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EDITING—Part I (Self-editing)

There's a metric ton of information out there about "the process" for writing a novel. Lots of approaches, lots of ways to stay motivated, lots of sometimes competing suggestions. Some people swear by outlines; others declaim that only the muse-in-the-moment will lead you to a completed novel. I've finished four novels and a novella (and a handful of short stories)--by no means do I consider myself an expert or especially knowledgeable, but I've picked up a couple of things along the way. For what it's worth, I would consider myself about 85% a discovery writer ("pantser") and 15% an outliner ("plotter"). Which is basically the inverse of what I was when I finished my first novel. Whatever process one uses to get to "The End," and however that process may evolve over time, there are two constants: (1) you've got to keep your butt in a chair and write words in order to write a book; and (2) you're going to have to go back and edit those words--a lot. 


I'm going to focus on the second constant. 


Editing is where you confront the hard reality that not every line you spun was literary brilliance. In fact, if you approach it honestly, you'll probably be embarrassed at how bad some of what you wrote really is (I've lost count of the number of times I've gone over a line I wrote and wondered, "what does that even mean?"). That's the point of the process. Because I work with a publisher, I'm going to break my editing process down into two parts. This first part focuses on how I approach self-editing. I'll post a second part that addresses how one works with an editor later.


Depending on who you ask, there are three--or four, five, six, or seven--levels of editing. The precise taxonomy of the editing process can get a little wonky, but for purposes of self-editing a work of fiction, I'll keep it simple and make it three: (1) Structural Editing; (2) Line Editing; and (3) Proofreading. Each is done separately and in order.


First, in structural editing, I'm looking at the "big picture"--are there plot holes? Are character arcs progressing? Is the conflict clear? Is the pacing good? Are characters acting "honestly" and organically given who they are? Because I am more of a discovery writer, this part of the process keeps me busiest. As I go back over a manuscript, it will be littered with highlighted notes for me to change things earlier in the story based on things I discovered later. A scene that was originally written with three undead knights attacking the protaganist might work better with one annoying, wise-cracking ghost. Often, this is where my 110K words gets trimmed down to 95k. Because one of the shortcomings of discovery writing is that you don't always see a dead-end until after you've written it, I'll end up with scenes or exposition that ends up cluttering the story. So, for me, there's always a good amount of deletion going on in this stage.


With line editing, as the name implies, I am focused more on each line and paragraph--are there too many dialogue tags? Is there a better way to phrase this description? Have I used the same word three times in the same paragraph? I'll often read aloud as I do this to make sure everything "sounds" right. 


Last of all comes proofreading. This is what your seventh grade English teacher kept dinging your homework for. Misspelled words. Superfluous commas. Run-on sentences. Inexplicably changed names. Think of it as quality control for all the little rules and conventions that, if you break them, you'll yank your reader right out of your story. To some extent, I'll often do some proofreading while I'm line editing. But it's important to do a final pass-through the entire manuscript (don't try to just spot-check it--trust me).


Each of these editing levels is imperative if you're going to turn a rough draft manuscript into a book. What makes this particularly challenging in the self-editing process is, well, that you have to do it all yourself. Which means, first, you have to tamp down your gushing joy at having completed a novel that will surely sell millions of copies. And, second, once you've curbed that enthusiasm, once you're relegated yourself to weeks of further work on your "completed" story, you have to try to pretend you didn't write the words and lines you'll be carving up into pieces. It's tough. Like I said, it's my least favorite part of the process.


There's one thing I've learned, though. There really is no better self-editing tool than time. For me it's about three to four weeks. After I've finished a novel, I celebrate with the family, say "congratulations" to myself--and then I set it aside. During that time, I try to write something else, clear my head of the story, get into something totally different for a while. Once about a month has gone by, only then, can I go back and read that manuscript with a fresh set of eyes--eyes that won't gloss over problems or proofreading errors.


It's certainly not the most glamorous aspect of the writing process, but it's vital. Far more enjoyable is the process of working with an editor--which I'll get to in my next post.


- Matt

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