Oh, how you love it!
That inner warmth you feel when you realize your scene is way too long and you have to cut some of your most cherished writing…
That joyful moment when you detect that your character needs a much stronger motive…
That sweet taste of gratification when you realize your sentences look like a traffic jam…
Not really (and yeah, that inner warmth is probably rage…).
Revising and editing a novel is a drag, for you as much as for any other writer out there. Yes, it’s tiresome, disheartening, and oftentimes as boring as watching grass grow next to an insurance agent. Us creative people were just not made for this. It’s not what we signed up for.
But fear not, oh esteemed reader, I got you a mini guide that will show you the most important rules to push through this necessary evil. Let me hold your hand, and let’s do this together…
In this post, read about:
- 5 things to avoid at all costs when editing
- The most common editing system
- Why editing too quickly after writing is bad
- An editing trick I always use but have never seen mentioned anywhere
And in true Ride-the-pen spirit, below please find an…
Novel Editing Checklist
Download this free cheat sheet, print it, and keep it ready for your next editing extravaganza. It contains a summary of all the points of this post, plus one additional editing mistake not mentioned here.
You can also download my highly useful checklist with 44 Key Questions to ask about your story. I receive enthusiastic reader emails about it all the time.
Now are you ready for the writer’s most haunting nightmare…? 3, 2, 1… find out the five editing mistakes that will make you go bald in no time:
1. You Can’t Be Bothered to Take Editing Seriously
What you do: Ok, you poured your heart and soul into your plot, characters, transitions and dialogue, and you even tried to make your sentences kind of readable. You put together a well thought out package, so nobody gets hurt. Let’s be frank, you and I know how much work that was!
And after you are finished, not only are you supposed to go through all of this once again, but several more times? Are you kidding me?? So you just skip it, or do it one time, sloppily, and then you tell yourself it’s enough, and move on to your next story. Feels much better!
The Problem: I know, I know. You hate editing. Creative people get bored easily. But if you ignore editing, I guarantee you that your story will be a mess. Even if the main elements are in place, at least it will sound awful.
You see, there is not a single writer on this planet whose work doesn’t need editing. Whatever we write, we need to dedicate some effort to polishing it. It’s just the hard work that every artist needs to bring to the table as well. So just do your homework!
The Solution: If your story matters to you, then make sure to give it as many editing cycles as it needs. Just take your time and push through it.
Once you read through your entire story, and you are happy with your plot, characters, sentence flow, grammar, spelling, and so forth… only then are you done. Your reward will be a story you can be truly proud of, because you gave it your best.
2. You Are Too Much in Love with What You Wrote to Cut or Change It
What you do: Oh, how you love your 30-page-description of every single room in the castle! You think you described that castle really well and in enough detail for everybody to imagine what it looks like; and you put that description right at the beginning, so people start off on the right foot. You rub your hands gleefully, thinking of those far-fetched metaphors and artfully constructed multi-clause sentences, and you would never cut any of this in a million years!
The Problem: As writers, we need to become immersed in the illusion, in the language we create. That’s great! And while you are writing, it’s best not to censor yourself at all, just let your creative juices flow. But there is also a problem with that great creative state: We lose the ability to look at our writing from outside, from our reader’s point of view. We become total narcissists, thinking that everybody is sitting inside our brain, neatly seated on velvet chairs like in the movies, ready to understand and enjoy.
But it’s not like that. As a writer, you have to make your work understandable, convenient and enjoyable. And when you become too unwilling to cut or change your writing, your story will suffer badly.
The Solution: Let go! Yes, take the Buddhist approach. Just let go. Every good writer has learned to scratch parts she loves, be it on a greater scale (story), or on a smaller scale (language). It might be painful, but as you write more and more, you will learn to accept it.
The first draft is for indulging in creativity, and later on, the editing process is to use your conscious mind and craft, your experience, to trim your story down, and make it nice and readable. It’s like yin and yang. Learn to use both of them, each at their given time, and you will become an amazing author.
3. You Lack a System (Also Known As: You Edit Like a Boar Would Eat at a Gourmet Temple)
What you do: Every now and then you remember that your story needs editing. So you skim through the pages, checking if everything is okay. While your first draft isn’t finished yet, you already correct paragraphs and sentences; later you check for typos before even taking a closer look at the dialogue. You just stick your snout into the text at random, like said boar.
The Problem: Granted, this kind of editing is better than no editing. But you are leaving a lot up to chance. You might catch or not catch bigger and smaller flaws in your story, and you might end up with a fairly good or a rather bad story. Or maybe after you have moved on to your next tale, you will discover cringe-worthy glitches that will spoil all the fun of reading. And all because you couldn’t be bothered to stick to a plan.
The Solution: Try to establish your own personal editing routine. If you just started out, it might take a while to find the method that works best for you; don’t worry, you have time.
Maybe you like to read the entire story twice before you change a single word. Maybe you sleep on it for two nights. Maybe you like to proofread for typos backwards. Or you like to outsource line editing or proofreading to a professional; or to show your story to a trusted friend at some point. Whatever it is, find the plan that works best for you; and stick to that plan. Every single time.
Bring on the Boef Bourguignon!
