An Approach To Editing

I’ve recently begun the process of editing the hideous mess that is my work in progress. I soon became ensnared by problems like Frodo in Shelob’s Lair. As Frodo probably asked himself during that hairy predicament, “There must be an easier way of doing this.”

Using everything I’ve learned to date about editing, I decided to put together a process, or rather an approach, to editing a story.

The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003)

An approach to editing

A good story is grown. It takes weeks, months, of careful nurturing, uncovering the meanings hidden within, fixing characters so they leap from the page, refining plot and prose to make it gripping and immersive. Just like growing a plant, a story requires patience and dedication.

book flower.jpg

There is no exact science when it comes to editing. Everyone has their own approach. Some edit as they go along, ensuring each page is in tip-top shape before moving on. Others bash out the first draft and then pick it apart. Some don’t bother at all. The method below is one I’ve found particularly useful. It’s tailored more toward short story writing but could apply to chapters in novels too. You may find it helpful!

1. After a day or so, undertake a re-read of the first draft, correcting any glaring errors which leap off the page to ensure readability. Refrain from getting drawn into editing challenges, but by all means, highlight them for later attention.

2. Set the story aside for a few weeks. The longer the better.

3. Go through it once more, this time attending to major matters—plot, character, theme and dialogue. Master editor, Sol Stein, recommended this approach, and it makes sense. Think of it like fixing a car. You wouldn’t start with the window wipers if the engine’s fucked. Set about correcting any issues which fall under these umbrellas. They’re usually the hardest and trickiest to fix.

4. Major matters considered and re-worked, now read over it once more, pruning the new sections you may have added. Remember, new additions will be in first draft form so will need attention. Consider and fix problems with prose too. Under the umbrella of prose, I’d include everything from grammar, syntax, structure, adjectives and adverbs, passive voice, sensory language, showing instead of telling and revealing the wider world.

5. Send it to people to read. Ask friends and family, though people you do not know is always the best. They’re more likely to be honest with their views. If you’re struggling to find people to read your work, try the following groups:

Fantasy Writers Support Group (Facebook)

Writing Bad (Facebook)

The Sci-Fi and Fantasy Writing Collective (Facebook)

Writer’s Tips and Feedback (Facebook)

Writers Helping Writers (Facebook)

If you have a mailing list, ask the kind folks who’ve subscribed. Some of the best advice I’ve received has come in response to my requests for fresh eyes.

When you send out your story, ask for their views on the major components above all else: character, plot, theme, dialogue and prose.

6. After a few weeks, re-read the story with the comments of readers in mind. As always, set about correcting major errors before any other. If a number of people raise the same issues, then you know you ought to fix them. If readers raise a number of different issues, take time to consider them before going ahead and changing.

7. After leaving the story another week or so, revisit. The more times you read through it, the better.

8. This stage is optional, but if you can factor it in your story will be better for it. Send it to readers again. Ask for comments on the piece as a whole—whether the original problems were corrected well enough, prose… everything. This is near enough your final draft.

9. Make any suggested corrections (that you agree with), read over it a couple times more and then look to get it published.

I hope this helps you in some way. Like I said before, this approach is one that works for me. The more time you spend editing the more you’ll come to learn your own preferences and methods.

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12 thoughts on “An Approach To Editing

  1. I have a novel that i have written that I have invested over ten years in research and five years writing, I put it down for a long time and just recently picked it up and did my first edit run through. The advice makes allot of sense. thank you.

    Gavion E. Chandler~

    ‘Man is his own devil.’

  2. This is very similar to my process. I think the best advice is to let it rest between each revision. I find when I come back it’s not as bad as when I left it and I’m more energized to keep working! Good post!

  3. Time is such a critical component. As the author, we have the unique handicap of knowing the original vision, so we often see more than the story on the page.

    For the larger aspects of character, plot, and meaning, I often like to outline and ask myself a few key questions, i.e. “what is the central conflict of this scene?”
    For word and sentence issues, I find it often helps to read it aloud in front of someone else. The two together, reading it aloud, and showing it to someone else, combine to make me very aware of awkward/weak choices in wording and sentence structure.

  4. I have no quarrel with most of this, but I have found that asking for feedback from non-writers is a waste of time. They don’t know how to do feedback and commentary, and many can’t spot spelling or punctuation errors. There are also continuity errors to check – and go back through the piece of work to fix or put in an earlier mention of (foreshadowing or seeding) – so that when it’s finally let loose on actual readers they don’t think you’re pulling a rabbit out of a hat to try to make the story work. So make sure it’s another writer, someone whom you can rely on to give you honest, workmanlike and constructive feedback, and above all, someone you really trust. Letting someone else read your work is an act of trust.
    The other point I’d like to make is that reading your work aloud to an audience, even if it’s just one other person, is a valuable way of spotting your own errors. David Gemmell told me that it doesn’t work if you read it to yourself, and he was right about that – because if you have an audience you’ll put your heart and soul into reading it as you wrote it – with passion and ingenuity. Go for it. But again, make sure it’s someone you trust, and who isn’t going to pick on things like FTL drives and dragons to trip you up.
    Above all, even if you strongly disagree with what the person has said, politely say, “Thank you very much,” and keep a note of the feedback. When you look back at it after one of those breaks you mentioned, you may realise that they had something. Or not. But if you don’t keep a note of it, you may not remember exactly what they said. And then you could miss out on some really worthwhile plot or character developments when their comments send you off in a completely different direction. And that can be worth so much to a writer.

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