Daily Archives: January 13, 2011

When the Story Ends, the Real Work Begins: Moving from Writing to Editing

Darth Vader:  Editor in Chief

"I find your lack of editing disturbing."

In this article:

  • NO ONE writes a perfect first draft.  This makes the editing process at least as important as the writing.
  • No respectable project should be considered complete without proper editing.
  • Tips of the Editing Phase:
    • Give yourself plenty of time.
    • Take plenty of breaks.
    • Read a hard copy.
    • Get honest, intelligent friends to help.

Winston Churchill: "We shall not flag or fail. We shall go on to the end..." of the book.

“Writing a book is an adventure. To begin with, it is a toy and an amusement; then it becomes a mistress, and then it becomes a master, and then a tyrant. The last phase is that just as you are about to be reconciled to your servitude, you kill the monster, and fling him out to the public.”

Sir Winston Churchill

I recently finished up my first full length novel–The Gallery of Worlds, the first in the Waverly Hall series. Yes, I know, huzzah for me and all that.  It was a bit of an accomplishment, given that this is the third such attempt I’ve made since high school.  The first manuscript shall remain forever ensconced in its cradle of cement at the bottom of a nondescript river; the second will be resurrected in the next few years.   I’m proud to have given this book’s main characters–Meg, Reep, Saion, and Ai–a fair bit of creative life.  Now, if I can only get them a fair bit of circulation…but hopefully you can help with that!  😉

I’ve published books and articles before, of course, though my previous works have been scholarly.  Sherman’s Forgotten General:  Henry W. Slocum was a good ride through grad school and I’m finishing up a small monograph on Robert E. Lee, but a fantasy or science fiction novel is a different animal.  In my other books, I dig into surviving historical artifacts to reconstruct a world; in a novel, I have to create a world from scratch, and guide my readers into filling in the details.

Finishing The Gallery of Worlds so recently has given me an opportunity to think about how some lessons from scholarly publishing are applicable to fiction, and I’ll start with editing.  Amateurs think that the hard part about writing a book is the initial composition, and, once a book is “finished,” it is somehow transferred to a magical land of perfection and harmony.  I don’t know.  Perhaps, if you stand in a circle of  salt at a crossroads in the time-between-times and bargain with a brownie, you can make something like that happen.  For the rest of us, unfortunately, there is only one thing to do, and that is edit like mad.

J. R. R. Tolkien: The man himself!

It all begins with the fact that no one–and I mean NO one–writes a perfect first draft.  The only way to reach perfection is through an arduous process of editorial review.  If you think you are a good writer who “works best under pressure,” I’ll tell you to your face that you’re  full of rot.  If you can write a good paper/book by rushing, then you could write an excellent or perhaps even legendary one if you give it the proper time.  Even the best authors can struggle with the editing phase for years, and if you are J. R. R. Tolkien with his Lord of the Rings, maybe even decades.

The path to ultimate success is therefore littered with the lifeless husks of dozens of drafts.  Once you complete your manuscript, I would say you’re probably about halfway there (somewhere between master and tyrant, if we use Sir Winston’s scale above).  You have to go through what you’ve written, and through it, and through it until you have culled every error and strengthened every weak point.  By the time you are well into the process, arguing with yourself and friends over whether a given sentence should be split with a period or a semicolon, the novelty of the story has more than worn off, and you are right sick of the whole mess.

If you’re going to do it right, I can’t give you any shortcuts.  Shortcuts here are just plain lazy, and that sort of thing will show up in your final product.  However, I can give you some guidelines for the editing process:

  • Give yourself plenty of time: One of the biggest mistakes you can make is rushing the editing process.  Your brain can only take so much at a time, and if you push yourself too far, too fast, you’ll begin to get sloppy and make mistakes.  For a college-level paper, I advise a minimum of one week between finishing the first draft and the due date, preferably more.  For a book, you’ll need months.
  • Take plenty of breaks: Given the reality of our tiny brains, schedule plenty of “off” time for yourself.  Don’t try to plow through multiple chapters at one sitting, and certainly don’t try to go straight from one draft into the next.  An example routine would be to tackle a chapter a day, taking a five minute break from reading for every half hour or so.  Take at least a day off between drafts.  That let’s your mind reset itself and you’ll catch more errors.

    I could spend more time editing if I got to live in Bag End too....

  • Read a hard copy: People, most especially the very computer savvy, read text on a computer screen like they read e-mail.  Ever wonder how you can get through that two page e-mail in ten seconds flat?  It’s because you aren’t actually reading it.  You’re just skimming it.  Often, you will read the correct spelling into a typo or rearrange words so they fit what you think they should say, rather than what they actually do.  Hard copies slow us down, and we see what’s there, not what we expect to see there.
  • Get trusted friends to help: We invariably read our own work with a biased eye.  We know what we mean and we assume that everyone else does too.  Letting others look over our work can disabuse us of a lot of nonsense.  Two key points to bear in mind:
    • Make sure your friends are literate and thorough.  I can’t tell you how many papers I’ve seen ruined when students let friends edit for them, and the friends they choose seem to have problems reading with Dick and Jane.  Just because someone is your friend it doesn’t mean they’re a good editor.
    • Blunt friends are the best choice.  Look for people who will really tell you what they think.  Many people will sugar coat the truth in an attempt to spare your feelings.  You don’t want that.  You want them to love your manuscript with the love of the Lord of the Sith, and tell you exactly what they think.  If they don’t someone else will, and that someone else might be an acquisitions editor.
  • How do you know when to stop? I heard this bit of advice:  When you find that you can go through the entire manuscript twice and only move commas around, you’re probably done.

Of course, editors will always find something wrong with your submission–that’s their job and they’re very good at it–but you need to give them as little to complain about as possible.  I’ll write more about editing at a later date, but give these techniques a try.  They’re rough going, but with discipline, you’ll be happy you worked through them.