Wednesday 28 July 2010


[Apologies for the temporary brief disappearance of this post. I'd left the house for an appointment, forgetting that it was scheduled and that I hadn't done a final edit - ironically ;-). Amazing how many Twitter messages I had telling me to hurry up! I didn't find any mistakes but I did tighten it up - my aim is nearly always to reduce word count and I do a lot of rephrasing to achieve that.]

Here 'tis:

Every writer needs two editors. Another person and the writer himself. Yes, we all need an outside view, someone who can be as objective as possible and who is knowledgeable about our own genre. But we must also edit our own work. Trust me: no agent or publisher nowadays can bear to look at something that has not been polished until gleaming. That doesn't mean perfect - just as perfect as you can get it.

So, we have to edit our own work. Good unpublished writers know that, which is why so many of you ask for tips on how to do it. So, I thought I'd let you know how I do it, add some of the things that I know work for other people, and then let you add your own pet methods.


Stage One
This happens during the actual writing. I can't switch off my internal editor, so, by the time I get to the end of the "first" draft, I have already cleared up quite a few problems and it can hardly be described as a first draft. Importantly, I will also have started making a list of things I will change or check during re-drafting.

So, my editing process will revolve around this list, made in the Moleskine notebook dedicated to that particular WIP. (This notebook will contain character notes and time-lines etc, too.)

Stage Two
This is the Silent Pass – a run-through of the whole book, acting on my list from Stage One. Gradually the points are ticked off – although this always causes some more to be added as I notice other things.

At this stage, I am looking for large things like: plot inconsistencies, character development not being smooth or effective, pace, voice slippages, inappropriate POV switches, boring bits, threads that I failed to pick up. For non-fiction I'm looking at structure, repetition, sense, coherence.

Of course, I will also deal with small things if I happen to notice them, such as typos.

This stage can involve several passes, because changing something can lead to more things needing to be changed.

Stage Three
This is the Reading Aloud Pass – I read the whole book aloud. Here I am doing three specific things:
  • First, I am imagining that my audience consists of a group of potential readers who would rather be doing something else. My job is to hold them. So, I’m honing my prose to ensure that every word ought to be there.
  • Second, I’m listening for anything that sounds wrong – it’s amazing how often reading aloud alerts you to a repetition or an oddity that you can’t see with your eyes. Voice slippages are also easy to detect when reading aloud.
  • Third, I’m looking for small errors and typos. Reading aloud, slowly as though for a performance, helps me spot things that my silent reading eyes would have skipped over.
Stage Three can also involve several passes.

Stage Four
This mainly involves dizzy eyes, paranoia and an eventual acceptance that the book is rubbish but is at least perfect rubbish.

What adaptations might you make and what other methods or tips have I heard of?
  • To maintain consistency of your characters, keep notes of any description you make of them. This could be in a notebook or on-screen document, such as a spreadsheet.
  • Consider using a text-to-voice software – I’ve heard of one called textaloud – which means you can listen to your text being read while you edit.
  • Use comment boxes to raise doubts / remind yourself to look at something.
  • I recommend that you keep an unedited version as a separate document, in case for any reason you change your mind about something you've changed your mind about and want to retrieve the original.
  • For non-fiction, how you format headings and sub-headings is important. A publisher may well change all your formatting, but it makes a huge difference to the readability and sense of a book, as well as your professionalism, if it’s consistent from the start. For fiction, it helps if you are consistent with paragraphing and lay-out of chapter headings.
  • If you can leave it out and retain the same meaning, do.
  • If when you’re reading aloud, you sense your imaginary audience yawning, tighten it up.
  • Try to look at it through your readers’ eyes, not your own.
And then, of course, there's that Killing Your Darlings thing. Yes, our favourite bits are often the bits that have to go, and yes, ruthless is good, but KYD is just another way of saying Edit, edit, edit.

I was just about to schedule this piece when I saw this post on Writer Beware. Very good sense.

And to those who say that editing interferes with the creative flow: creative flow, my backside. Fine, let it flow but mop it up afterwards.


Mark Jones said...

