The Editing Process

I'm almost half way to my goal of 150,000 words for my next novel. Given how it's paced so far, I might need to aim for 200,000. However long the first draft ends up being, I intend to cut 20%. Hopefully, I'll cut the worst 20%, leaving a fairly decent 80%.

I'm a process kind of guy. If I know that I'll get to something later because of the process I'm going through, then I won't worry about it now. I'm this way when I program, and I'm this way when I write. Processes can make it easier to get around the tendency to overlook things that we're already familiar with. 

I'm planning on a twelve step process for editing based on the chapters in Self-Editing for Fiction Writers. The book is an excellent resource for anyone who wants to try their hand at editing their manuscript. You still might want to pass your work by someone else, but going through Self-Editing will make subsequent edits less painful.

The sequence is organized so that you start with the big picture and then work your way down into detail. The chapters can be broken up into three broad sections of four chapters each mirroring the typical divisions of text: scenes, paragraphs, and sentences. There's no need to focus on how your sentences are working if you have big problems with your scenes. Get the big things working before moving on to more detailed aspects of your novel.

Over the next few months, I'll write posts addressing each of these and show how they work in a sample of my next novel.

Scene-Level Editing

There are four aspects of writing that emerge at the scene level:

  • Showing vs. Telling
  • Characterization and Exposition
  • Point of View
  • Proportion

All of these come from how the paragraphs work together, or don't work together if there are problems. Each of these is more about balance than about being right or wrong.

What I do when I edit is go through the manuscript and mark up each one of these in a different color. For example, I may draw a red line down the side of the manuscript when I'm telling instead of showing. Since I'm usually showing if I'm not telling, I don't mark that.

Once I've marked each of these, I can go back and see where I might have too much telling (red) instead of showing. If the passage seems boring, then I know I need to rework it so it's showing instead of telling. I know it's boring when I'm reading and I think to myself, "yeah, yeah yeah, ... let's get on with it." That's a sign that I need to cut.

After working through these four aspects, I'll be ready to make my first big cuts. I plan on deleting the 10% most boring scenes. That should eliminate roughly 15,000 words.

Paragraph-Level Editing

There are four aspects of writing that emerge at the paragraph level:

  • Dialogue Mechanics
  • Dialect
  • Interior Monologue
  • Dialogue Beats

We start getting into mechanics here, mostly focused on dialogue and interior monologue. Self-Editing doesn't address action sequences, but this would be a good place to add them. You can think of action sequences as dialogue, or dialogue as one aspect of action sequences.

Dialogue provides a lot of opportunities for cutting. The big thing about dialogue is that it shouldn't be realistic. The easiest way to make it work is to have participants talk past each other, or have them respond to the response to their dropped response. Once I've gotten most of the dialogue ironed out, I can cut about 10% of it for another roughly 15,000 words. This will tighten everything up.

Sentence-Level Editing

  • Whitespace
  • Repetition
  • Sophistication
  • Voice

We finally come to the nit picky details of writing. Spacing out the paragraphs so they flow well, making sure we aren't saying the same thing over and over again, and making the right word choices. This is where your "house style" comes into play.

It is during this time that I'll read the manuscript out loud several times, making natural breaks in the rhythm as opportunities for new paragraphs. I'll also mark all of the adverbs and try to get rid of them. I might cut a bit here, but I'm just as likely to expand as I try to get the right feel for the words. I'll also be on the lookout for places that trip me up. If I have trouble reading my manuscript out loud, then it's not in my voice. I shouldn't be surprised by the words.

So that's a quick walkthrough of how I'm planning on attacking my manuscript once I finish it. Of course, I won't wait that long before using a sample to illustrate each of these.

The twelve steps don't cover everything that needs to go into editing, but it gets a lot of the things that are easy to overlook. What are some of the processes that you use when editing?