What I Learned From All That Editing

Posted on 25th June, 2016

Over the past 18 months, I have worked through three major editing projects. Last year I edited two books; and this year I edited one of them again; so this week I thought I would share with you some of the things I have learned in the process.



Possibly the most important thing I learned is that, for me, editing isn't something that can be completed in a single read-through. I am not slap-dash; I don't cut corners; but the second read-through showed me things I hadn't picked up on in the previous read. That's a sobering thought because, as I say, I'm not slap-dash. And the third read-through showed me a complete howler of a mistake, as follows...


Earlier in the year, I was asked by my writing friend Jan Baynham (visit her blog here) to contribute to a series she was running about editing and I included this example. It obviously rang a few bells with other writers, so I'm repeating it here. I had written a scene for my MC and during the editing I decided it would benefit from being chopped into two scenes, with another scene in the middle, so as to ramp up the tension. Fine. That's what I did.


But my MC's one-scene-now-made-into-two-scenes happened all on the same day.... whereas the scene I moved into the middle started that day but finished the following day. Oops. The scary thing here was that not only did I not notice this at the time, but I didn't notice it in the first editing read-through. In fact, I think it was in the third read-through that it finally jumped out at me. The third! So my advice is: when you make a significant change, such as moving scenes around, check and double-check your continuity.


I edit on paper. I know there are many people who do all their writing straight onto the screen, and presumably they do their editing in the same way, but that wouldn't work for me. I'm strictly a pen and paper girl. But one instance in which I would urge the computer brigade to hit the print button is when there is a scene in which there is a lot of what actors call "business," which simply means characters doing things. It's partly a continuity issue, but also a matter of making sure your characters behave in a way that feels normal and natural.


Here's an example. I did a lot of work on a scene in which three characters had just received an emotional blow and they were sitting together, trying to get to the bottom of what had happened. At the same time, accusations were flying between them. One of them remained seated but the other two each stood up and sat down again - twice. I wrote "stage-directions" in the margin to highlight each change of position. This helped me decide what was a feasible amount of standing time and when would be a natural time for sitting down again. I also had to make sure that, having got a character on her feet, I didn't simply forget she was standing and leave her like that.


Editing has made me more critical as a reader. I am now far more aware of, and more irritated by, slip-ups in published books. I'm thinking of a novel in which two characters were sitting together by the fire and suddenly one of them was at the window watching someone approach the house. Hang on a minute - how did she get there? I knew I hadn't read a bit where she got up and went to the window, but even so, I went back and checked - and I was right. She hadn't moved. An error like that jolts the reader out of the story, which is the last thing the writer wants to happen.



Finally, I find it helps to read work aloud. The act of reading aloud requires greater concentration than reading silently, so the necessary edits become more obvious. Moreover, reading aloud shows how well the writing flows.


Those are some of the things I've learned from editing. Is there anything that rings a bell with you? Or anything you disagree with? Perhaps you have a tip you would like to share. Do leave a comment. I'd love to hear from you.



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Comments (10)

I have another tip for editing. This is probably one for a final (or nearly final) edit: load your MS onto your Kindle or other electronic device. Somehow having it in a different format really helps flag up any errors that you might otherwise have missed.

Great point re characters standing/sitting/moving. I've often re-read edited scenes and realised I've cut out the point where I have them making some sort of movement and suddenly there's a glaring hole. Oops.

Jessica x
This post should be required reading for any writer who wishes to grow their craft. Critiquing is a skill that, like writing, needs to be learned and all critiques are not created equal. However, as Carol said, if the critique comes from a source you trust, reflect on the advice given and learn from it.

I've learned so much from the RNA NWS critiques as well as RWA contest feedback and wouldn't be where I am as a writer without having taken that feedback on board. Yes, some of it was hard to hear but in the end it helped me grow and work on weaker areas of craft.

In even less valuable critiques, I've usually found a kernel of truth because those who critique are also readers and if something takes a reader out of the story, I should pay attention to it.

One final point...the RNA NWS critiques prepared me well for my first round of editor's revisions.

Jen, I loved your story about the magical dog. I'm sure we've all done things like that. You're right - it doesn't matter how careful and attentive you are - errors always slip through.
This post resonated with me, Susanna. Thanks for sharing your experience and tips. I also edit on paper, read aloud and make many passes through a manuscript. Still, errors always slip through.

In the last manuscript I sent to my agent (before it went to my editor), I had a magical dog that somehow ended up in a character's arms without ever having been picked up or mentioned previously in the scene. As my agent very sensibly asked in a margin note: "Where did the dog come from?"

Thanks for commenting, Jan. Lovely to hear from you, as always. I hope you are enjoying the editing process. One thing I didn't say above is that I love it. See you next week xx
Thanks for your comment, Wendy. It made me smile. I hope you've let your characters sit down now!
Another interesting post, Sue. I have found my first experience of editing a novel quite daunting at times ...and there is more to do! Reading how you do it has been of further help. I like to edit on paper first, too. Thank you for the blog mention and link. See you soon!
I am at present editing my novel. The last scene I checked had both my main character and her mother standing for so long I could feel their legs aching!
I agree with you, Linda. There is something about the paper page that makes it easier to spy errors. Also, of course, you can jot ideas all over it if you need to. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.
Good point about working on paper. I do both - onscreen myself for a couple of read through/edits, and then at least two rounds with my editor, both on paper. Somehow you see more when you have a physical page in front of you.