Friday 29 January 2010


Several of you have asked me to talk about my method for editing and revising my own work. Method? This could be a short post...

But, ever true to you, my bloggy readers, I decided that I should give you what you ask for. I will try to make some method out of my madness.

I guess that the possible methods for self-editing are similar to the possible methods for weeding your garden.
  1. Go from one end to the other, picking out all the weeds carefully.
  2. Wander about, picking out weeds as you see them.
  3. Decide that weeds are just plants with more determination and that, since everything is equal in God's eyes, they should be allowed to remain. [Please don't take this view, even if you have admirable Buddhist tendencies. Not if you want to be published and read. Publishers don't do zen.]
Then I decided that this analogy is complete rubbish and that, as with all analogies, it is aesthetically pleasing and yet practically pointless.

There are, in fact, only three things you need to think about when weeding your garden:
  1. You need to know the difference between a weed and a plant.
  2. And you just have to get rid of the damned weeds. Doesn't matter how - just do it.
  3. No matter how carefully you do it, you'll find more weeds at the end, because the removal of one weed often reveals another.
I decided that that is not complete rubbish and is a pretty good analogy for editing your own work.
  1. You need to know what possible errors you're looking for - the difference between a good sentence / plot structure and a crappy one.
  2. And you just need to get rid of the errors.
  3. And when you've got rid of one lot, another lot is revealed.
  4. So you get rid of them.
  5. And so on.
  6. Until your piece of work is weed-free.
Would you like any help with the identification of weeds? I am here for you, as ever. 

There are two categories of weeds in your literary garden.

CATEGORY ONE WEEDS are the choking bindweedy ones, which threaten to take over your roses and throttle the life-blood from them. These must be removed early on, by the roots, otherwise your roses cannot grow and your garden, frankly, is fit only for slugs and other vermin. It is, in the words of Rab C Nesbit, pish. Examples are:
  • Poor characterisation - either in your MCs or your supporting acts. Do your characters always behave as they should? Does the reader like / respect/ identify with / feel for the MC? [We don't need to do all those things, but we have to care.]
  • Pace problems - I wrote about that here.
  • Tension issues - where is the tension? Is it in the right place? Is it satisfied at the right time?
  • Voice slippages - see here.
  • Major POV slippages - here you are.
  • Story structure / shape / arc problems - over here.
  • Saggy middle - hmm, future post, methinks.
  • Crappy ending - here.
  • Story starting in the wrong place - gosh, I'm good to you.
  • And a lot more - which is not very helpful of me but I have a book to write.
[To be honest, you really shouldn't have let most of these anywhere near your garden in the first place. If you are a beginner writer, your book may be littered with these horrors, but a more experienced writer will avoid almost all of them before they appear.]

CATEGORY TWO WEEDS are smaller things, which all writers will find in their first drafts and which we will apply the weeding gloves to with a commendable ruthlessness. Our editors and copy-editors and proof-readers will pick up any that we didn't spot but we want to leave as little as possible for these people. It's our book, not theirs. Category Two weeds are like those dainty things that try to pretend they're real flowers. Sometimes my husband thinks they are and he leaves them. Sometimes he takes out the pretty flowers instead. He is like a novice writer when it comes to weeding, which in his case it usually doesn't, actually. Examples are:
  • Places where tweaks should be made to clarify characterisation / motivation / credibility.
  • Clunky sentences - sentences where you have clustered a collection of clauses in an ugly order, for example, making it hard for the reader to read.
  • Minor POV or voice slippage.
  • Places where thre's too much telling when showing would have been better. Extraneous adverbs.
  • Continuity issues - eg saying that the MC leapt onto the horse's bare back and then later mentioning the stirrups. I have done this. Oh and then there was the one [which made it through all the copy-editors and all the way into the printed book] where a girl flings open the door of a room which ten minutes before I'd said was locked on the other side...
  • Typos, spelling errors, punctuation etc etc. And yes, there will be some in this post. I'll find them eventually. But probably not all of them, because this is a blog post and I can change it later. So shut up, please.
  • Anything that doesn't sound absofrigginglutely perfect when you read it aloud, imagining that your audience consists of fidgety people who are assuming you've got nothing interesting to tell them and they're desperate to leave.
When you've done all that, there's only one more thing to do. Do it again. And possibly again. 

