Friday, May 8, 2009

One Editor’s Editing Process

I’m sometimes asked by writers, “What is your editing process?”

As I think about the question, it occurs to me that, I believe, editing someone else's work is easier than editing my own. And it's not because I don't have a stake in the other author's work. Actually, I do. I want to help the author make the manuscript the best book it can be. I want the writer to understand why I mark or change things so he’ll be able to catch his mistakes on his own next time. I want to hold the published book in my hand and be excited about its publication.

It's easier because, basically, I didn't write it. When I start reading, I have no idea what will happen as the story evolves. I have no clue what the finale will be. I don't know the characters or their backgrounds or their relationships. Therefore, lots of things that would slip by the author stand out to me. I catch them -- or hopefully I catch the majority of them.

I have to have quiet -- no music, no distractions. Around my house that means I often have to close the door to my office. I've even been known to wear headphones or earplugs.

I usually take a break about every hour - to stretch, get something to eat if I'm hungry, refill my water glass, or go outside to see the sun -- or all of the above.

I not only make comments on the document itself, I make notes for myself on a notepad.

Once I've read through the manuscript, I let it sit -- at least over night before I begin the second or third read-through.

For me, editing for others involves an almost clinical approach. I can't get caught up in the words or plot too much or I could read thirty pages before I realized I hadn't been paying "editorial" attention. By the third reading, I can let go and not read word for word, but read for the overall feeling of the book.

How do you edit your own work?
Helen Ginger is a freelance editor and book consultant, with an informational and interactive blog for writers and a free weekly e-newsletter that has gone out to subscribers around the globe for ten years. She coaches writers on the publishing industry, finding an agent, and polishing their work for publication. You can also follow her on Twitter.

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  1. I go at it much the same. My first time through I'm focusing on details, a micro-examination of search and destroy boo-boos. 2nd time through I'm getting a feel for how the story hangs together, does it move well, is the plot consistent, do all the characters make sense, etc. Then before the third (usually last) time thru I'll take a couple days off - work on something else, write my own WIP's, read somebody else's book, etc., and then come back and re-read the whole thing with fresh eyes.

    And I'm also like you when you say you have a vested interest in the book you are editing. It becomes a part of me, my work, my passion - I want for it to be as good a finished product as possible as if I had written it myself.

    Nice post, Helen.

  2. It's interesting, Marvin, to see that your process if very similar to mine.

  3. Interesting post.

    Thank you.

    For my own editing, I start by printing out the entire MS in double-spaced, double-sided, book form at Staples (costs about $20).

    After about a month, I read it through without stopping. I make the odd note in the margin eg; show don't tell, change pov to ..., bobble-heads etc. The next day, I start to go through it with a fine toothcomb. It's weird, editing exhausts me. After about twenty pages I have to take a break - at least it's the editing and not the reading that sends me to sleep :) - if I don't, I'll miss something.
    This takes about a week. When I get to the end, I type in all the changes, then print out the ms again - one sided this time - thirty or so pages at a time. After the first run through I've spotted most of the mistakes, so I can get through more pages in one go.

  4. Printing it out in book form is very interesting, Jon. That gives you a read-through as if it were already in book form.

    And I agree - editing can be exhausting.

  5. My usual problem is that I can only self-edit so much of my manuscript at a time. There's reading the words and then there's reading the story. I'll start out reading the words, doing all my usual checks, and end up reading the story and missing the errors I'd have found while in self-editing mode. I've read the whole manuscript over and over again. I know the story! Why do I keep getting caught up in it? I don't know if that's a testament to the strength of my narrative or the weakness of my editing skills.

    To counteract that susceptibility to stop reading like an editor, I self-edit in small chunks, a chapter or two at a time, and then take a break.

    One of the other self-editing steps I do is to pull out my copy of Strunk and White and check my manuscript for commonly misused words and phrases as well as weak words or descriptors. I make sure I'm using persons instead of people when appropriate, and other common mistakes. I go through every use of very, nice, and other words that really should be something different. These weak words are often hiding in weak sentences that should be doing more showing and less telling.

    Then I take the smartest approach I can. I give it to my wife who is an exceptional proofreader. She finds many more errors that I missed. As a writer, I still have a tendency to see sentences and paragraphs as I intended them, not as I actually typed them. I'm an expert as leaving out words, usually small articles or verbs, and my self-editing eye continues to skip over the missing words because my mind's eye thinks that they're really there.

  6. You have an excellent way of editing, Bill. Certainly one worth following. Another way to catch errors is to record yourself reading the book aloud as if you were reading to an audience. You'll catch where you left words out or when a sentence is too convoluted, for example.

  7. I often see my word as how I intended and not as how I typed it. I love technology, but I have to mark up a hard copy during a self-edit. I like the idea of printing it out double-sided.

  8. I just posted about this on another blog. We can root out missing commas and tighten our sentences, but it's tough to judge the "oomph" impact on the reader. Since the story matters so much to us, we assume it will to others, too.

    I "divorce" my work after I write it. Well, temporary separation. I put the draft aside for several weeks and do other things. When I come back, I can see it with "fresh" eyes that helps me be far more objective. It's easier to spot those "darlings" that need hard, fast killin' this way. I do this between every major editing pass, and it truly helps.


  9. That's so true, Lisa. I do that with my own work as well. There's always plenty to do while it sits. And that distance from your words can be so helpful.

    Stacy, I used to print out my manuscript on scratch paper and edit it that way. Now, I'm used to editing online. It's so much easier that way. Especially when I'm editing for someone else. They can see my comments and edits without my scratching things out when I mis-spell or change my mind.

  10. I agree, it is much easier to edit someone else's work. Your view is fresh. Sometimes as writers we miss basic details because we already know the story and can unintentionally leave out a detail the reader needs to know. I like my first read to be for the content - pacing, characters, holes in the plot - the general flow of the story. The second read is editing for typos, misspellings, grammar etc. As with my own work, I like to leave a project sit for a bit while I read another book, or work on another project, then come back for a final pass for anything I may have missed.

    Good post. I am always interested in hearing how other's work process.

    NA Sharpe

  11. I do as much as I can on my own, then turn it over to a couple of absolutely awesome editors/proof readers to clean up my butchering of the English language. They send me suggusted corrections using Microsoft Word Track Changes and I can accept, reject, or argue with them.

    Honestly, Breakthrough would not be the success it is without these wonderful ladies. My motto is, "A book is only as good as its editors."

    Oh, and your Word Verification is still on.

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  13. I find editing my own work to be quite difficult. I've yet to tackle a work that is book-sized, but I've written a number of short stories. I'm almost finished with a first draft of my longest story yet. I think I'll take an approach similar to what you suggest. I'll probably take a day or two off after completing the rough draft, print the manuscript, mark all over it, take notes and slowly begin revision.

    Before you go to an outside editor, or decide to submit to a journal (as in my case) how many revisions have you been known to do? I have a hard time ever deciding that a story is finished. I have linked to this post on my blog


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