner, however, you can learn to become less sensitive to criticism, more open to logical changes, and capable of producing more quality work in the future. After all, the goal of editing is not just to improve your current work, but to grow and develop as a writer. Below are a few tips for streamlining the editing process. Please bear in mind: this isn’t at all an exhaustive list, and everyone eventually finds their own process with editing!
1. Soft Edit: The process that I call the “soft edit” is the section-by-section editing I do at the beginning of every writing session. This edit takes place while the project is still a work in progress. In other words, every day when I pick up the laptop to start writing, I begin by reading over what I wrote the last time I added to the novel, whether that be a page-worth of work or an entire chapter. The soft edit has two benefits: you’re still looking at your work while it’s fresh and untouched, meaning your eyes are going to be more perceptive to typos and simple grammatical errors, and this read-through allows you to start writing fresh material knowing exactly where you left off, allowing for a seamless transition from day to day. I do this faithfully every time I write, so that I have a clear understanding of my story and its progression, and I also can reduce continuity errors by refreshing my memory on the previous scene. The routine that works best for me is to read the previous day’s work to myself silently, and then to read it out loud before I start working on new material; by reading out loud, you’re forced to slow down which allows you to catch more issues and errors.
2. Content Edit: This is the edit I partake in after I have completed the novel. I read the work in its entirety, focusing on the transitions from scene to scene, the “flow” of the plot, character dynamics and dialogue. This is where I ask the big questions: do my characters’ actions and reactions make sense? Are there any scenes where plot progression lags too much? Is the pacing successful? Are there any characters who feel under-developed? Is the world-building adequate? Is there clear structure to my story and to the character arcs? What is the most prevalent theme, and is it expressed thoughtfully? This edit isn’t complete until I have read through the novel, answered the pressing questions about story structure and content, and have gone back to address those determinations (i.e. if I determine that the world-building was sparse, I have to go back and correct this issue before I can move on to the next edit).
3. Line Edit: For me, I always find that my next edit yields the best results when I wait a few months before diving in. Any time I have tried to proceed to the line edit right after having finished the content edit, I swiftly lose motivation and treat the work more like a chore than an opportunity to make the project better. After completing the content edit, I will usually shelve the work for 90 days, working on other projects or delving into my ever-growing list of books I need to read; this way, I can approach my work with fresh eyes, a restored perspective and renewed enthusiasm. The line edit, after all, is the most grueling part of the process. This is where to go line by line, checking for passive voice, grammatical consistency (to include how you convey possession, how you spell names, how you express slang or dialect, use of Oxford commas, and how you express numbers), use of figurative language (including use or overuse of similes/metaphors), use of descriptive language such as adjectives and adverbs, word count (can you delete words or lines that don’t contribute enough to the plot), ease of reading (can you declutter a sentence that has too many clauses, etc.) and vocabulary choices (does the diction fit the character/narrator, is there a word that would do more work for the reader, and is there a simpler way to say something). Again, this list isn’t by any means exhaustive. The main focus on the line edit is the actual nitty-gritty of your use of words and language.
For me, this is the bare minimum editing that is needed to present a polished draft, whether you intend this draft to be sent to queried literary agents, to beta readers, or to a thesis advisor. If I had time to do so, however, I would actually do another read-through after the line-edit just to ensure that the entire project still flowed for me. On top of this, you can expect to do more editing work each time you get another pair of eyes on your work: your agent, professor, workshop partners, publisher or beta readers all might have suggestions that will make your work clearer and more effective. This isn’t to say that every suggestion needs to be implemented: there will be several times when you disagree with critiques, and as long as your objections pass the gut-check (as in you know in your gut that you aren’t only disagreeing because your ego has been wounded and you’re being defensive), then it is absolutely acceptable to not implement those changes to your work. After all, this project has your name on it, and you have to be proud of it, defend it and identify with it.
What are some other editing tips and tricks that have worked for you? Do you have your own unique process? What part of the editing process do you dread the most?