There is a certain conceit that exists about books that we love. We imagine that the author sat down, wrote the words, sent them off to the printer, and it became the book in our hands. We do not think about the thing that happens in between.
I don’t blame us for this. I blame English Class. English Class, where we were assigned an essay topic that we did not liked, were forced to read books about the topic that we liked even less, make scribbles of notes (for those of us who are old-school and remember things like pens – pronounced peh-nz – and the Dewey Decimal System) that we will have no prayer of deciphering later (causing us to lose points because our facts – the dates where the 8 looked like a 6), and write our paper, which we don’t want to do but most of us aren’t large enough to make the brainy students do it for us (or we’re the brainy students having to write our own and half of the football teams’ papers). Worse still, we then have to read this thing that we did not want to write in the first place. We have to read it slowly and carefully and look for the horror that no high school or college student wants to see – our own fallibility.
We learn to write a three-point thesis, three supporting paragraphs, and an introduction and conclusion. We also learn to hate editing. Is it any wonder, then, that we push from our minds that such horrible drudgery is the price paid for something we enjoy reading? It is an oxymoron. It is counter intuitive.
Many of our favorite authors don’t have to do this drudgery themselves. They go through a few rewrites, but the worst of the editing is usually performed by someone assigned by their publishing house. I imagine a poor soul locked in the basement of a publishing giant’s high-rise building, chained to his desk. He finishes a close read of a book and hands it to his foreman, looking up and saying “Please sir. May I have another?” I’m being melodramatic of course. It is to make a point. Unless you have a passion for editing, and there exist some amazing souls who do, you dread having to do it. Let’s face it: most authors don’t have a passion for it. If they did, they wouldn’t be struggling as an author to find a publisher or make it in the self-publishing market. They’d be making the big bucks editing.
I mean big bucks. When I received feedback that my novel needed a mechanical edit, I decided to price that. For a 126,000 word novel, a mechanical edit was going to cost me well over $2000. Naturally, being a struggling writer with a family to support, I said “no, thank you. I’ll do it myself.” The price I found was an average price, and it is not the price tag for mechanical edits alone. Any kind of editing except for a simple editorial review, which makes suggestions not actual changes, costs around the same amount.
I mention this as a follow-up to “The Self-Publishing Paradigm”. There, I gave a high-level discussion about editing. Here, I would like to get into more details, explore what I have found to be the 4 must-do’s, and what kinds of tips can help writers get through editing their novels, novellas, and short stories.
You see, even though we can, as authors, learn to edit, there are still many self-published works that are not thoroughly edited. Part of changing the paradigm is changing how we as small business owners (your writing is your small business) conduct ourselves. This means printing the story, picking up a pen (I suggest red) and editing. Don’t just take advice from me. There are many tools out there to help you edit your work. This is just one more. After all, the more tools there are in the store, the more likely it is you’ll find the one you need.
Lynn’s 4 Must-do’s of Editing
1. Read and edit your work multiple times. This doesn’t mean, however, that you do the same thing multiple times. Instead, each edit gets its own focus. Your first edit should be an editorial review. You will make notes, but you will not make corrections. Instead, you will look for the elements that work in the story and what problems exist. You’re going to look to see what are the most common types of grammatical errors. What type of story are you telling? Is this an idea, milieu, event, or character story? What is the mood and theme? Are the different elements present appropriate for the type of story? Are there inconsistencies in the plot, in setting, or in characterization? Once you have done this, you will go through your notes, determine what work needs to be done, and organize the tasks to take place over your next edits.
Beginning with your second read, you will focus on one of the tasks, go through the book, and fix the problems associated with that task. It might be fixing plot inconsistencies and tying loose ends. You may want to focus on characterization or how quickly information is revealed. You will probably have four or five additional edits beyond your first read before you get to the final edit.
The final edit should always be your mechanical edit. Don’t worry about grammar and spelling in the previous ones. Why? Because in the previous edits, you’re going to be adding some things to the story and taking some things out. If you start with a mechanical edit, you’ll end up needing to do it again. To me, the mechanical edit is the most grueling type, so don’t torture yourself more than you have to. Once the mechanical edit is done, you just need to format for publishing.
2. Have an editing partner. This is so important. As the author, you are very close to the work. You know what you mean to say in a passage, so you most likely will read it, but see what you meant to write. Having an editing partner will help keep this from happening. A best practice is to for one of you to read aloud while the other follows along. It’s fine to trade off between chapters with reading (and will save your voice).
3. Utilize your tools in Word, or whatever your word-processing program of choice is. Use track changes to keep up with what you change from edit to edit. When you prepare to move onto your next edit, save the current one and then save-as and create a new file for the next edit. Before you begin making changes, accept changes from your previous edit. If you decide to add something back that you deleted in a previous edit, this will make it a little easier to do so. Familiarize yourself with your program’s settings for grammar and spell check as well as formatting options. Set it to automatically add smart quotes. You can also set word to look for contextual use when running spelling and grammar checks. This setting will still not catch everything, but it will catch a lot of things.
4. Create a bible. Many authors do this while writing. If you do, wonderful. Be prepared to add to it when you edit. The format of your bible is simple: whatever works for you. It is important to add to it during editing because you will find things you missed before. It also makes it easier to track important notes and make sure that what you have in your bible is consistent with what you have written in the story.
If you’re not sure what a bible is, don’t worry. It’s simply a quick-reference collection of information about your book. If you’re a non-fiction writer, it is your research notes. If you’re a fiction writer, it serves a similar purpose. It is a note of what your characters look like, what their likes and dislikes are, and key events that you will want to refer back to later. It is also used to make sure that settings are described consistently. It’s easy to forget details like the flat screen TV being on the wall and not on a stand or the living room containing a component couch and not a couch and love seat. You also want to remember who in a house has what bedrooms if those bedrooms are presented in the story. If someone’s bedroom is on the back of the house, they’re not likely to be woken up by flash lights on the front lawn.
These are my four basic rules. In my next post, I’m going to begin getting into some details on different tips and practices that I’ve found helpful.