The science of editing

I’ve just finished my first edit of “Field of Clouds” and the whole process went really well. Now it’ll go off to my agent, who may have more to add, and then to my publishers, who will no doubt have much for me to fix.

For those of you embarking on a self-edit, the most important thing to remember is to be methodical and detached. You can get swamped in an edit very easily. I always tell my students that it is like autopsying a puppy. If you can’t be methodical and detached, then more puppies may die. Rule number one is to have a printed copy of the MS, and go through it first with a pen, marking what’s wrong. Don’t try to fix it on the first pass, just make a note in the margin about what’s wrong. (Okay, if you know the perfect substitute word then put it in, but in general don’t fix, just mark). I do this, all the while imagining that I’m not the person who has to fix it. Makes it far less overwhelming (though a little more pathological).

Then take your MS back to your computer, and start at the beginning making the changes you’ve noted. Do the easy ones right away (e.g. typos, deletions, small rewrites) in order. The ones that are a bit harder or need a bit more thought, mark them with a note (I used the “review” menu in Word for Vista) and keep moving on. Once you get to the end of the MS, you can count up your notes. For this MS, I originally had 63. Then you can work on screen, methodically fixing them one at a time. They don’t have to be in order: fix the easy ones first so you get a sense of satisfaction, seeing the number grow smaller and smaller.

For those big structural issues, isolate the sections that need to be worked on. For example, in this MS I had a love affair that felt a bit rushed. I isolated the problem to a particular group of nine chapters, then just concentrated on reading through those, weaving in an extra line here and there, and then writing one extra scene.

What always surprises me about editing (pleasantly, as I’m usually daunted and avoidant about doing the work) is how little is actually needed to effect big changes. I had a huge motivation issue with one of my characters: she does something that seemed awkward and implausible. So, again, I isolated the group of chapters that were bothering me and made a note for every scene on “how is she feeling about her current situation?”. It took minutes to identify that her feelings were inconsistent, and minutes again to excise the internalisations that didn’t fit and replace them with ones that did.

It’s impossible to know if the MS is working now. Ideally I’d put it away for a few months and come back to a complete read-through, and I don’t have the luxury of that time. The next person who reads it will have to tell me if it’s okay. So this is a good stage to seek feedback from trusted writing buddies. Certainly, the next pass will involve finessing the expression a bit more.

Right, on to the changing of the notebooks. All of this paperwork and research is being filed, and my next story’s notebook is making its way onto my desk. Onwards.

14 thoughts on “The science of editing

  1. It’s far too easy, for this wannabe at least, to get so carried away with the polishing and perfecting of scenes or even sentences that I forget to enjoy what I’m doing enough to finish telling the whole story. You offer some sage advice here, that I’d do well to take unless I want to go completely mad and end up living under a bridge somewhere, snapping and snarling at passing pedestrians.

  2. Writing is such a complicated process. I can never make up my mind whether I love or hate editing. I find I could keep editing forever, as my changing moods affect my viewpoint. So I always try to do the final editing stage of any manuscript in a day, so that I can get a true feeling for the piece as a whole.

    Hiding the notebooks is a great tip. I should do that. I won’t, but I should.

  3. Thanks for that wonderful, invaluable advice, Kim. I have saved it as a Word document on my computer because I’m not at the editing stage yet (as you know — having just begun Year of the Novel with you at the QWC!). It is very generous of you to impart all your wisdom about the writing and editing process of novel writing on this website. So again, thank you.
    Joanna :))

  4. Thanks for simplifying what appears to be a most daunting task looming on the horizon for this un-published wanna-be writer. This is sage advice that I, too, have saved for that hopeful day in the not too distant future 🙂

  5. Kim, I am so terrified of editing a full-length novel that as yet, I haven’t done it! I have a number of first drafts that are awaiting this kind of attention yet I have no idea where to start. This has given me a great way to tackle what appears to be a mammoth task. Thanks so much for your words of wisdom. You make me believe that I just might be able to do it…

  6. Lynne’s comment just made me think of the authors note I read in the most recent edition of Neil Gaiman’s ‘American Gods’. Multiple edits later, he says he feels that it is finally the best novel it can be and that’s after it has been published and edited more than once.

  7. Pingback: The Awesome Kim Wilkins on The Science of Editing and Autopsying Puppies « Angela Slatter

  8. Thanks Kim for your sound advice yet again! I am currently marking through my MS as you have suggested so thank you for making this editing task seem so much less daunting. I feel relief. I feel positive and suddenly editing is so much more fun. I can see the horizon and I’m excited about turning this story into something publishable! Thank you oh wise one 🙂

  9. Pingback: Self-Editing Tips: A List of Resources : Bizzia - Business News and Commentary – Finance and Business Tips

  10. Pingback: Knit It « When, Not If

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s