July 19, 2011

That Necessary Evil

The necessary evil. The one that is almost always a little more evil than the villain of the story. It's called Editing.

Editing can be fun at first. There's something exhilarating about brandishing the red pen at your story - something exhilarating about cleaning it up, or about the concept of it being cleaned up. But then you settle down for the long, hard haul and things don't look so fun anymore, especially when your novel is over two hundred thousand words long. (Just ask Jenny, although you might regret it afterward.) This is when editing becomes the necessary evil.

Now I know some people think that editing is fun, but I personally consider them to be in a state of hopeless denial. However, I am sure it is a blissful one, and if you happen to be in it I have no desire to shake you back to reality. I regard you with envy. I personally have not seen or tried a method of editing that is "fun," but, like just about all writers, I do have a process that I use and it helps me complete the task. So in case any of you are looking for ideas to make the editing process go more smoothly, I thought I would share mine.

the overwhelming heap of awful

Some people wait to edit their manuscript until they are done with the rough draft. Others swear by doing an edit every time they reach a fifty-page mark. Still others edit by chapter. I don't hold to any of these choices exclusively, as they all have merit and have been useful in editing one novel or another. In general, I do edit as I go, clipping sentences and taking out words here and there as I write each chapter. This makes the actual drawn-out process of editing somewhat easier. Apart from those minor edits, however, I can use either the complete-novel edit or the fifty-page edit. In the case of Wordcrafter, for instance, I waited almost exclusively to edit until I had finished the first draft. This worked because Wordcrafter flowed, and at the beginning I knew essentially where I was going. I knew the characters at the start; I didn't have to turn around at the half-way mark and realize that those fellows at the beginning were imposters. The things I changed when I was done with the rough draft were relatively minor - an added scene here, a tweak there, a change of voice in one scene or another, a bit of foreshadowing in this chapter or that.

With The White Sail's Shaking, it was - and is - a different story. Literally. I began writing it for NaNo last year, and the fact that I barely managed to squeak by at 52,000 words, as opposed to The Soldier's Cross' 62,000 the year before, will give a very slight indication of the troubles the novel caused me. On October 31 I had some vague ideas about the plot, no villain, an elusive main character, no supporting characters, and an outline that I had discarded several days before. It sounds like a typical NaNo novel, right? But that's not how I operate, so my little writing self was in shambles on November 1 when I plopped down at my computer and opened a new, white, terrifying Word document.

To cut a long story short, although I managed to get through NaNo without killing either myself or my novel, the first sixty or seventy pages were pretty much rubbish. I gamely ignored them, trudging on with the story in a valiant attempt to finish before I turned my attention to editing. But it was so awful that I finally had to stop and edit the first fifty pages - and I am very glad I did.

So complete-manuscript edit or fifty-page edit? It depends entirely on you and your story. If you're the kind of person who gets bogged down with edits and then never completes the story, wait to draw the red pen until you've hit that last page. If you need to keep your story flowing as you go, try for the fifty-page edit.

checking it twice (or thrice)

When I finally decided to edit White Sail's, I was overwhelmed by the feeling of disgust for those miserable pages written during November and by the impression that everything and its cousin needed to be changed. So I turned to what I had done on a much small scale for The Soldier's Cross, when I was thrown into a whirl of edits that had to be completed on a deadine: I made a list of the things that needed to be changed. I made the points broad so as not to overwhelm myself yet again and put check boxes beside each (because there is something immensely satisfying in checking off things on a list). In the end, I had only nine major points. Nine isn't too bad, right? Well, at the very least it doesn't seem so bad as the vague and unnumbered things that had been gathering over me, and it gave me a place to start.

the red pen of doom, death, and the like

If you go around our house, you will find a lot of notebooks. If you look inside those notebooks, the chances are high that you'll find one edition of Wordcrafter or another. A thoroughly red-blotted one, a copy full of colored tabs, a copy with miscellaneous notes in black ink - I was pretty thorough in printing out that one. For White Sail's, I had so much trouble printing out a single copy that I haven't dared trying to do another full one.

After printing out a copy, I go through the laborious process of punching holes in it, round up a ring-binder, and enclose the manuscript in it. Then I pull out the red pen that is, miraculously, still alive and get to work. For sections that must be thoroughly rewritten, I don't bother applying the red pen; I just put a note up at the top to say "Rewrite," plus some insult to the scene. Elsewhere, I will dash through sentences and rewrite them in red pen until whole pages seem to be bleeding. Occasionally I put notes for myself to keep in mind, such as "Add such-and-such scene" or a historical note that I did not know when I wrote the chapter the first time and need to incorporate. As the story progresses, the huge amounts of red ink begin to drop off (I'm pretty sure there's a dramatic change from November 30 to December 1).

you mean I have to do this again?

At the end of the tiring business of blotting all over the printed pages, I get to work transferring the edits to the Word document. At this point I tackle the big issues that I could not easily address in pen, such as adding scenes and completely redoing whole chapters. Then, when everything is typed in and cleaned up, I go about something else. With Wordcrafter, I sent out queries; with White Sail's, I returned to the actual writing process. But then after awhile I will print out another copy and go through it again for things that I know I tend to do, like flogging semicolons to within an inch of their lives. This invariably results in a pretty thorough edit in itself, and so the process is repeated on a smaller scale.