One of the problems is that the weed you removed may have hidden roots. You will have noticed the same in books: if you change one thing, you'll find you have created knock-on effects which now have to be dealt with. So, you do have to remove weeds and plot problems by the root and make sure you've not forgotten any tendrils. I suggest keeping a notebook as you revise and jotting down things you've changed, so that you can check that you've found all the consequences. However, this is a bit methody for me and I prefer the madness approach and the constant re-reading.

And when you're quite sure that no weed is peeping up between the soil of your well-raked flower-border, then you can let an agent or publisher see it. By which time, a previously invisible seed will have begun to sprout, and what you thought was perfection won't be. That's because perfection is unattainable in writing as in gardening, and you have to get over it.

Have I answered your questions? Probably not. See, I don't really have a method. I just do it. And do it again. I honestly think once you can identify the weeds, pulling them out is not that difficult. You can choose whatever weeding method works for you: just get rid of the little buggers.

Oh, and by the way, spell-check and grammar-check are the equivalent of weed-killer: they don't let anything grow. They kill indiscriminately and remove control from the gardener. They may have their place for some people but they are not enough for anyone. Real writers use their hands.

AsVoltaire said, Maintenant, il faut cultiver ton jardin. And here's one I made earlier, with not a weed in sight:


Anonymous said...

Cultivate a ton of sardines?

But maybe she did fling it open, despite its lockedness? Could be part of her skills.

I'm so glad I don't write books.

Thomas Taylor said...

Thanks for the gardening tips.

There's nothing worse than a weed that's survived all the way through to publication. And just one small typo in a published book can bring the whole thing into question.

Who'd be a proofreader?

Old Kitty said...


Spellcheker and grammar check - I used to use them slavishly until that one time when they passed the word "draw". Unfortunately I meant "drawer", so the phrase "He pulled his draw out..." became something else...


So lesson learnt!

Take care

Jemi Fraser said...

You are good to us :)

I tend to edit better with a focus for each round of edits and revisions.

Thanks for all the good advice!

sheilamcperry said...

Thanks Nicola - like many of your posts, this reinforces some things I've only just worked out for myself at my advanced age, and makes me think of some new things. I haven't been good at self-editing in the past, but am working hard at doing better.
Most people will probably think this is a mad idea, but recently I had a novel printed as a book by Lulu (one copy, not for selling but for me) just because I was completely fed up with reading it on the screen but I knew there was more editing to do. This has turned out to be a huge success for me as I do indeed spot errors, clumsy sentences etc much more easily in the printed book version than on the screen. At the moment the book is full of post-its on which I've written the mistakes, but I'm trying to make myself get to the end before I actually edit the word file. Just thought I would mention it in case anyone else is suffering from screen fatigue!

Colette Martin said...

I love the weeding analogy. It works.

Go away google said...

Sheliamcperry - I'm an editor and there's an ongoing fight across the industry between editors, who like to edit hard copy because it's easier to see mistakes, and cost-cutters who want us to do everything on screen. So your use of sounds profoundly sensible.

I might do it myself with my original work if the system is accessible enough. Would you mind saying how much you paid and how fiddly the process was? Thanks a lot.

Lizzie said...

Very good analogy, Nicola. Right now I've got a wheelbarrow full of weeds. I suspect that by the end of the weekend it'll be even fuller.

Also, rereading your POV blog just now I've realised I've slipped in one scene and will have to rework it.

Thanks for all the advice – I always look forward to your blogs.

Daniel Blythe said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Daniel Blythe said...

What an excellent analogy. I am a rubbish gardener, though, and often find it hard to tell the difference between weeds and plants. I'm hoping I don't have the same problem with writing - but suspect I often do.

By the way, the exact quote from Voltaire's 'Candide' is 'Il faut cultiver notre jardin' - *our* garden! Even more inclusive!

Marshall Buckley said...

I completely agree that editing using a hard copyis much easier - I print out on A4 - 4 pages per sheet (duplexed) and use a binding machine at work.

But, before it gets to that stage I have:
Each chapter read as it's completed by my writing partner, with corrections made there and then;
On completion of entire MS, he reads through again, sending further corrections chapter by chapter;
Then I do use Word's Grammar/Spell Checker just to make sure nothing silly has slipped through;
Then I send to beta-readers (one of whom is very thorough);
Finally, I print my copy and read through, marking each page that has an error with a little post-it tag. I only go back to edit the actual file once I've finished my read-through.

