Most writers have a serious love/hate relationship with editing. Rereading your old writing is a special type of painful, but the process of refining the words into something beautiful can be thoroughly satisfying as you watch your skill with writing grow. I’ve been editing the first draft of Storge recently, so I am closely acquainted with that feeling, but I’ve figured out a method at works for me and makes the job a whole lot more enjoyable. It won’t be perfect for everyone, but I thought I’d share it in case you could learn something from it!
For context, when I say I’m editing the “first draft”, I mean I’m editing the first completed draft of the story. It’s the first full manuscript I’ve finished, not the very first set of words I put to page. I started several variations of the story before realizing I had too many plot holes and characterization problems to continue. Then I would quit drafting after few chapters to go back to the drawing board. There were a few reasons for that original block. First, Storge is a very complicated story and I didn’t have enough experience or skill to execute it yet. Second, I was still figuring out my own process and didn’t yet know that I needed a detailed plan in order to tell that kind of story. I think this draft is the 5th version, but it’s the only completed one, which means its the only one that really matters for the sake of this discussion. All of my planning and scrapped drafting ahead of time helped eliminate a lot of plotholes and teach me about my writing process, but it’s not what’s actually being edited today.
I’m also planning to self-publish, and so this guide is geared to that end goal. I do not know where beta readers and professional editors fit into the querying and traditional publishing process, so I’ll hazard a guess that it’s best to go with what the professionals say. Additionally, this process focuses on long novels, but it can also be used for short stories and other works. The steps just would take less time and require fewer cycles of double checking. I wrote this to be as cohesive as possible, but you can always scale it down if needed.
That being said, now what? I’ve got a finished manuscript – how do I even start making sense of this 110K word thing??
Step 1: Leave it alone!
Actually, I didn’t, not at first. I was too excited about finishing my Big Project to just put it on a shelf for a month, so I immediately read through the whole thing and took notes using the “comments” feature of Microsoft Word on all the things I wanted to change. At that point, I hadn’t looked at the first chapters in probably 3 years, so it made kind of made sense, but I was still riding the high of, “I did the thing!! I wrote the book!!” so my judgement was a little clouded. After that first read through, then I set it aside for a semester and came back to editing with a 2nd read-through and fresh set of eyes over winter break.
Thinking ahead in the process (to step 5), I knew I will eventually need beta readers to look at the story once I’ve done my personal edits, and so it’s important to actually start talking about it. Assuming you’re reading this, you probably want to publish eventually, and its important to have an author’s platform so that way when you are ready to send the book into the world, there are people who want to read it. Finishing Storge‘s draft was the push I needed to start this website and the writeblr community has been wonderfully supportive. Editing is hard, so find your community sooner rather than later so you have people who can commiserate.
Step 2: The Read-Through
I’m not going to lecture about how, “It’s a first draft, it’s ok if it’s bad!” because I think we’ve all heard that advice before and this is an editing guide not a self-esteem self-help guide. Instead, I want to talk about psychology! (trust me I’m going somewhere with this) Specifically I want to talk about metacognition. This term refers to thinking about thinking – the state of being self-aware and then acting with purpose. A common example of this is used in some types of meditation, or with students revising tests – if you write down what your thought process was on a problem and where it went wrong, you can fix it for the next time. But this is also a useful tool for evaluating your own work with a critical and decisive eye, without being too harsh on yourself. It allows you to notice patterns and refine your style.
Stories are built of some basic parts – characters, the world, the conflict, and some common story beats. We’re surrounded by media today, and even if you haven’t memorized TvTropes, you probably can intuitively tell when something isn’t working. As you read through, those are the parts you want to call out, but also try to think about why it isn’t working and why you did that in the first place. As I go through the draft, I take those notes in the comments on a line-by-line basis, then in a second document I make a new “reverse outline.” It’s not a full plan like the one I make before writing, but it goes through chapter by chapter and strips the story down to it’s basics:
- What needs to happen in this chapter to move the story forward? Do I need to write, cut, or re-order scenes to fix plotholes? Are the subplots working together with the main one or did I drop a thread halfway through?
- Are the characterizations consistent and the arcs moving forward along with the plot? How are the arcs fitting into the theme? Is the emotion behind the scene living up to its full potential?
- Is the worldbuilding explained enough without infodumps? I add any words I invented to a glossary so I don’t forget them. Are there inconsistencies in the way things are explained? Did you remember to set the scene? (The answer is always no. White Room Syndrome is my curse)
- Is there anything referring to a plot point I’m retconning that will need changed? For example, I wrote out an unnecessary character, so all the lines that character had and all the times people talk about that character would need changed. I used the find-word function to search for her name, just to make sure I caught all of those instances.
- Is the pacing ok? Am I rushing through scenes where I should be showing instead of telling emotion, or am I adding too much filler because I wrote this section during NaNoWriMo and wanted to pad out my word count? What questions does the reader have at the end of this chapter and do they get answered eventually? Where am I in the timeline, and did I accidentally make the characters do a week’s worth of activity overnight?
