How to Edit your Work

I believe one of the big differences between amateur and professional writing is that professional writing is repeatedly edited. I am fortunate enough when working on the Dunbarrow books to have the manuscripts edited multiple times by professional editors and copyeditors (more on the distinction later). If you’re an aspiring, unpublished writer, you don’t enjoy this luxury, and you’ll have to learn to be your own editor. I don’t pretend that I have the space or expertise to cover every aspect of this task here, but I wanted to share some observations that might make the process easier.

Editing is a little difficult to separate out from the general business of writing fiction, but I would say it’s a more analytic process than creative. You are looking with a critical eye at your story, your chapters, your paragraphs, your sentences, and attempting to discern how effective they are, and how they might be improved. I tend to imagine the first draft process as a trek through uncharted jungle, with your mind and hands as explorers, hacking their way through the undergrowth in search of an unknown destination. When editing your first draft, you’re not a pioneer, but rather a developer, paving the treacherous jungle path and turning it into a luxury highway along which your readers can comfortably speed. I think it is ideal to create uninhibited by doubt, and later return to the project with a doubting, wary eye.

Editing a fiction manuscript can be further divided into two categories: structural and copy editing. Structural editing is broad, big-picture work, and this is usually done earlier in a manuscript’s lifetime. Structural editing will look at plot, pacing, character; in short, many of the big pillars of fiction. If your plot is nonsensical then this is a very large problem, and will require a re-think and re-write of most likely every page in the novel. Copy (or line) editing is in the details: grammar, spelling, tone, factual inconsistencies. These are all extremely important, as bad prose is the fast-acting poison of literature, but I feel these issues are best seriously addressed at a later stage in your editing process, as there is little use in painstakingly copyediting your opening scene only to later realise it must be removed for pacing reasons. My manuscripts are fully copyedited once we’re happy with the structure of the story.

Editing could be looked at as a war against imprecision and redundancy. You are attempting to communicate with the reader. Lack of clarity in your language will confuse your reader and prevent them from properly participating in your story, and redundancy will frustrate them, maybe to the point where they no longer wish to continue. Editing is often a process of subtraction; look for repeated ideas, repeated words, passages where your mind has said the same thing in three different ways because you were trying the words out. Choose one of these ways, and remove the rest. To evade imprecision, I suggest you be very alert to the precise nature of words you’re using, and always be questioning which is the exact word that you need, as no two words in the english language carry the exact same meaning and connotation.

You must accept that your first draft will not communicate the story as clearly as you imagine it to or wish it to, and seek ways to improve this. This can be a painful, difficult admission. I know this first hand. Unfortunately, in order to improve your story and make it as good as it can be, you must accept that your first draft – your glorious, crowning achievement – is flawed. When I completed 13 Days of Midnight in a first draft, it was 120,000 words long, the longest piece of work I’d ever finished. By the time it was typeset for publication, four years later, it was 77,000 words long, and almost none of these words were from the original 120,000. The novel had become something new and strange, and was stronger than I’d ever imagined it being. I encourage you to welcome change, to be excited at the prospect of ripping the story to pieces and writing again.

Editing is difficult. It’s hard to be honest with yourself about the ways your draft may be failing the reader, and sometimes it’s hard to even see the problems, because of course you, the author, know what each sentence is meant to mean. It is as impossible to see your work as a reader will as it is for you to see the back of your own head. Your likable hero may be deeply unlikable, your dramatic denouement rushed and unexciting, your brilliant sentences as impenetrable as extraterrestrial algebra. You will not easily see any of this.

Sometimes having perspective will help. I normally take at least a month between redrafts, during which time I won’t look at the manuscript at all. I would also strongly advise that part of your editing process involve other people giving you honest feedback on their experience with the story. This is where a writer’s group will come into its own, as you can have your work read by others with an interest in the craft, rather than your family or friends, who are likely to only tell you the manuscript is ‘great’, and may still lack the ability to diagnose why the story failed even if they do give honest criticism. Don’t feel beholden to change every single thing every beta reader brings up, but if ten people tell you the opening chapter is slow and confusing, it is most likely slow and confusing.

A habit I’d suggest you take up is that of actually redrafting – that is, sitting down with a blank word document and retyping your entire chapter, page, whatever it is that you’re reworking. Retype the entire novel if you have the stomach for it. I like doing this because I think it forces you to look more critically at your work if you’re both reading and retyping it. Before word processing programs this would be the norm – a redraft would by necessity involve writing or typing out the entire manuscript again. This is only a personal observation, but I find that one of the dangers of having everything properly laid out on a computer screen is that it looks very finished, in marked contrast to a rough draft written in biro in a notebook. You’ll often find yourself tinkering with a paragraph rather than drastically changing it. I’m not suggesting you hand-write a 100,000 word novel, but give some thought to physically re-typing the chapter or scene next time you’re editing. Retyping your sentences forces you to consider each one as a fresh new thing, and when they’re new, they’re much easier to change. When I’m writing something short, like a poem, I’ll take it even further, and refuse to use a computer at all until all the drafts are nearly done.

To help with your structural editing, it would be useful to read some books about story structure, character development, and plotting, in order for you to spot large-scale issues, like redundant scenes, or a plot that is progressing too slowly. To help you copyedit, books on grammar and english usage are essential, as is a dictionary.

As a final word of advice for budding editors: try to think of each word you’re using as a tool, and don’t consider yourself satisfied until you’ve found the exact right one.