Only then (and maybe after a couple more beta-readers) does it go to my agent.
Her comment on Book 1 was that it "needed no further editing before submission".

Jamie said...

Awesome, awesome, awesome. As always, you've provided helpful and relevant advice. Thank you for this post!

sheilamcperry said...

Anna - It wasn't that difficult to produce a copy for my own use on Lulu - you can now feed an ms word file into the process. I think the main fiddly thing is getting the page size in the word file to fit one of their standard book sizes (I used US trade size) - they have details on the website. Usually just altering the page setup is enough.
My copy cost something like 7.50GBP including postage I think.
Hope this helps.
Marshall, if I had easy access to a binding machine I might do it your way. I think my editing process so far has been through about as many stages as yours, with one complete and utter re-write and lots of staring at the screen and trying to work out whether chapter 17 should come before or after chapter 14 etc!
best wishes,

Jill said...

You said, "By which time, a previously invisible seed will have begun to sprout, and what you thought was perfection won't be. That's because perfection is unattainable in writing as in gardening, and you have to get over it."

I think I'll pull my hair out now! Words start boggling my mind after a while, and I wish they would all just go away, especially my current WIP.

Nicola Morgan said...

Bookwitch - no, she really was supposed to be trapped, to the extent that she couldn't get out when she wanted to rescue her sister who was being assaulted and killed. It's in The Highwayman's Footsteps, when Bess is telling Will how her parents, the Highwayman and "Bess, the landlord's black-eyed daughter" died.

Thomas - actually, I think we have to get over the odd typo. Factual errors are worse, and certainly several typos would be a sign of sloppiness and would get in the way. But I rather like the occasional continuity error! I remember spotting a fab error in a prize-winning book: the heroine walks along, holding her skirt in one hand, a candle in the other, and something else in the other... Loved it!

Sheila - I think using Lulu like that is an excellent idea. I've heard of other people doing that.

I prefer editing and revising on screen but close-editing and proof-reading on paper.

Blossom, Colette, Jemi, Old Kitty - glad to help.

Daniel - you are, of course, right! (Though I'm sure you're a good weeder of your own words.)

Nicola Morgan said...

Marshall - now THAT's what I call a method! I am impressed. I do sometimes come up with methods but I can never stick to them. I can only do the creative madness approach.

Jamie - thank you!

Arabella - you maybe need to crreat distance? Leave it for at least a month if possible, while you write something else. Go back to it like a reader.

Anna - sorry, forgot to include you last time. Hello!

Rebecca Knight said...

Wonderful post, and wonderful tips in the comments! :) I'd never thought about using Lulu that way, but now I just might.

I'm busy doing my last once-over plucking weeds up that escaped my notice the first 50 times ;).

Administrator said...

Nicola, you have missed out the worst kind of weeds - the really pretty ones that even the experienced gardener can mistake for proper plants... in other words those darlings we need to murder.

I find it so hard to cut out phrases i've written that i love, even if i sense that they aren't truly working. Some times i even save them to stick in following books. I know. That is a very sad admission.

Great post as always!! Like gardening, i fear good self-editing skills can only be acquired by lots and lots - and lots - of practise.

Administrator said...

Ah, on a re-read i see you husband sometimes mistakes weeds for pretty flowers - i'm with him, then:) Surely it can't do that much harm to leave them in...


Donna Gambale said...

This is a brilliant overview. I'm bookmarking it and forwarding it to my crit group. Thanks so much!

David John Griffin said...

Excellenté as they say in the advert! It's great the way you've listed the necessary steps needed for novel "gardening". I like to think I do all of those, but never really brought them to mind as such. It'll help me, after my WIP is finished, to edit in a more consistent manner this time around, I think.

I so agree with you Nicola, about leaving any writing alone for a month or so. After the distancing, at least some of those little blighters ("weeds") seem to jump out at one.

sheilamcperry's idea to get a Lulu printed copy to check out the novel is really good. I've done that in the past, and it's been a boon for sure.


Theresa Milstein said...

Every time I think I'm done, I'm not done. It appears that there's always something to improve.
I was just reading a post from Mary at, and making sure manuscripts are really polished before they go out.
Perhaps a good way to make sure a manuscript is "weeded" is to try a contest. Right now there's one on until this Sunday: for the first 500 words.

catdownunder said...

