For Writers: What Does Editing Mean to You?

After my last post, a reader asked about editing. Specifically, what advice do I have for writers who have finished a book, but are stuck at the first edit? Other writers, please chime in by leaving a comment, or write your own post on the topic and let me know; I’ll add a list at the bottom of this post. This could be a good chain for all of us. 🙂

Here’s my two cents on editing.

In my opinion, editing takes as much practice as writing. I started learning by paying close attention to what made the books I love work for me. Then I started editing at work, so I’ve spent six to ten hours a week for the last five years editing economics articles, papers, and reports. When I was ready to edit my first novel, I floundered. Okay, so this was right after I took the professional editing gig. Editing for work will really loosen you up. Working in a critique group or beta swap where you edit each other’s work might help, too. Sorry for the tangent, back to my main point. The fact is, that first novel is still in a drawer. I took a look at it the other day (and I think that’s the subject for yet another post).

After writing a novel during NaNoWriMo in 2009, I read up on story structure. Check out Larry Brooks at storyfix.com. Buy one of his books. Or all of them. They’re very useful. I print copies of some of his diagrams as I’m plotting each project.

The editing will depend on what your story needs. If the plot is solid but it just doesn’t feel there yet, you might end up adding sensory detail, working in more details from the character’s backstory to establish motivation, finding places you can show something instead of telling it, adding meat to some of the other characters and their backstories…the possibilities are really endless.

Maybe I should talk a little about editing vs. revision. They are different. Editing is engaging the critical mind and really tearing something apart, making sure everything has a reason, the logic is sound, and the piece is written as smoothly and coherently as possible. Revision is the work it takes to fix the problems you found while editing. As an editor, I make a lot of simple changes to improve the plot’s flow; correct grammar, spelling and punctuation; and trim unnecessary words and phrases. The bigger picture stuff requires me to put on a strange combo of writer/editor hat — often many new words are needed (that’s the writer) but they have to be exactly the right words (that’s the editor). So revising takes me a fair amount of time.

This novel I’m working on needed something drastic. I started by listing every scene backward, with one sentence about it’s purpose. Then I thought long and hard about the entire mid-section, because I felt like the timing/age/pace was off. Once I had a good idea what I was cutting, I pulled that stuff out into a “scrap” document. (I don’t delete large sections. Bad idea.) Then I re-examined what I had left, went back to that backwards outline, figured out how to tell the story I needed without being boring, added back in some of the things I’d cut, and determined what additional scenes I needed to write. It’s been painful. Really painful at points. But I love the story, and I’ve worked on different parts of the plot since 2004 — so this thing was coming out of me one way or another. I want it to be beautiful, awkward, and one hundred percent itself.

Other writers, please chime in with advice for someone working on editing their first book. I know I’m eager to hear what others have to say about this topic, because we all do things differently.

About J.R. Pearse Nelson

J.R. Pearse Nelson is a native Oregonian, residing in the beautiful Portland area. She lives with her husband, two small daughters and the family dog. J.R. is always searching for the magic in our world. She weaves tales rooted in mythology, bringing legend to life in modern-day and fantasy settings. J.R. is the author of the Children of the Sidhe paranormal romance series, the Foulweather Twins fantasy series, and the Water Rites fantasy series. You can connect with J.R. online at her website. Visit jrpearsenelson.com.

3 comments on “For Writers: What Does Editing Mean to You?

  1. I do something that many, many people disagree with. I sort of edit as I go. In other words, I go back to the chapter I just wrote and check on it before writing the next. This method is NOT for everyone! For many writers, it disturbs the flow of the story when they’re on a roll. But it works ok for me. Maybe because I’ve been doing this for a few years. 🙂

    One of my biggest pieces of advice is to have beta readers, both avid readers and fellow authors. You need a mixture. Beta reader feedback is critical. And listen closely to what those beta readers have to say. You won’t always agree with them, but don’t discount their advice until you’ve thought long and hard about it.

  2. I do much of my editing as I go, just as Lauralynn does. It isn’t for everyone. I find that storyline editing/revisions need an outside eye. I’m too involved with the story. I know why I’ve written things because they are my characters! An outside look is necessary to examine the story without preconceived notions.

    As for basic editing – grammar, sentence structure,…I read, re-read…then read again. And again. And again…lol. And my beta/critique partners still find errors. So I fix them…and read it a few more times.

  3. I like to edit in phases. First I edit words and grammar as I write, I go back through the chapter I just wrote and look for unneeded words or cliches. I actually have a list of specific words I look for, ones I know I use a lot and words that are generally over used.
    Then when I’m done with my first draft I do lots of revisions basically. I check the story for pacing and over all feel. Then I go back and make sure my characters feel real to me, no sudden changes because I need them to, make sure they grow into what they need to be. Then check all my subplots to make sure they’re properly began and resolved in a satisfactory way.
    Then I let other people read them (beta’s) and go over their advice. One final edit for grammar and prose. Then go over it a few more times until I’m doing nothing but moving commas around, putting comas in, removing commas, and then I know I’m as done as I’m gonna get.

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