Interlude: The Novel Editing System We Love
Yes, that sub-head is tongue in cheek. Because, after all, you should find your own perfect system (remember?). However, it has proven very useful to go from bigger picture to smaller picture when editing. For example, if you want to change your plot, do it before you change the sentence structure.
It should be crystal clear why that is the better tactic: If you make a bigger change, you often have to scratch entire paragraphs, pages, or even chapters. And then all of the work on a smaller scale you have already finished will be rendered useless, and you will have to do it all over again.
Here is the standard editing system, from larger to smaller scale, which means from first to last step:
- Developmental Editing: This step refers to storytelling. If you think anything is wrong with your plot, characters, motivations… those are the first things you have to take care of. They will often require a lot of re-writing. I’m a big fan of coming in prepared and only starting to write once you know your story and your characters very well. This will almost completely spare you any developmental editing. Yay! The best checklist for developmental editing you can find anywhere (in my opinion) was created by yours truly, and you can download the PDF here for free.
- Line Editing: The second step zooms in a bit more, and deals with paragraph structure, sentence flow, choice of words, etc… How does your language sound and flow? Editing gets really interesting here. Don’t be afraid to re-write entire paragraphs, especially if you are new to writing. You will be so much happier with your story in the end, and you will learn a lot during the process.
- Copy Editing: We are moving closer to simple mechanics here. This is about grammar and punctuation, and in most cases you can objectively tell what’s right or wrong. Don’t hesitate to outsource this step, and also the following final one, if you can afford it. It won’t take anything away from your creative work, and you will save yourself much of the boredom of editing.
- Proofreading: As a last step, check for typos. It needs to be done in order to look professional. No excuse – yes, I’m talking to you! As a reader, you probably know that too many typos in a text are annoying as hell and can throw you out of the illusion fast. So just do it.
Here is another mistake that will make your life as an editor difficult:
4. You Edit Too Quickly after Finishing Your First Draft
What you do: You are super responsible about editing, and you put on your best bowtie and get to it right after your first draft. Good boy or girl! You go through it as fast as possible. Developmental editing… check. Line editing… check. Copy editing… check. Proofreading… check. On to next story. Buuuuut…. Not so fast, young Jedi! Don’t you see…
The Problem: You are too quick, especially with your developmental editing. You see, your mind is a great subconscious processor of your work, but only if you give it time.
It’s true, the more time passes between finishing your first draft and you re-reading what you have created, the more objectively you are able to judge what works and what doesn’t. If you get to editing too fast, you will still be very much in a writer’s headspace, not a reader’s, and judging objectively will be impossible.
The Solution: Leave some time between writing and editing. These are two very different states of mind, it’s like creativity vs craft. Never edit while you are in the process of writing. And once you are done writing, sleep on your story for at least one night (better several nights), before you start with developmental editing and “judging your story.”
Put each of your headgears, the writer’s hat and the editor’s hat, on at their appropriate time, and you will get the most out of your story. It will be fascinating, but also well-crafted.
The Author at Work
5. You Don’t Give Yourself Options for Editing
What you do: When you write, you take a decision every second. You choose certain character actions, sentences, words, and reject all other possible character actions, sentences, words. To put it bluntly, you prevent much more than you make happen.
The Problem: It has to be that way, but it’s also a waste of effort, since during writing you are just in the perfect headspace for finding the right words. Should you really throw away all of the versions but one, only to tediously come up with something new during editing, in case you need it? I don’t know about you, but I hate rewriting parts I have written before. So how can you preserve some mental energy?
The Solution: Give yourself several options during writing, and it will be easy to choose a great one during editing! This is mainly about line editing. It’s a little trick I have never seen mentioned anywhere else, but I do it all the time: Whenever in doubt which of two or more sentences or words to write, you write down all of them. Later choose one of them in editing.
If you write by hand, write the alternate words or phrases in small letters above your first version. If you write on the PC, use slashes between your versions (“/”). I have done this countless times while writing this very post, and I know that during editing, in most cases it will only take me a second to choose the perfect option.
This can also help a bit with developmental editing; for example, imagine trying two slightly different reactions for a character, and giving him two alternative dialogue lines to choose from. Test this trick, you might love it! You will see, most of the time it will become a no-brainer which version to choose.
Your Novel Editing Checklist
You can download a summary of this post to quickly go over before your next editing session. The sheet also contains one additional tip that’s not included in this post:
I also highly recommend you get my extensive checklist for developmental editing. It contains 44 Key Questions to ask once your story is done; you can use it to check your story in any way you could ever imagine. Download it here for free.
The Non-Writing Prompt
Today, I don’t have a writing prompt for you. Instead, I want you (yes, you!) to tell me about the biggest problems and joys you encounter when editing.
What’s your biggest obstacle? Do you maybe even like editing? If so, are you kind of perverted? What do you wish you could change about editing, if you had a magic wand? Maybe transform all the English words into one word, so you can do no wrong? Let me know in the comments!
End of Editing
No matter whether you love or hate editing, you have to do it. Yes, you have to soldier through it, and your reward on the other end will be a well-crafted story you can be proud of. That story might be awesome or a miserable fail, but after dedicating some effort to editing, you will know that you have given it your all, and this will make you proud.
You have given your best, you have grown as a writer, and you will do even better with your next story! In a world that is constantly looking for quick fixes, that means a lot. Slowly but surely, you are becoming a great teller of your tales…