" I’m one of those writers unable to switch of their internal editors, "

Are you sure? ;-)

Charmaine Clancy said...

Brilliant advice - thanks!
As for the text to voice software, I upload my story to my Kindle and it reads it allowed for me :-)

catdownunder said...

Oh yowl! I cannot read aloud. I actually dislike being read to unless the reader is very, very professional. Oddly I can hear it in my head.
The most useful self-editing exercise for me is to leave it alone for a while and then go back to it. I cringe when I see some of the misplaced cat hairs and the clumps of cat hair that should have been removed. The temptation to keep working on it has to be resisted - which for an undisciplined cat like myself is very difficult!

Nicola Morgan said...

Marc - moot point but I always take the view that the subject of "switch off" is "writers" and so requires "their". (I presume that's what you're talking about?) I also think it sounds more natural. I do hate the usual mistake regarding single subjects follwed by disagreeing plural pronoun, but in this structure it works. Do you disagree?

Charmaine - ah, clever Kindle!

Cat - I also hate being read to. But since I know I'm likely to have to read my own work at some point, I need to be able to do it, and I DO find it the only way I can notice things like repetitions, particularly. I very much agree about the need to leave it alone for a while.

none said...

Hah, no, I think Mark meant you'd written 'of' when you should have had 'off' :).

Pace always eludes me. That's where I need help. I don't think I even understand how to change it.

Mark Jones said...

"moot point but I always take the view that the subject of "switch off" is "writers" and so requires "their". (I presume that's what you're talking about?) I also think it sounds more natural. I do hate the usual mistake regarding single subjects follwed by disagreeing plural pronoun, but in this structure it works. Do you disagree?"

That's way over my head. Anyway, really liked this post as it highlights the things I am already doing as probably good things to do along with loads of other ideas. Does everyone else feel silly reading aloud to an empty room?

Dan Holloway said...

Welcome back!
I write a column on rewriting/self-editing for Writers' Mag Words With Jam - the back issues are online for free (my pieces seem always to be on page 26)

I take a piece from original through the different stages one at a time with track changes and little comments as well as longer explanatory texts. My approach is to work in from large to small. I begin with a structural edit for SENSE - basically where I realise the whole thing makes no sense as I've laid it out. Once I've sorted out that mess and the plot makes sense in the order I've presented it, and cut out the asides about sewer systems (wait, no, that's Victor Hugo), I do a closer edit for ECONOMY - I make sure each scene is as lean as it can be. Then I edit for STYLE, which is where I do things at the level of the individual sentence, literally sounding each line out in my head to make sure the rhythm is exactly right. Finally, I'll attempt to proof it. Usually there are several iterations. I will get to stage 3 and realise that I need to go back to stage 1 several times.

Nicola Morgan said...

Buffy and Mark - doh! Now I do feel silly. I didn't find the mistake because I'd already changed the whole sentence before looking for mistakes! Also - believe this or not - my "appointment" was with the optician because i can't see the computer screen properly! I have now been prescribed computer specs and will soon have no excuse...

Keren David said...

The read aloud thing is essential, I think. It's the best way of picking up repetition and poor rhythm.

j purdie said...

Reading out loud is recommended by a lot of people and it will do a lot more than find errors. It will help the flow of the story too if read well. Robert E Howard was notorious for this; some of his neighbours thought him odd when passing his house and hearing him booming out his stories, but it worked wonders for his writing, which is still in print seventy plus years after his death.

I've got this little thing on my bookshelves and it is an invaluable (though short) reference on editing:

The 10% Solution by Ken Rand in case the link doesn't show fully.

I remember reading somewhere that J.R.R. Tolkien edited Lord of the Rings backwards, that is working from the final chapter first to the first chapter last. If you compare the size of the books you can see, because of the enormity of the book, he edited less from the first volume than the other two.

sheilamcperry said...

This is a personal thing and people often pick me up on it when I write things for work - I need an extra, final stage of editing to expunge the word 'probably' from my text! Fortunately it's easy to track the word down and destroy it in MS Word, so I just leave it until last and then zap them all at once.

GentlewomanThief/Clare said...

