10 Steps to Editing With Focus
It’s not easy editing our own work. We can be over-critical, but at the same time, miss glaring errors that would stand right out to anyone else reading our work. What we write makes sense to us because we’ve often spent weeks, months, or years thinking about it, but to a new reader, a lagging plot, grammatical errors, or typos, can alienate them in the first page. Whether you are using professional help in editing or not, I’ve put together a step-by-step process that will help prepare your work for publication.
Before I get to the steps, I’d like to share three important principles to editing:
1. Do each step in a timely manner, remaining as focused as you can on the goals you set.
2. Take as long a break as possible between key steps, getting your mind on something else.
3. Trick your brain by changing your focus with each step.
For the purposes of this guide, I’m assuming you are working with a completed first draft. You may want to involve a professional editor at a number of stages up to this point, or moving ahead to publication, but either way, if you are looking to clean up your work, these steps will help.
Before you start, I recommend setting up a reference document (RD) to track information. I discuss this in a previous article I wrote on making your first draft better. I’ll refer to this throughout these steps.
One of my suggestions is to creat a supporting document that has all the reference material of your book. During the first draft, pop over to it every time you hit some detail you will want to remember. Details about characters, their names, what they do, their appearance, ages, and connections. Record details like make, model and colour of vehicles, details of places in the book, and important details about the order of things.
Step 1: Your First Read
Hopefully you’ve allowed some time to pass since completing your first draft…ideally, enough time to forget some of the details of your story. A couple months would be great, which can also be time spent marketing your existing work, or tackling your next project, either outlining, or writing.
On your first read, don’t worry about the spelling, typos, or correct word usage. Ignore as much as you can and focus on the story…the plot, any subplots, the characters, the flow. There are certain elements that should be present in any story. Review recommendations on story development such as three act story structure. Alexandra Sokoloff’s website and writing books are great resources, but here is her checklist of the basics.
On your first read-through, list the main plot points and story elements in your RD as you hit them, making sure you’re satisfied.
The main goals or points to analyze on this pass are:
1. Plot and Subplots: Are they doing what you want them to?
2. Story Structure: Do have the key elements recommended for a story? If not, are you okay with that?
3. Character Development: Do you give the reader a sense of who the key characters are, and are they portrayed correctly for your book?
This will be the step with the most cuts. If something doesn’t fit or move the story along, cut it out. Paste any cuts into your RD so can refer back to them if needed. You likely won’t, but it will make the cutting easier. Don’t rework any sections you want to keep (unless they’re very simple), instead, make a bolded comment at the spot. When you’ve finished each chapter, return to the beginning of that chapter and make a bolded note of any thoughts you have, things to add, any consistency problems you want to watch for, or any fact checking you want to confirm. If you know your query involves a different area of the book, quickly add a copy of the comment in the rough location, to remind you when you go through again. This will help you remember your query on the next pass.
The idea is to not get sidetracked from your main goals with small details. Focus on the goals of this read-through, moving as quickly as possible.
Step 2: Regrouping your book
You’ve cut out the unwanted and unneeded, now it’s time to address the concerns you identified at the beginning of each chapter. It is ideal to do this second pass as soon as you can after step one…go right into it if possible. You may be able to answer some of the questions you had, because you just finished reading it later in the book. This step of the editing process will likely take the longest.
The main goals of this step are:
1. Massage your book into powerful chapters
2. Analyze paragraphs
3. Review sentence structure
In your first draft and step one, you’ve ensured you have the key elements of a story, and you’ll be adding any missed points on this pass. In this step I suggest grouping your work into sections…compartmentalizing with a purpose. Consider the chapters. Do they achieve what you want them to? Do they start with a hook or something that will keep the reader going? Do they end with purpose…a cliff hanger, a resolution, or a twist?
Look at each paragraph. Do the sentences in each paragraph stay on topic? Within the paragraphs, are there word repeats or name repeats? Are all the his, hers, it’s and they’s linked to, and clearly relating to, a noun? Will the reader know who (or whom) or what you’re referring to?
Are your sentences proper and the right length, or do they run on? Does each sentence need be there or can you say more with less? Watch for proper sentence structure and grammar. Here’s an article on sentence structure you might find helpful. There are a lot of resources about grammar on the Internet. I’ve used Grammar Girl a number of times.
Most of your bolded notes should be resolved by the end of this step, leaving a fairly clean manuscript. If not, I cut the comments out and paste them in my RD for referring to later.
Take a break
From this point on, it is beneficial to take breaks between the steps, unless I note otherwise. Distance yourself. Take some time off editing. Let your brain forget all the details. Our brains are trained to be efficient. They do this by automatically filling in what it thinks should be there…not a good editing quality. Time is your best friend while editing.
Step 3: Dialog
Read through your work again, this time focusing on what’s being said. Examine the dialog. I suggest coming at it from two angles…voicing, and technical. You can work on both at once.
By voicing, I mean, is the dialog appropriate? Is the voicing correct for each character? Can you really imaging your character saying that, or is it an info dump? Or, is it too real? Leave out all the ums, ahs, and likes. Ensure each section of dialog is an appropriate length…imagine the person they’re talking to. Would they listen to a monolog, or would they interject to be a part of the conversation? When you’re going through each chapter, read the dialog as someone who doesn’t know the story.