A story is never done until it's published - that's the cold, hard truth. And writers should take advantage of the chance to make changes while they can, because even when the book is out and under the public eye, you'll probably still see things you wish you could alter. At some time, however, it is necessary to let it go, because even the agony of editing becomes strangely addictive after awhile. There comes a time to move on - but you shouldn't move on too soon.


  1. I'm a very sensitive soul. I have to use a blue marker. I'm almost wildly erratic. I couldn't begin to give you a systematic outline of how I went about editing Adamantine. I hacked at large swatches as I went, and then I did a whole-sale edit through. Or, I'm doing a whole-sale edit. But otherwise it was pretty random.

  2. I beg your pardon - I should have mentioned that blue pens are permissible. My own is a bit of a snob, though, and really can't stand pens of Other Colours. ("...a heartthrob (quite a snob!)")

  3. Hee hee! What ridiculous inkdom.

  4. Hah! Good stuff. I admit I'm not in that mind-boggling camp that finds rewriting the best part of the process. But there is something fulfilling and enjoyable about working with a raw story until it finally starts to take shape, finally starts to shine. Also, it's comforting to know you don't *have* to get everything right in the first draft. Editing provides a safety net.

  5. HAHAHAAA... I'm editing my book right now; before it's sent off to a published author-friend of mine, Amanda Bradburn, for professional editing. I have a tentative publication offer, and am VERY excited! I'm very happy to have found your blog!! =)
    ~ Mirriam

  6. Katie - Yes, that is a very reassuring feeling, knowing that it doesn't have to be perfect the first time around. I'm a bit of a perfectionist, so I tend to stress when things aren't just right. I have to keep reminding myself the editing process is there for a reason.

    Mirriam - Congratulations on on the offer! I do hope it goes through alright. You must let me know when it's out so that I can check it out. Thanks for commenting!

  7. Haha, glad I'm not the only one who despises editing...and that's exactly where I've found myself story-wise. :/ Thanks for the advice!

  8. I think most people have tense relationships with the editing process. I hope the tips have been helpful; I'm sure they wouldn't work for everyone, but perhaps they'll give you ideas.

  9. I REALLY want to read Wordcrafter... :)
    ~ Mirriam

  10. I'm glad it's piqued your interest! I'm working on getting it out to publishers now, so hopefully you'll be able to read it in the not-too-distant future. That's what I would like, at any rate!

  11. Hey. It's taken me too long to read this post. But I finally got round to it. Since I'm unlikely to find myself in the novel-writing business, I needn't suffer the way you do - but I do know what it is like editing essays and research projects (and in the not-to-distant future) a short thesis O.o I'm a fan of printing out my first drafts of essays and taking a pencil (or occasionally a red pen) to them. That process isn't to taxing in itself. But for some of my larger pieces (exceeding 20 pages), the editing process becomes more taxing.

    My worst is the editing of the final draft. Generally I'll go to sleep (after 11 or 12) the day before the assignment is due, and then wake up to do the final edit (correcting typos). That is the worst - because it always takes me longer to make those final "little" corrections on the computer than I anticipate. My very final print comes out about an hour before the deadline. My then I'm ready to hurl the paper at the lecturer and never see it again. I guess you treat novels with a little more love and care then that.

    My worst case of editing ever was the essay that was actually published in a journal. That was terrible. Firstly I had to re-translate all the Greek passages (they didn't want me using other translations even though I had referenced them). Every time I read it, more errors seemed to have crept in. It was rather frustrating. Even the proof the publisher sent me had errors that were not in the version I had sent them.

    Oops, this wasn't supposed to be a long ramble. All that was just to say - I can relate to the editing thing, albeit in a very different form.

    Ajnos >'.'<

  12. I'll bet! My dad is working on editing his 300 page dissertation on biblical economics now, and I believe it's much harder than editing works of fiction. You have to get the footnotes and bibliography right, for one thing. So I think you have the worst of the deal.

  13. I hate doing the bibliographies and in-text references. Especially when you have a lecturer who will pick up on every little misplaced comma. I actually used a programme/website called "refworks" for my last major assignment. It's just (if not more) time-consuming feeding in all the books' and articles' information, but it takes care of all the formatting for you. End Note is useful too, but I didn't have it on my computer at home.


meet the authoress
I am a writer of historical fiction and fantasy, scribbling from my home in the United States. More importantly, I am a Christian, which flavors everything I write. My debut novel, "The Soldier's Cross," was published by Ambassador Intl. in 2010.
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published writings

The Soldier's Cross: Set in the early 15th Century, this is the story of an English girl's journey to find her brother's cross pendant, lost at the Battle of Agincourt, and of her search for peace in the chaotic world of the Middle Ages.
finished writings

Tempus Regina:Hurled back in time and caught in the worlds of ages past, a Victorian woman finds herself called out with the title of the time queen. The death of one legend and the birth of another rest on her shoulders - but far weightier than both is her duty to the brother she left alone in her own era. Querying.
currently writing

Wordcrafter: "One man in a thousand, Solomon says / will stick more close than a brother. / And it's worthwhile seeking him half your days / if you find him before the other." Justin King unwittingly plunges into one such friendship the day he lets a stranger come in from the cold. Wordcount: 124,000 words

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