It’s a wonderful feeling—completing that first draft of your very first novel. If you’re like me, you did a dorky happy dance, facebooked about it, then went out for celebratory drinks. But as that euphoria fades, the prospect of editing begins to rear its daunting head. Having never completed a novel before, I had no notion of exactly how to fix and perfect the hot mess I’d created. So I did what I always do when facing the unknown: I googled the shit out of it.
I spent days on end reading various blog posts and articles on the topic. I read a few books too. Mostly I was frustrated by what I found. I’d see a promising title like “Editing you novel,” click, and read tips like “try reading your book out loud to catch errors.” And I’d want to scream at my computer “THAT’S JUST PROOFREADING!” Yes, proofreading is an important step—an important final step. But there is a whole lot of work that needs to come before that. Where was the advice on content editing? Where was the nitty gritty guide to correcting pacing issues or weak character development? I searched and searched.
I found some. By far, the most helpful tips on this topic were via Rachel Aaron (who has written some wonderful things on the writing process, if you haven’t checked out her blog). Her style of writing and editing is a little too organized and coherent for my chaotic brain—but seeing someone else’s process and recognizing what about it won’t work can help you realize what will.
Which is why I’m writing this post to explain my editing process—not because I believe myself an expert, very much the contrary, but because reading about other writers techniques can help us find our own. I used the program Scrivener to write and edit my novel—which I highly recommend—but if you use Word or some other program you’ll have to tweak my process to make it work with your technology.
My editing process had three steps: assessment, content editing, line editing.
I gave myself two weeks between finishing draft one and picking up the proverbial red pen. I’m too obsessive to leave the project completely alone for that long, so I worked on updating my character notes and various tasks of that nature. Once my two weeks were up I exported my book from Scrivener and put it on my kindle. My goal was to read the book as if I were a reader, not the writer, so using my kindle helped with this illusion. I pretended my eyes had never seen the words before; I stayed attuned to pacing issues, flow, ease of reading, character development, etc. I notice these issues in other people’s books, so it seemed reasonable that, with the right distance, I could spot them in my own work as well. I kept a notepad and pen in hand the whole time I read and took copious notes on everything that wasn’t working.
This process left me with pages upon pages of notes—a moderately depressing sight. The problems ranged drastically in significance from a character’s eye color changing to a secondary character needing to be removed. My novel had a lot of issues: I’d diagnosed my book as having the classic saggy middle, too much dialogue and too little action, many of my characters had weak introductions and inconsistent voices, several scenes were exposition heavy and needed to be rewritten.
Here, again, I quaked a bit at the how part of fixing. My problem is that I’m not a plotter. I could not stick to an outline for my book during the initial writing process, so there was no way I would be able to use one while editing. I’m a pantser at heart. Which meant that I could not fix these problems in an outline. I needed to climb into the scenes, talk to my characters, feel the setting and the moment in the story. I can’t work with a blueprint; I have to look under the hood—get my hands dirty.
So how would wait. Instead, I answered the question where. Where is easier. I took that formidable list and, one note at a time, figured out where in the story the adjustment needed to be. A lot of these were easy—they were issues that only pertained to a single scene. So I would go to that scene in Scrivener and, in the little notepad in the right hand corner, I wrote down what needed fixing. I’d write “change so-and-so’s dialogue,” “remember that it’s raining,” “change the tone of this scene so it’s darker.”
Other issues, which were more pervasive, proved more challenging—but still doable. As I mentioned, I needed to remove a character. I did a search for her name and, in every scene she appeared in, made a note to remove her. My story had saggy, actionless stretches—so I identified where the action needed to be added. I created a new scene, labeled it “to write,” and made a note of what that scene needed to accomplish (“action and progression of this strand of the plot”). For parts that were too slow, I looked at the scenes and figured out where the slowness was coming from. I’d write “remove scene: disperse information elsewhere,” or “condense dialogue, add more beats.”
In this way, I went through my entire list and found every scene that needed changing. At the end of this step, every single scene in my Scrivener file had notes on exactly what needed to be removed / added / altered—but not how.
2.) Content Editing
Thus begins step two—fixing the problems. By this time I knew what the issues were and exactly where those changes needed to occur. So, it was a matter of going through, scene by scene, and figuring out just how I could accomplish said changes. Content editing in bits and pieces is much less daunting. Saying “this entire section of the novel needs more tension” is a rather frightening diagnosis, but saying “this one 1,000 word scene needs more tension?” Well, that’s easy. Make the dialogue a bit more terse, throw in some suspicious glances, remove anything thats inappropriately cheery. Viola! Tension.
I moved in order. Some scenes needed tweaking, others needed to be utterly rewritten, and a few needed to be written for the first time. I did what each scene needed, so some bits took a lot longer than others. One chunk of my book needed to be completely rewritten. I wasn’t discourage by this, however, because the story was so obviously improved by the alterations. It was worth the work.
As a pantser, this process worked because it still enabled me to be creative and spontaneous. It’s like pantsing with purpose. I knew what I needed to accomplish—had a lovely little guide in the corner of my screen—but I was free to figure out how to accomplish those tasks intuitively. Usually the answer presented itself. For more difficult scenes, I’d sit back and try to play them through in my head like a movie. This usually helped. Sometimes the problem requires some critical thinking. Why are my characters resisting change? Frequently its because something is broken—they lack sufficient motivation, the course of action I wanted is illogical or is inconsistent with the character’s nature. Sometimes we have to look beneath the surface—look at the gears of the thing. Where is the jam?
Sometimes the changes I’d make would have consequences down the line, so I’d adjust my notes to include those changes as well. I was able to still be flexible—to do what was best for the story.
Surprisingly, this ended up being my favorite part of the writing process. It was creative but had the added satisfaction of problem solving. There is nothing more elating than figuring out the perfect fix to a content level issue—and seeing your novel go from good to great with each improvement.
3.) Line Editing
When I’d finished step two, my novel was complete as far as story and content goes, but the prose needed attention. Many of the words and phrases were still merely the first that had popped into my head, which does not make them the best. Here I’m looking to do several things: trim fat, make the prose sing, sharpen the dialogue, correct grammatical errors, etc.
I go through scene by scene and look at each sentence.
1.) Does this sentence add value? If not—nix it.
2.) Is each word the best word? Especially the verbs. Do I say the character “sat down” when I could say he “plunked down.”
3.) Are all the words necessary. Do I need the “that” or the “then?”
4.) Does the sentence read smoothly?
5.) Does the paragraph read smoothly?
6.) Have I used the progressive tense for no good reason?
7.) Does he really need to “nod quickly,” or can he just “nod?”
There are a lot of things to look for, and the alterations you make or do not make are going to completely depend on your style. I’ll confess, I find this step tedious. But I have a sensitive ear when it comes to the music of prose. Sometimes I have to set down a book, despite competent story telling, because there is just something discordant about the writing. I don’t want my book to suffer this same fate.
Once I’ve finished a scene I always listen to it being read aloud in Scrivener. (Go to Edit, Speech, Start Speaking). Yes, it’s a robot voice (which I find kind of entertaining), but listening to someone other than yourself read it is a great way to spot previously unnoticed typos or clunky sentences. I’ve caught a ton of mistakes this way and highly recommend it.
And that’s it! Well, that’s it for self editing. The next step is getting an editor—someone with more expertise and fresh eyes. Hopefully, if you’ve done a thorough job self editing, the mistakes your editor catches shouldn’t be too major. I hope this has been at least moderately helpful. If anyone has questions or would like more details about my editing process I would be happy to elaborate further. Best of luck editing!Aaron Burden