The Joys of Editing by May Burnett

Lately , I find myself editing more frequently than writing new words.
To get a book ready for publication, both stages are of roughly equal importance. Some writers produce first drafts very fast and spend years on re-writes and editing, others write slowly and edit as they go. Prolific writers sometimes outsource the editing almost completely. Whatever the process, the author is ultimately responsible for putting a clean and easy read in front of the public, so outsourcing only goes so far: you still have to double-check everything yourself.062916 feel writing vs feel editing

Here are some of my lessons learnt about editing and proofreading:

In some respects, it is easier to edit somebody else’s book than your own.
Since the way you use language differs from anybody else, you can see another writer’s errors, pet phrases, repetitions, grammatical quirks etc. far more clearly than your own. That is why some writers advocate against self-editing on principle.
Of course, if you are editing for another, it can be a nuisance having to give lengthy explanations for your proposed changes, and you constantly need to expend tact while in your own book, you just implement a change and go on.

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You must find the right balance between grammar and voice.
Some elements of style, like occasional sentence fragments, idiosyncratic expressions, and particular quirks can be an essential part of the “voice.” An editor can ruin the appeal and originality of a story by insisting on strict adherence to his or her narrow-minded rules. What is permissible also depends a lot on the genre. In case of doubt, I would tend to leave the individual style alone, as long as it does not impede the reader’s pleasure and comprehension.

If your character’s eyes are green in the first chapter, they must not be blue later on. That is fairly easy to remember, but there may be more elusive errors (taking a second shower within  a few paragraphs, referring to something that particular character should not be aware of, etc.) It gets even trickier if you write a series and have to keep in mind lots of details that occurred in previous volumes – just how old would A be in relation to B, when they were first mentioned as children eight books ago? Most readers will not notice such errors, but you can bet that there are a few who will, and moreover point your mistakes out in their reviews.

A timeline (if not before writing, then at the editing stage) and a glossary can be very helpful there.

Word Count
All writers prune unnecessary words and filters in the editing stage, and on average I would expect the word count to go down by 3 to 5 percent.

However, in some cases, the total goes up during edits, as additional details or descriptions are added, action beats refined, etc. How much text is inserted at the editing stage depends very much on a writer’s individual style. Obviously, these additions cannot be outsourced (unless you are co-writing) and  you’ll learn over time how much extra you need to add to achieve a balanced whole. When editing others, you can provide suggestions  – “please elaborate on this – give some visual cues here”, etc., but afterwards yet another round of edits will be necessary.

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Nearly always, some mistakes defy detection.
The other day I was re-reading a traditionally published book by Georgette Heyer, a classic of the romance genre, and came across several editing errors – in one case, the names of two characters were mixed up. That is the sort of mistake a good editor should have caught, and which would be severely censored in a self-published book. Yet in almost every printed book there are one or more errors. In a way, it is relaxing to see that the “good old days” of traditional publishing were by no means perfect, either.

By my estimate, for every four mistakes corrected, a new one will slip into the manuscript. That is why proofreading should be the absolutely last stage after all the content and style issues are resolved. The moment you do any re-writing, no matter how carefully, a few new errors will inevitably sneak into your text.

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Beware of bulk “Find and Replace”
While this function is very useful if you change a character’s name at a late stage, it comes with pitfalls. I could tell horror stories about dreadful results that had to be painstakingly undone. If you replace something that is part of many other words as well, or if you inadvertently add a space to the new word, you’ll have trouble. Worse, if you change a name and forget to also change the instances where you used the old name’s genitive, you end up with a mixture that readers will find extremely confusing. Even if it takes a little longer, often it is preferable to go through item by item rather than insert changes wholesale.

The eye supplies missing words, but the ear is less easily fooled
After a while, your text becomes so familiar that the brain supplies the missing little “to” or “the,” or ignores the doubling of such small words. For that reason, if possible you should have a mechanical device (like my Kindle Fire) read the text out loud. You will note not only these small mistakes but also infelicitous phrases and repetitions that you might have overlooked in the previous editing stages.

Change font and format to get a fresh look
I also read the book on my Kindle, in a different font, at some stage of the editing process. That way I will note more things I had overlooked, like extra spaces or too similar opening phrases.

This is also a good method when you are still at the developmental stage – just read the draft like a new book and take notes (on paper) where the story drags, etc. – your very own beta read. Not having the possibility to correct then and there helps one focus on the plot rather than style.

062916 contiuous improvement

Beta Readers
The ideal beta reader is familiar with the genre, has liked the previous volumes of the series, and is invested in your characters. For beginning writers, of course, finding such betas is not feasible.
I have beta-read myself on occasion and found that when I did not enjoy the book (even if I liked the genre in general) I felt frustrated, and probably was not as helpful to the writer as I hoped.

If the main characters do not appeal to a reader and she has to force herself to finish the book because she’s committed to the beta read, when she would much rather do something else, the result may be unduly harsh and discouraging. I suspect it would be best to desist rather than persevere, and give a brief explanation that although you tried, you could not relate to the characters. (If a writer got such feedback from several betas, of course, it would be cause for alarm.)

Attentive betas will point out plot holes, but sometimes they too will overlook problems and it is amazing what very different interpretations of the action and characters they arrive at. Each of them brings their own biases and feelings into the mix, a good preparation for the divergent reviews the book may later garner from members of the general public.

Just remember – nobody can please ALL readers at the same time and in case of doubt, listen to your own creative judgement. Don’t implement major changes on the strength of a single beta’s suggestion, unless you are convinced it is a good idea.

You get better at editing by doing a lot of it, preferably on other people’s writing as well as your own.

The critique system at Scribophile is an invaluable school in that regard – you learn as much or more by critiquing/editing others, as by the comments and critiques you receive on your own work.

Over time, correcting style and language issues become almost automatic, and you’ll be making fewer such mistakes in the first place. But you’ll still need to use your utmost attention, and be completely alert, to think through the plot, see inconsistencies, and align the logic and timeline without flaw. Editing a book or story is always a challenge, but overall a rewarding and pleasant one.

Good luck with your own editing! If you have any tips to share, please do so.




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