Its also inevitable to find places where the prose is just bad, or doesn’t make sense with later changes I’ll be making. For these moments, I use color-coded highlight to draw attention to the issue without needing to immediately fix it: Green for out-of-character actions and dialogue, Blue for retcons, and yellow for anything else that just sounds awkward. Color coded highlighting is a powerful tool. Take advantage of it.
I don’t do any editing in the first draft document – it’s purely for markup. I want to have that pure copy left at the end of this so I can one day see how far it’s come, and later if I’m having a block, I can go back to the original idea and remember the wonder of the first time I told this story. As I read, I also mark anything that works really well, like scenes I love and want to keep, and bits of description that could be moved to a more impactful place. Once I’m done with each chapter and scene, I evaluate it as a whole, and write that down in the chapter heading so it’s added to my outline. That gives me clear stepping stones to measure my progress, and tells me at the glance how difficult the next part is going to be:
The importance of this step is having a new big-picture understanding of your strengths and weaknesses as a writer, and a better understanding of the story that you want to tell in the end. One thing I noticed as I read is that the earlier chapters needed a LOT of revision, while the later chapters were actually well-written and had me falling into the story because I’d grown so much as a writer by the time I got there. It was such a gratifying moment where I realized, “Yes, I’m writing what I want to read and I can see the beauty in this draft taking shape once I dust off the clumsy sentences and put the scenes in the right order.”
Step 3: Developmental Edits (aka Macro Editing)
Once I’ve finished a read through (or two), I open a brand new document and start re-writing. Having a 2nd monitor is wonderful for this, but otherwise you can split your screen in windows by using the flag+arrow keys to view the documents side by side. Rewriting from scratch isn’t actually necessary – sometimes there’s a really great scene you can just copy/paste into the new file, but other times you’ve got to completely rework something and that’s where it really becomes a 2nd draft. I like to go scene-by-scene, and use the document outline function in Word to organize them (which you can see in the picture below). I also write down how many words/pages each chapter is when I finish editing to get a feel for length and pacing. Then, I can easily reorganize chapter breaks by story-beat later on.
At this point, I’m not worrying too much about the prose – we’re still in the early-draft mindset of “get words on page and make them make sense.” If I’m rewriting anyhow, then sure, I’ll change it to sound better, but if the scene as a whole is ok and I’m just making minor changes to the transitions between scenes, or there’s one stilted line, I highlight that in yellow and leave it for later.
With that basic process, this step is fairly straightforward – you know what problems you have and at least have a direction on how to fix them, so its just a matter of going through each scene and making the changes. It will be time consuming (and there will be constant interruptions) but it will at least be a lot more simple and easy to execute. Once this step is done, another read through is an optional double-check to make through you hit everything on the list.
Step 3.5 – 4: Prose Edits
This is where you start to address all of the issues with the storytelling itself. Maybe the foreshadowing is a little too heavy-handed or hard to catch. Maybe the character voices are sounding the same, or you set the scene with the wrong mood. You’ve read the book a few times now, and notice yourself using the same few crutch words and sentence structures in every other paragraph. Some of the issues you’ll be able to spot on your own, but using an online-checker like ProWritingAid can also provide insight into your style and habits. (and there’s tons more out there, that’s just the one I like.)
This is by far the most time consuming part for me, and it’s also the most nebulous in terms of timing. You don’t want to meticulously line edit a whole section that you end up scrapping later after running it past other readers, but you also don’t want to give your beta readers something sloppy that distracts them from the content of the story you’re asking them to critique. Sometimes you need a break from developmental editing because you’ve hit a block and you’d just rather do prose edits on what you have done already. My personal solution to this is having Designated Writer Friends (aka critique partners or alpha readers) who I can trust to be honest and constructive in their criticism of the story while overlooking unimportant grammar errors for now. I’ll send them scenes from the 2nd draft and get their feedback, then continue line editing. If I’m pretty confident a scene will work once I finish its developmental edit, I’ll do the prose edit before moving onto the next scene. This is one of those steps that I generally play by ear as I go, but it’s important to do and keep track of what’s done and what’s not.
I stay organized during this step by using fonts. I draft in the default font (or sometimes comic sans, since it takes the pressure off being perfect the first time), then once I’m done with the prose edit, I’ll switch it to Times New Roman and erase all the highlight. Then I know that section is (at the very least) grammatically correct. When I’m ready to do the final polish, I’ll put it into my favored font for the book, as a reward for being a polished manuscript. Changing fonts is also scientifically proven to make the text look just different enough that your brain will pick up on errors you might have overlooked the first time, which is why I use this method. If that’s not your thing, using different colors or a different document might work instead.
Step 5: Beta Readers
Once the manuscript is a completed cohesive story, and has been run through at least a basic round of prose edits, it’s ready to go to other people. I’m not to this point yet, so I can’t speak on how it feels to send your fictional child out into the world alone for the first time. However, I have been a beta reader before (for Siarven’s Dreams Shadow, which is excellent) so I can speak on how the process works.
