I am bad at editing. I don’t plan my stories and find that I don’t like rereading my own work. The story is only ever fresh to me in that brief moment between conception and preservation, between the initial idea and its translation to the page. Because of this I find the process of going through the work after the fact so much more difficult. Growing a story without clear structure is all fair and good but it is easy to create plot-holes while an excited flurry of wring leaves you prone to typos.
As such, while editing is often dry, demoralising and not remotely creative, it is a vital thing that all writers need to be able to do well. Being bad at it, I have spent a lot of time learning how to get better, some of it by proactively going and reading advice from other writers and editors, others by doing the wrong things and learning from my mistakes. I am still far, far from perfect but since I am in the editing phase myself at the moment, I felt that it might be worth presenting what I have learned for others in my position.
1 – You are your own worst enemy.
Growing up as a shy child in a working class town I found that I had nowhere to turn to when I wanted opinions on my work. Teachers were always busy, friends didn’t read and family will rarely offer any benefits when it comes to honest opinions. So for my first story I reread it dozens of times, read it until I never wanted to read it again, then read it some more. Then I self published it only to find mistakes still present, clumsy language and descriptions that I didn’t like.
How could I have missed all of this when I so meticulously read through everything so many times? This is when I learned that your brain is not cutout to analyse its own work. The sense of familiarity we have with the words allows our eyes to glide through the story. We already know how we thing everything sounds so we don’t see how it actually sounds. What is in our heads verses on the page isn’t the same but it is close enough for the eyes to pass over without comment.
Being your only reader also limits creativity in a strange way. Our individual minds tend to run along set pathways and dwell on certain elements so that often we can’t see the forest for the trees. What you think is funny could come across as corny to others while a character you threw in for a single scene could be really endearing. Having other readers highlights the ebbs and flows in both your writing and your analytical skills. Sometimes you will disagree with what others say but other times you will see the value in their opinion and make changes to your story.
It can be really tough to find beta readers, believe me. Especially those with enough time and knowledge to provide detailed help. It is certainly worth the effort though. I recently gave up trying to find people willing to help me out for free and hired someone to offer their thoughts. You don’t have to go crazy here though. In my case I found a young woman who was looking to get into the beta reader/editor business. The money we agreed was more a sign of goodwill than an amount that justified the amount of work involved. It ended up being around £60 and boy was it worth it.
What I thought was a fully edited story ready to be sent to agents came back to me with a novella’s worth of notes. Some of it was little grammatical errors that I had missed but others were questioning character motives, picking apart bad writing habits and suggesting sweeping cuts or additions. Reading through them all I agreed with 75% of the feedback. It also made me think about things that hadn’t crossed my mind before then.
I think that it also helped that my beta reader had such a different viewpoint on life than me. I am a British male while she was a female from the west coast of the USA. I have written articles criticising modern social movements while she champions them. If we were to meet we would probably argue but in the context of a story she was able to offer insight on areas where I was lacking. I truly believe that that diversity is important for rounding out a story.
Between this beta reader and a few friends who I managed to bribe into reading my work, the story is now several times better than it had been and I now have a clearer idea what to keep my eye on as I write. Win win, right.
2 – Format breaks familiarity.
I have found that I edit much better when I am working on paper. It is weird but I apparently miss a lot of obvious errors when reading back my work on a screen verses on a printed copy. I can understand if you can’t afford to repeatedly print an 80k story. I certainly can’t. It is sadly only my first three chapters that usually get this preferred treatment.
What I have noticed though is that any format change slightly breaks down the familiarity you have with your work. Spending countless hours staring at a word processing software gets lodged in our brain. Try writing in your favourite software then porting your story to something else for editing so that the entire screen is different. This cuts any ties to the writing process that the brain associates with your writing programme, freeing you up for a clearer head for editing.
They say that a coat of paint can make a house look brand new and the same principle applies with your writing. Play around until you find something that works for you.
3 – Editing stages.
As a species we are very goal driven. Use this to your advantage and set defined aims for each stage of the editing process. Instead of feeling worn down by multiple drafts as you slowly chip away towards perfection, set an objective so that no draft is the same.
