Editing, where to start?

I have covered many aspects related to writing and editing your work, so which is the most difficult?

I am amazed when I read Tweets and Blogs posts where writers complain about editing. I will tell you why. Editing is what writing is really all about — the nuts and bolts of it. It’s perhaps as much as 90% of writing and is as integral to the process as getting that idea down as a first draft, which is really only the beginning.I think of  the first draft like laying the slab of sculpting clay and forming a tentative shape of what it wants to be — we can see it’s a human or a dog or a tree let’s say and some parts will be more formed and more detailed than others. But do you leave it there? Is that it?

Of course not. Now you must sculpt, deconstruct to reconstruct, mould, craft, tweak and polish. This is the process, this is writing. There does come a point of course where you need to stand back and stop tweaking and perhaps perfection itself is elusive. But indeed it’s the editing that makes bad good and good better, fine finer and great amazing. So never be shy of the process and never think negatively about something that really is the writing process itself.

There are various forms of editing from a full plot or structural edit that usually is where you start after you’ve laid down the first draft; and there’s line editing and copy editing, oh and final proofing. People call the various forms of editing different things, but really I wouldn’t get hung up on a name and they all overlap anyway. I have also talked to people who use the term ‘development’ editing which is more to do with making ideas turn into stories and is very much an initial form of editing akin to structural editing.

When I critique I do a bit of everything. I am copy editing in the sense I am tidying and correcting issues in the narrative itself, explaining rules that are being broken or not understood, so part of it is the nuts and bolts issues, and in some ways I can’t help myself highlighting the clichés and the point of view issues, incorrect formatting in dialogue, incorrect use of semi colons and so on … but what I also point out is the place to start is to look at plot and structural issues first. The corrections and copy editing aspects need to be there to show the writer where they are making fundamental errors, but there is no point correcting all of that first when it’s likely whole sections, even characters will be lost in the big edit. What I think is key to starting the editing process is to look at what’s not working and what is, what needs to be better, as in voice, character, plot and perhaps refer to the story arc as a place to start. Ask yourself what key question the novel explores, what the conflict is that drives the story and is this clear and strong enough? Is the motivation of the key players defined enough to account for their actions and make the plot as credible as it needs to be? These are the big questions and often ones we find hard to see in our own work. So this is where seeking another opinion is useful.

Then look at the scenes in terms of functionality. I use a spreadsheet for this, especially when confronted with a first draft that needs reshaping. People talk about how every word has to count, and perhaps we think this is being too precious and if we teased apart every sentence and every paragraph, the way perhaps a poet might, we would take a lifetime to write a novel. But it does all have to count. It has to be functional; move plot, develop character and explore theme, tie into the leitmotifs you set up from the beginning. So when it comes to your edit, look at function and make sure there isn’t what we call filler … scenes that add little, that are really only padding. This is really where the story’s shape will emerge from your block of clay when you can think it terms of what a scene and then what a chapter does. If you can’t define that then perhaps it doesn’t need to be there. Perhaps there is another simpler way of giving the same information as part of another more functional scene?

Getting started is often the biggest stumbling block, and being able to stand back from your work and see its flaws.

If you can’t afford to pay someone to do this seek a writer’s opinion you can trust or even a reader although they might not have the skills you need, they might be able to tell you something seems wrong, but not how to make it better. But at the very least put that MS away for a while and then go back to it. It’s amazing what distance can do to highlight what you couldn’t see before.


And remember editing is process. It can’t be rushed.

If you have any editing questions please ask!

Have a good day writers and readers!




1 Comment

Filed under being a successful writer, Blogging, Character Arc, Characterisation, cliche, Conflict, Critique, Critique groups, Description, Dialogue, Dreaming, Editing, Endings, Exposition, Grammar, How to edit opening chapters, Learning to be a writer, Leitmotifs and symbolism in Literature, Literary Fiction, Living the dream, Mainstream Fiction, Mentor, Mentoring, Novel writing, Openings, Pace, Passion for writing, Perfect, Plot, Point of View, Psychological Thriller, Publishing, Purple prose, Reading, Rejection, Research, Rules in writing, Short Stories, Structure, Subplots, Theme, Tone, Voice, Writing, Writing groups, writing like building

One response to “Editing, where to start?

  1. So true. I’ve just sorted out an old story. It’s terrible, yet I thought it was great when I wrote it. We improve all the time without realising. Now I’m editing again.

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