Phew - I'm glad someone else can't help but note changes that need doing as they go! I note them on The Plan (AKA, my WIP bible that bullet points each scene), and refer to it while writing and editing. Naturally, that document ends up dog-eared and ever-expanding!

As an aside on the 'their' thing - I always consider that if it was good enough for Jane Austen (and numerous other writers, including Wilde, Shakespeare, Lewis Carroll, Byron and Fielding), then it's good enough for me. Plus, I can never think of 'him' as gender-neutral and the 'him/herself' construction types just get messy. But then I am a bit of a rebel in that way ;)

Matt said...

I'm certainly going to give a few of these a try come editing time. I've forced myself to turn off my contstant editor as I'm writing. I know several things that need revision back at the beginning and I'm having a hard time leaving them until the first draft is finished!

Karen Schwabach said...

"# If you can leave it out and retain the same meaning, do.
# If when you’re reading aloud, you sense your imaginary audience yawning, tighten it up."

Those are both going up on the ol' quote wall right next to "the story is king". Thanks!

Karen Schwabach said...

Some can read aloud, some can't. I can't because my jaw begins to ache after a minute or so.

For those who can, I think it's a good idea. If you can get an audience, it's easier.

Alleged Author said...

This is absolutely wonderful! I can give my new beta this check list and use it when I beta for others. Thank you so much!

Julia Crouch said...

This is a great article, and heartening to see that it more or less outlines my own process.

I have just done the final copy edit of my novel CUCKOO before it goes to the typesetters, and I was shocked at how many little typos and inconsistencies the eagle eyed copy-editor picked up that had been missed by both me and my editor through two edits beyond my own final draft. There was practically something on every page. Even so, she said it was a "clean" MS, so god knows what she normally sees!

Finally - two things that really, really help me: Scrivener, a great Mac program for writers, allows you to keep your notes and snippets readily accessible as you write. And then you can shift scenes/chapters round on a corkboard. I like that for the early stuff. Then track changes and show on screen in Word for later drafts. I don't know how writers did it before that.

John M Poindexter said...

I find that one important technique is to leave it sit for awhile.
You need to separate yourself from the work to a point where when you read it, it all sounds new to you.

Maybe not as long as King does his, but still long enough that you will see new errors and maybe even learn something new that you didn't remember about your work.

catdownunder said...

It is nice to know that this wise human can now see again but be warned everyone - Nicola now has new glasses and is aiming her paws at MY tuna. :-)

Hannah Stoneham said...

Great tips - I am a huge believer in reading aloud

Unknown said...

Your timing is impeccable, as I'm currently editing my crime novel. So thanks for your time and advice, Nicola. It's greatly appreciated.

Lisa J Yarde said...

Reading aloud is key to a good edit, in my opinion. I use a program Natural Reader. But I must admit, my internal editor never quite shuts up. Even as I read the umpteenth draft, my IE thinks, "Now, you know you can improve that sentence." Helpful, but annoying at times.

David John Griffin said...

Excellent post as always! Yes, I find leaving the first draft to stew, + reading it out loud (well, a sort of mumble) helps me a lot.


Elizabeth West said...

I like editing, because I get to see the book come together from a big mess to something tighter and better that actually resembles a finished manuscript.

Somewhere I read that learning all this makes your writing better. I tend to self-edit as I go to the point where it drags me down. So the harder thing for me is not learning how to properly clean up and rewrite, but to free up my mind and ignore editing until I actually finish. After all, it's not written in stone. Even if it is, I can always chisel it out!

Tanya Byrne said...

Thanks, Nicola. I'm currently editing the first draft of my WIP so this is beyond useful. And yes, reading aloud to an empty room can feel a little awkward at first but after a few chapters you don't even notice. Plus, I live on my own so I'm always talking to myself, anyway! ;)

Average Girl said...

All great tips -- so interesting to hear the processes of other writers. Oh, and I LOVE how your comments box says, "all sensible and measured comments welcome." You said it, sister!

Brad Jaeger said...

I really enjoyed this post and follow a similar structure myself.

As much as I loathe reading aloud, I find it to be an essential service to my writing.