For me, I have started working towards four drafts. These are Clean-up, Cut Down, Feedback and Final.
Clean-up is the first draft where I am simply looking for basic problems like typos, messy sentence structure, plot-holes, etc. This should be seen as taking the raw product and giving it a tidy up so it is nice and presentable. In an ideal world your story should look like this already but we all know that these errors spring up unnoticed in the writing stage.
Cut Down does what it says on the tin. Take what you have and refine it. Stephen King suggests that a second draft should be the first draft minus 20%. I wouldn’t go this far but I think that this idea does have merits. I am a prolific adder and rambler. My sentences tend to be long and I stray from topics easily. There is always more that I want to say and it is all too easy for my work to become bloated.
The general rule is that, if it doesn’t add something to the story, cut it. This can be paragraphs, sentences or single words. Your aim is to streamline your story so that every word serves a purpose. This is especially useful if you have language tics. See what words you overuse and keep them to a minimum.
Feedback is the draft where I incorporate everything that my beta readers highlighted. Use your own discretion what parts you chose to accept or ignore. Make the necessary changes to your story. That’s really all there is to say about this stage.
The Final draft is much like the Clean-up. It is a final sweep through to check that all of the changes added in previous drafts merge together seamlessly and that no hidden errors have escaped you.
Of course, you can mix and match your own personal stages to suit your needs. Have more or have less but make sure that what you do have covers your potential shortcomings.
4 – Pacing is Key.
Like with any activity, you have to learn how best to pace yourself. When I completed my first novel I was eager to polish it up and get it sent off. The story was my beautiful baby and barring a few rough edges it was perfect in my excitement riddled mind. I instantly started the editing process and spent every waking hour reading it in order to get it through the door. Trouble is that I burned myself out and my tired eyes missed things. The sense of joy at finishing the story was still coursing through me, clouding my judgement.
It is important to step back and let these emotions fade. Take a short break after finishing the first draft of your story or start a new project. Maybe take a day to relax then start writing the first chapter of a new story or a short story before coming back to your draft. Just give everything enough time to settle so you can approach editing as matter-of-factly as possible.
Then when you do start, don’t rush it. Set yourself steady goals so that you don’t get overwhelmed. Maybe you can write all day everyday but writing is our love, our hobby. Editing is a chore, a job that needs to be done. It is a lot easier to get burned out on, especially when that job is to pick faults with your own wonderful darling. Stick to a set amount of chapters or pages a day so that you can tackle your story in bite-sized chunks.
This is again all down to personal preference. I know that some people like to get through it all in as few sittings as possible to monitor the narrative flow at the same time. It is all about finding what you are comfortable with. Just remember, the longer you do something in one go, the less effective at it you become. Tired eyes and brain make mistakes in a process solely dedicated to removing mistakes. Don’t risk missing something simple that you will kick yourself for later. I can attest to that one from personal experience.
So there you go, a few little techniques to try. In the end though, just as each writer has their own writing style, so too do we have our own editing style. Maybe some of these will help you, maybe they won’t. It is just about giving everything a go and seeing what sticks.
I know that I still have a lot to learn but each time I start writing, the things that I have learned from editing is reflected into the work. Because I have seen what regular errors I make and what words I rely on too much, I can watch out for them in the initial writing process. Everything that beta readers have told me can be kept in mind on new stories because most of the advice about characters, setting and plot are universal. It all comes together to make the next first draft something that requires less editing until you finally get the process down.
I hope that some of this does help you. Writing is often a solitary activity while the inevitable rejection letters are soul destroying. Writers often don’t get a lot of support so we have to stick together and help each other out. So just know that I have my fingers crossed for you.
If you are looking for someone to read through your work but don’t know where to search then websites like Fiverr might be worth checking out. I have a page offering proofreading and editing so feel free to check that out here: https://www.fiverr.com/firewolffred/proofread-edit-and-offer-feedback-for-stories.
Good luck, my siblings of the stories.