This is also a great time to focus on the technical writing concerns with dialog. Watch the dialog tags, trying to cut out as many as possible, while still keeping it clear who is speaking. Ensure it is the correct character being attributed to the specific dialog. Check for beginning and ending quotation marks. Make sure you are punctuating your dialog correctly. This is a study in itself. For a nice summary guide, read Ellen Brock’s post on punctuating dialog.
The main focus of this step:
1. Ensure the dialog is doing what you want, and represents the characters well.
2. Check that the dialog has been punctuated correctly.
3. Address any further comments you’ve left for yourself.
Step 4: Targeted Upgrades
You can go straight into this step…your brain is looking for something different. At this stage don’t re-read your whole book, instead, think of it as jumping to key areas. Before you start, think about your book as a whole. Are there any areas you feel might need some work? What are the weakest parts? Are there any scenes you said “good enough” to at the time, but you know could be improved? This is the time to give them a little more attention.
Think about your characters. Are they memorable? Can the reader visualize them or should you add more to their descriptive appearance? How about their personalities? Is a character as mean or nice as they should be? Do any characters have a special connection to someone else, and is this clear enough? If there is a fight or action scene, and is it descriptive enough, or, does it drag out too much? Do any areas need more humour or suspense? If you can think of any specific part of your book that could use improvement, go straight there and rework it.
Step 5: The Polish
Make sure you check your RD for any remaining comments, questions, or fact checking notes you made yourself. Most of them should be resolved, but if not, address them on this pass.
This is the editing step that will take your book to the next level. Are you seeing any overused words? Look closely at words such as: that, just, but, however, because, things, stuff, was, and got. Consider removing adverbs (-ly words)…for the most part, they’re not needed. You’ve been analyzing your writing in all the steps so far, but this time focus on the words.
Before doing this edit, you might consider running some Macros on your manuscript if you’re using Word. Here is a great 20 minute course on using Macros, and here is a blog post listing useful Macros for Writers.
Re-read and analyze your work with the Macros. Also take a close look for typos, incorrect word use, and synonyms. Keep in mind that you are getting closer to a finished project. With any changes you make, re-read them in context, to ensure they fit with the text before and after. Most of the errors I find near the end of my editing are from where I made last minute changes, messing something else up. For example, using a word in an edited sentence, where the same word is used in the next sentence.
Step 6: Tense and Point of View (POV)
Take as much time off between this and the last step as you can. You know the story well enough by now…this time slow down and focus on the details. Read each word. If you are in a time crunch, this could be your final full read-through before sharing your work, so fine tune your eyes. Focus on consistency in tense, either present or past, as well as POV. Errors here will stand out and possibly confuse your readers.
Things to consider during this step:
1. Reading out loud helps find errors.
2. Run your book through apps that read it for you. Listening will also help find errors. Here are a few program options, although I personally haven’t tried them:
Step 7: Search and Replace
Most word processors have a search and replace feature. Search for double spaces and replace with single spaces. Run this a few times in case you have any spots where extra spaces are hiding. If you had any name changes of people or places, search for the old ones. If you use any space fillers (I use xxxxxx in first drafts when I want to go back to something later), search for those. Search the word “Chapter” and run through them all to ensure the heading numbers are in order and no numbers were missed.
Based on your writing habits, try and think of other uses specific to your needs…perhaps, words you commonly interchange, or misuse.
Step 8: Grammar Checker – The final step before sharing
I know you’ve been editing for grammar in all these steps, but think of this as a final check in the system. Grammar checkers are not perfect, but they will most definitely catch a few errors. Most word processing programs come with a grammar check included, but there are more powerful programs available as well. I use the free version of Ginger, but there a number other as well. Do not blindly accept all the suggestions! Use this as a tool to catch grammar and spelling issues your eyes and brain missed. Think each recommendation through carefully, as there will be some suggestions that are wrong.
Step 9: Beta Readers
Once you’ve finished, it’s time to share your work with Beta readers. Have someone else read your work…family, friends, fans…someone who will give you an honest opinion but will also look for errors, plot holes, typos, inconsistencies, or any of the many other things that can go wrong. Try and find someone who reads a lot, preferably in your genre. Also consider joining an author’s group and getting to know other writers who might read it for you. Consider any recommendations, but make any changes very carefully. Any major changes may require a repeat of some or all of these steps. Minor changes should be okay without re-editing
As you can see, I wait until I think my work is as close to perfect as possible before I ask someone to read it. Doing this will save frustration for them and you. You might want to share your outline with some trusted friends, or involve an editor anywhere along the way…but beta readers…show them your best work.
Step 10: Professional Proofreading
The final step in editing is professional proofreading. This is one step you should have done professionally. Ask around for a good one. I’ve found most self-published authors are more than willing to share information. Find someone who writes in your genre and ask for recommendations.
A word on Kindle Worlds. In Kindle Worlds you can write in the the “Worlds” created by many different authors. I recommend you contact any of the main authors who’s worlds you’ve written in, and ask if you can use someone familiar with their work. Their proofreaders may be able to find inconsistencies between your story and their world. I’ve had this happen twice even when I thought I knew their World very well.
There may be more re-reads you want to do and almost every one will bring about some improvements or changes. Feel free to do as many as you need, but don’t let lack of confidence keep you editing forever.
We all have our own process. Hopefully, this helps you create your own, or at least, add a few tricks to improve your quality and/or efficiency. If you have any other tricks you’ve found useful, leave them in the comments below. I’d be interested to know your thoughts…do you think editing should be left to editors, or are authors capable of editing their own work?
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