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Tuesday, February 3, 2009


Picture this: You've written a novel, maybe you threw it together in 30 days for NaNoWriMo or maybe you've toiled over every word for ten years. Now that novel glares at you accusingly and you realize the first draft wasn't as flawless and beautiful as you once thought.

Hot tears streaming down your face you realize it is time to edit. You'd rather be eaten alive by fire ants than change one word of your baby draft, but you know people who query in crayon are more coherent than your last thirteen chapters. Editing is painful. Editing drives you to fits of sanity where you swear you'll take up banking and never read fiction again. Editing drives even the most optimistic and cheerful people right over the brink of depressing and into the pit of despair.

It's okay, every author has gone through editing before. And, after several editing attempts and long talks with friends, I've come to find there is more than one way to edit.

1) The Rewrite
The rewrite is terrible and drastic. It's usually reserved for our earliest works, the ones where we haven't discovered Plot, Pacing, Tone, or Point of View yet.

The best way to organize a rewrite is to read through the manuscript, find the elements you like, and make a rough sketch of how you would like the book to go. For example, maybe I loved the main character's name and her sense of humor in chapter five, but not her unfaithfulness in chapter seven or any of chapters 9-21 inclusive. So I take the funny character with her Perfect Name, and scrap the rest. Maybe I'll keep the original genre and the plot line (Girl Rescues Dragon!), maybe I won't.

The worst way to do a rewrite is to throw up your hands, delete the original, and start over with nothing planned or organized. You're bound to wind up with something almost as bad as the original.

2) Stuck on a Point Editing
Like the name suggests, this is the editing style that never lets you get past Point X. For some people this means they write the rough draft and then wind up editing chapter one until they die of exhaustion. In the worst cases, the author never gets past Point X in the first draft and they spend years agonizing over the first three chapters. Yikes!

The best thing to do if you get stuck on a point is hand the red pen to a good friend, sit down with some cookies, and read the whole manuscript again. If you haven't finished the first rough draft you shouldn't be editing. Lock your inner editor in the Pit of Despair and go finish the draft. After you've finished and read the draft you can make notes on key elements that need to be brought in, inconsistencies you need to fix, and plot holes that need mending.

The worst thing to do is stubbornly insist you will write or edit the next chapter as soon as this chapter is perfect. Novels are not individual chapters that are read in isolation. Chapters breaks are places where we, as authors, allow the readers to stop for the night. Chapters breaks are not where you stop writing. As the creator of this fictional universe you need to keep the big picture in mind at all times, which means making the novel perfect, not the chapter.

3) Elephant Ears Editing
When I was little my mother read me a book about a little bear who drew a picture of his mother. As the little bear walked home he showed the picture to his friends and changed it at their suggestions: a longer nose said the elephant, a wider smile said the alligator, more feathers said the bird... and so on. Sometimes even the best writers fall into this trap. We have a good story, maybe not flawless but close, and we let outside input change the story. Maybe one beta-reader really wants more description, or maybe your editor wants you to toss in a 3-page sex scene, or maybe your mother thinks the girl ought to wear a teeny-weeny yellow polka dot bikini during the chase scene.... please, think before you edit!

The best way to avoid elephant ears is to know what you want from your book and to keep reminding yourself. You will probably get good advice from beta-readers. At times I've taken direct quotes from my readers and used them in the story (with permission). Know your story, and you won't find your Handsome Stranger wandering around with three pixies and a nose like Pinocchio

The worst way to handle all of this is to be spineless and make every change anyone suggests, even the editor. Maybe the editor or agent you're trying to work with thinks a sex scene in chapter three is just the thing your book needs. But, if you disagree, say no. If you're writing the Life and Times of Sister Therasa you don't need a kinky bondage scene with leather, or spaceships, or muck monsters from the green bayou. Remember the DARE slogan from grade school? Just Say No!

4) Hack and Slash Editing
Desperate to escape the mired muck of editing some authors will charge at their manuscript, guns blazing, hack and slash, and then retreat in a quivering ball of defeat. It's never pretty. It might get the job done, but it isn't pretty.

The best way to use H&S editing is to save it for extreme cases. Maybe on your second-to-last round of edits you will need to charge some chapters and viciously, nay even brutally, savage that chapter until it bleeds black ink. Cruelly cut the commas, attack superfluous ands, decimate description that runs on for three chapters. Go for it.

The worst way to use H&S is using it as your only method of editing. It's too chaotic, and it's too easy to lose sight of the big picture. You might find yourself chopping out very good DL or description or even key plot points if you aren't careful. Just to be sure, I like to keep a file labeled "Slush Pile for Title" where I paste any major chunks I cut out of my manuscript.

5) Layered Editing
This, I've found, is the best way for me to edit myself. And I think it works because there is no pressure to get everything right in one go.

The best way to do layered editing is to get all your ducks in a row. First, get the rough draft complete. Don't worry about anything but getting the bare bones story in place. Second, review the rough draft and decide what works and write down what the point of each chapter is. If the chapter is not advancing the plot and doesn't have enough tension you need to either change the chapter or scrap it. Third, go back to chapter one and do a technical edit. Fix grammar, spelling, and POV missteps. Fourth, start fleshing out details you've missed. For me, I know I tend to leave out sensory observations in my first draft. So I'll go back and add the color of someone's eyes, a candle burning in a corner, the smell of diesel or burning flesh. Fifth, do a read through for flow and pacing, pay particular attention to character consistency and growth. Finish with whatever edits you may still need to polish the manuscript.

The worst thing to do here is think that layered editing will make it possible for you to edit in a vacuum. I'm sorry, but it won't. Everything you write will make sense to you (or it should). That doesn't mean it will make sense to your readers. Something you think is perfectly clear may be a shrouded mystery to everyone else. Before you query let some trusted beta-readers have a look at the manuscript. They will undoubtedly find some stupid spelling error you missed even though you read that page 10 times this week. They will probably find a plot line flapping loose and untidy. They may even find a plot hole you forgot to patch up. Don't feel bed, it happens to everyone. Take your beta-readers good advice and edit some more.

What's the take home message you need to know here?
1- Know your book. If you don't know what you want you'll never get there.
2- Don't give up. Quitters always fail.
3- Don't be impatient. Editing doesn't happen overnight.
4- Don't go through this alone. Grab a battle buddy and hit the trenches together, everyone needs support.

Good luck!


  1. Nice list of different styles, L, thanks!

    I'm steadfastly ignoring all editing right now and my brain isn't even here enough to comment... but I like your post. ;)

  2. *tries to look like she shouldn't be editing*

    I decided to try chapter four from a different POV, and stalled out. Ugh!

    But, I'll try again tonight. This was a post I'd been wanting to do for awhile now.

  3. Whee! Editing! I LOVE editing! I can't wait to be done with the draft of Jesscapades so I can EDIT!! Woo hoo!

    I edit mostly as per your description of layered editing, I think, and it works for me :)

  4. This is a fantastic post, Lei. It is EXACTLY what I needed. Thank you.

    Layered editing really seems like the way to go. :)

  5. Over from Lady Glam's site and I agree with her comment, "this is a fantastic post." Thanks for keeping us focused on the whole book.

    p.s. "Pinocchio" needs a period. ;)