A beta reader is someone who’s not familiar with the story who volunteers to give you their honest opinion of the draft. While your critique partners, alpha readers, or Designated Writer Friends might already know all the plot twists (or helped you come up with the plot twists), generally speaking beta readers go in with the basic knowledge any reader would have if they picked it up at the library. They don’t have to be writers. In fact it might be better to have some who aren’t writers and won’t be looking for the behind-the-scenes craft. Create a call-to-action post including the genre, synopsis, word count, time frame, content warning, and any other general information that you deem important, and then send the document to the people who sign up.
Then you wait. There are a few ways to get beta feedback, but it’s up to you what you think will be the most useful. These can include:
- Have a discord server or chat conversation with each of the readers so they can text you updates as they read, kind of like a live-stream
- Request that each reader leave comments with their feedback on the document as they read and have the document shared so you can review their progress (this is what I did with a shared pdf through google drive and it worked pretty well in addition to the texting)
- Have a questionnaire to fill out at the end of each chapter/section with questions specific to that scene and what you want to know, as well as a questionnaire at the end of the book with feedback on the overall story
- Conduct mini interviews through a text conversation, but prompt the discussion using the questionnaire topics
- A combination of the above based on the needs of the story and the reactions of the readers as they go
As you get reactions, keep them all in one place and see if you notice any trends on what works and what to fix. Then, armed with that knowledge, you can go back to repeat steps 3-4 until you think the draft is ready again. You can complete this cycles as many times as needed, until you can’t stand to look at the draft anymore decide it is time to send it to a professional.
Step 6: Line/Style Edits
The last edits you can do on your own aren’t strictly necessary before sending the book to a professional editor, but the cleaner the manuscript is before you hand it over, the less work the editor has to do and the cheaper it will be for you. If you are traditionally publishing and at this point trying to query an agent, having the most polished copy of the draft possible will also improve your chances of landing a deal. Your main goal in this step is to go through the complete story with a fine-toothed comb to make the writing itself as clear and engaging as possible. This is an incomplete list of things to look for, but it can give you an idea of what to look for as you read through this time:
- Choose the right words with the intention of building mood and tone: said isn’t dead, and you can’t replace whisper with mummer without having a different connotation.
- Remove redundant adverbs, adjectives, and phrases that obscure strong verbs. When you do use descriptive words, make them specific. “Tall” is relative if you’re talking about a human or a hobbit for example. The best advice I heard for this is asking yourself, “Could someone make fanart of this scene with no other instruction?” You want to make it as immersive as possible.
- Make sure the prose is readable to your audience. Most mass market books, media, and news might not have the content/maturity level of a middle-grade story, but they are written in a way that a 7th or 8th grader could understand as opposed to highbrow academic syntax.
- Mix up your sentence length and structure if it’s appropriate to the scene. Fights should have short choppy sentences, while a slow pan to introduce the scenery can be more long and flowing. A combination of both can make for a more interesting sound.
- Cut out filler words (there are lists you can search for this, I won’t put them all here.)
- Unless you’re using repetition for dramatic effect, avoid repeating yourself. For example, saying “down the street” several times in one chase scene quickly becomes boring.
- Use sensory words to create a vivid picture for readers. What would this character notice? Most writers default to sighted words, but also don’t forget ambient sounds and smells, or the textures of the things they’re seeing.
- Triple check your spelling to make sure its consistent (specifically for names and made up words).
- Run a basic spelling and grammar check. Again. Again. Just in case
Step 7: The Professional Edit
If you’re self publishing, this is not optional. Technically speaking, nobody is holding your toes to the fire and forcing you to hire an editor, but indie books sometimes have a stigma for being low-quality, rushed to market, amateur products. This opinion has slowly started to turn in recent years (which is a great thing for newbie authors like me who want the creative freedom and better royalties that self-publishing provides), but that means we shouldn’t contribute to the problem by not taking the initiative to have the book edited properly. Yes, this step is expensive, but it’s essential to having a book that will sell with good reviews, and give you something to be proud of in the long run.
Shopping for editors is a post for another day, but most have a few different rates depending on how much editing the book needs. Many editors will offer to do the developmental, prose, and line edits, as well as any final proofreading for you, but the more work that needs to be done, the longer it will take, the more work you have to do to fix the book based on their suggestions, and the more it’ll cost. That’s why I’ve put this step at the veeerry end after you’ve done as much as possible yourself by developing an accurate critical eye for improving your own work. The editor will give back your manuscript with suggested changes, and you’ll have to go through and do the work of changing them yourself (if you see fit). This can go on for several cycles as well, but eventually it’ll reach a point where you both feel it’s the best it can be.
Then it’s pretty much done! You’ll probably be sick of reading the book by now, and can go on with the other parts of the publishing process. You will still read it again and again and again checking for typos and inconsistencies, but the book will be finished! Polished! And you’ll be prouder than ever of all the hard work and love that was put into making it what it is. I, for one, cannot wait to see where this journey takes Storge, and I cannot wait to share my story with all of you.
If you found this post useful, please let me know what you think! Do you have any other questions about the editing process that I can answer? Next week, I’ll be analyzing prose and explaining how authors use different literary devices to convey their ideas beyond the basic content, so check back for that if you want an example of reading like a writer in action. Thanks for reading this article, and happy writing! 🙂