Hmmm...before you scratch around in the garden removing the weeds between the catnip do you go and take a little nap - chocolate break purrhaps? - so that you can actually see something when you look at the garden?
Seriously, I know that I do not find any mistakes unless I leave my writing alone for a day...and there are plenty more even after that! I am not sure whether this gives the weeds time to grow or whether they begin to wither and die and thus get my attention.

David John Griffin said...

Oh yes, just remembered: I also found a typo in a published book: The Road by Cormac McCarthy, that I bought a couple of weeks ago. Thumbing through it, I found a word which should have been either "didn't" or "wasn't" (can't remember which); it was spelled as "didnt" or "wasnt" Unless he's done that consistently throughout the novel...hope not! I'll find out when I get round to reading it!


Jo Treggiari said...

I think the weeding analogy worked very well. After all, who likes weeding? At least at first.
Then after some consideration and the prospect of a lovely weed-free garden to entice us, most of us reconsider. Once I get started I do find a sort of zen-like quality to getting rid of all the clunky, showy words and phrases and giving the rest some room to breathe.
Your posts recently have spoken directly to where I am on my WIP- currently doing first massive revision--so thanks so much for that.

JaneF said...

I like the idea of the hidden roots left behind once the weeds are gone - or rather I don't. I have a lot of those.

It's quite funny, though, when you come across one of your characters behaving totally bizarrely, as if they really have got a mind of their own, and then you realise that they're reacting to something that happened in a previous version of their lives.

Sarah said...

Nicola, I loved this analogy. When I'd been writing for a few years, I knew I was missing something. I'd do my best to revise and revise, and removed most of the Cat. 2 weeds. (Am I the only who is reminded of hurricanes with this category business?)

Anyway, I polished the words till they shone, but I had no idea why the story itself seemed wonky.

Joining the Slushbusters and a great writing class helped me address the Cat. 1 weeds. Granted, it's not fun have folks tell you they don't know what you're doing with the story, and that they don't care about your MC. Truth was, I couldn't pull those weeds until I could see them, and I needed extra sets of eyes to help me see them.

It reminds me of when I was small. Mom took me outside and showed me what weeds I should pull. (I believe she learned the show-Sarah-what-a-weed-looks-like-BEFORE-you-tell-her-to-pull-them lesson the hard way.)

Whirlochre said...

Thanks for being Monty Don.

Douglas Bruton said...

Like DanielB I am not so good in the garden and often pull out flowers thinking they are weeds and cultivate weeds think they are flowers.

And, do you know, some weeds are quite pretty!

My wife usually follows behind me pulling the buttercups and dandelions that I leave in my wake. And the ragged robin and the coltsfoot and forget-me-nots.

I am crap at weeding.

Interesting post though. Thanks.

Anonymous said...

Publishers don't do zen.

The heck you say. I practice the art every morning:

Anonymous said...

Publishers don't do zen.

The heck you say. I practice the art every morning:

Jo Franklin said...

What do you think the record for re-read/re-edit is? I've lost count but would still welcome the chance to go over it again with a real editor.

Miriam Drori said...

Another great post. I've always thought editing was important - ever since my first boss called me pedantic for marking extraneous apostrophes in every occurrence of the word "its" in an article he wrote.

By the way, in your post I noticed the word "there's" has a missing.... Shut up, Miriam!

Istvanski said...

The weeding analogy worked for me.
Thanks for this, it's a useful post.

Nicola Morgan said...

Jo - I don't know but do you want to compete with me??

Miriam - thank you!

Douglas - yes, weeds are pretty and it can be subjective. But you know very well what i mean!

Istvanski - good. Whirlochre - hmmm.

Samantha - good point about the darlings. I think these may be the pretty ones that Douglas mentioned.

Rebecca, Donna, David, Sarah, Jo, others - thank you.

Catdownunder - I quite agree that leaving them for a while makes us see them better when we return. It can be difficult to remove the tiny ones, especially when you have large paws.

JaneF - indeed! very annoying when that happens.

Elizabeth West said...

Ooh, thanks for this. Hilariously, I am going through my book again and toward the end, found a place where a character put her purse down by the door and then a few seconds later, it magically reappeared in her hand!

I'm working on the pace too.