Writing Process #6: (Self) Editing

YOU have a first draft! Great! But . . . it’s not ready to be published. Not yet. Trust me on this. There’s work to be done.

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The work needs to be edited. Ultimately it needs editing by a professional editor, but before it gets to that stage there’s a lot you can do. For one thing, you just wrote the thing and it’s going to have rough spots all the way through it.

As I mentioned in the previous post in this series, after I’ve written each scene I go back over it—just a quick pass to spot obvious screwups. Missed and doubled words, errors in spelling, grammar, and punctuation. That’s about it. There’s not much point trying to do more right after I’ve written the scene because, well, I’ve only just written it. The words are still in my head. I’m still too close to it. As a result, I can read the scene and still miss some glaring errors.

That’s why, after I’ve written each scene, I only give it a cursory once-over and move on. When the last scene has been written, something like three months will have passed since I wrote the first scene. So if I look at those early scenes again, I’m seeing them a little bit more clearly. Ideally I want to be reading it as if I’d never seen it before, so what I should do next is put the draft away for about ten years, so that I forget I ever wrote it. No, of course that’s not practical.

The first thing I do when I go back to the first scenes I wrote, three or four months earlier, is to re-read, carefully, looking for mistakes. Many people will tell you to read it aloud. The thing about doing that is, it forces you to slow down the pace and avoid just skimming, and that will help you spot errors better than just about anything else. The other thing you’ll find by doing this is passages where the wording is awkward or convoluted. If it doesn’t trip off the tongue, it’ll tie your readers’ brains in knots.

Here are a few of the things I look for in particular:

  • Obvious mistakes in spelling, grammar, and punctuation. If in doubt, use a style guide. (I use The Chicago Manual of Style, because that’s what my publisher uses.)
  • Consistency. If you use the Oxford comma (I do), then make sure to use it wherever it applies. If you have hyphenated words, use the same hyphenation everywhere. (Example: one of my early stories had a thing called a “road train”—but in some places I hyphenated it as “road-train”, and in others I didn’t.) If you italicise your characters’ thoughts, then be consistent.
  • Passive Voice. This can be difficult to spot, because it’s sometimes very subtle. For example, the difference between “someone shot at me”, and “I was shot at”. (I think you’ll agree that the second phrase is a little stronger than the first.)
  • Dialogue layout. I open a new paragraph as each character speaks; I find that makes it easier to follow who’s saying what. (I’ve read books in which the different characters’ lines are all mashed together into a single paragraph. It’s horrible, and hard to read.)
  • Again, in dialogue, I rip out superfluous uses of “he said, she said” and similar. Most times, you know who’s talking. If there’s a potential for confusion, especially in a long conversation, I’ll add something every half dozen paragraphs or so to make it clear who’s doing the talking.

And of course I’ll spot errors of other kinds as I’m going through. Dialogue in which it’s not clear who’s speaking. Characters acting or talking in ways that aren’t in line with their personalities (that can be harder to fix). And sometimes entire scenes that come across as so wrong that the only thing to do is tear them down and rewrite them. It happens.

When I’ve finished editing the last scene, I put the whole thing to one side for a bit—maybe a week, maybe a month—and then . . . I do it again. And I can guarantee you that I’ll spot a whole herd of obvious, glaring errors that I didn’t spot the first time round. Errors that are so in-yer-face that it’s hard to believe I could possibly have missed them earlier. And yet, there they are. And then I do it again, and I find a bunch more mistakes. AND THIS NEVER ENDS. I think I could go through it a hundred times and still find mistakes. Eventually there comes a point where I just have to say “good enough” and stop. And of course, bear in mind that the book will still be going to a professional editor, and she’ll spot things I missed, too.

Another thing I do is write a synopsis. I usually do this after the first or second editing pass. Basically I skim each scene and note what happens, in the form of a single sentence. The result is similar to the one-paragraph-per-scene timeline, but there are a couple of important differences:

  • I have one sentence per scene, and I put the sentences together so that I have one paragraph per chapter*.
  • I’m actually working from the draft text, not the original timeline; that’s important because during the writing, what I actually end up writing very often drifts away from the timeline description a little bit because a new idea comes to me as I’m writing.

(*At this point a chapter is just a file containing around 2,500 words. Whether the final book’s chapters line up with this or not is irrelevant—it’s just a convenient size when it comes to editing. The final book might not even have chapters; for example The Artemis Device is in the form of a series of scenes with no other divisions.)

Having a synopsis is valuable, because many agents and publishers will ask for one as part of the query/submission process. If you’ve created one as part of your process, you won’t have to put one together in a rush later when you suddenly find you need one. But building the synopsis is priceless, for a couple of reasons:

  • You get back to a high level view of your story’s structure, and that in itself can help you spot problems that you might not notice otherwise. For example, while I was writing a synopsis recently, I found that I had a character recovering in bed after being attacked—and then, just a couple of scenes later (in terms of time, a matter of a couple of hours), he’s up and about in a different part of the city. Oops! When I checked the timeline I found I’d missed an entire scene in which he decides he has to go after his assailant despite his injuries. Somehow I’d skipped over it.
  • As I’m writing each sentence to describe each scene, I sometimes come across scenes for which adding a sentence to the synopsis seems like padding. When that happens I can ask myself, is this scene really needed? If I rip it out, does the story suffer? If the scene doesn’t have a function—if it doesn’t drive the story forward or explain something about a character, it can probably be removed.

When do you stop editing? I guess, when it’s time to submit your work to an agent or publisher. And so, in the next and quite possibly last post in this series, I’m going to get into that a little bit.

Until next time . . .

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