You've just finished a book. Yay! You want the world to see it. The question is, once you’re done writing, what’s next?
To me, this is not even a question. What comes next is editing and rewriting and more editing and rewriting. (And to me, editing and rewriting are really the same thing.) I was rather shocked, I must say, to find that this is not the obvious next step for everyone. I’ve had a few folks ask me what my plans were for my new novel, now that it’s complete. One of the comments I received after describing my editing plans was, “Oh, good. I’m glad you’re going to edit it.”
My reaction was something like, uh... duh?
Maybe you’re new to the writing thing. I don’t know. Maybe you’ve just never read a book on writing before (Seriously?! Go read, like, ALL OF THEM!). Maybe you just don’t think editing is important or necessary. Here is a stunning a revelation for you if you’re one of the oh-I-have-to-edit-this-thing camp:
Editing is the most important (and probably the most time consuming) step of writing.
Editing is where the magic happens! Whether you wrote your first draft in 30 days or 30 months, it’s just that. A FIRST draft. Once you’ve typed “The End,” it’s only the beginning. Because now, you get to take your jumble of words and punctuation and make them into something great.
And please. Don't even consider sending out your book to an agent or putting it up on a self-publishing outlet until you've done at least these steps. No one wants to read a book that hasn't been properly edited.
It took me an embarrassing amount of time into my writing career to get a good editing process in place. My original method was to just keep rereading my piece until it seemed good enough. Well, that process is not good enough. I have seen the error of my ways, and I have learned.
I’m hoping to save you this same misery. There are lots of different ways to edit, of course. This is what I do. I once heard author Claire Keegan say (and this was confirmed by author Carlo Gebler) that it might take as many as 30 drafts to get it right. 30! Take the time. Do it right. There is no reason to rush (Unless you’re under deadline. Then maybe rush a little.)
Here are the steps in a very simplified list. I’ll go into detail on each step in future posts.
- Initial Read Through
Look for things like major plot holes, loose ends, and along the way maybe do some simple editing like fixing typos and missing words, or brushing up a sentence that just isn’t working. The idea is to get a picture of the book as a whole to see what needs to be moved, deleted, added, slowed down, or sped up. This is also a good time to notice inconsistencies in point of view and character voice.
- Seek and Destroy Problem Words
I have a list of these. I use the search feature in Word and try to eradicate as many as possible. This list includes: just, really, very, that, thing, got, even, so, in order to, start to, words ending in ing, and the "to be" verbs—was, is, am, are, been, being, were, be. Not all of these words can or should be eliminated, but I cut down as much as possible and put stronger words in their place.
- In-depth Word Analysis
Judgmental is a dirty little word. No one wants to be it. It's time to leave that idea behind because you need to be as judgmental as possible when it comes to word choice. This is the step where I break it down paragraph by paragraph. I hunt out any weak verbs, ambiguous descriptions, and anything confusing or vague. I look for telling in place of showing, I watch for cliches, and I rephrase unneeded prepositions. I judge every single word carefully to determine if there is a better word or if the word is even needed at all. Obviously, this is the most time-consuming step, but this is also the most amazing step. When I discuss this in more detail later, I’ll show you an example of a scene I thought was finished, until I made it a billion times better using this step.
- Read it Out
For some reason, reading your book aloud lets you hear it differently. You'll hear strangeness and falseness in your dialogue. You'll notice awkward phrases and sticky spots. Act out the scenes as much as possible to make sure they're realistic. Plus, it's good practice reading your work.
- Get Some Feedback
Got some writer friends? If not, get some now. Join a group, network, sign up on a critiquing site. You need people who know what they’re doing, who will give you honest, quality feedback. They will catch things you missed. They will find holes and point out ways to make the story better. And hopefully, they’ll tell you that they liked some of it. When you get their notes back, consider each suggestion carefully, but remember it is only one person's opinion. Opinions differ.
- Let it Rest
A good time for this to happen is while the book is out to beta readers. Put the book away and don’t look at it or think about it for 6-8 weeks. Hopefully, you have that much time. This allows you to forget the story and characters enough to get some distance from it and to see it clearer when you return to it.
After it’s been erased from your mind, go back and do another read through. If you can do it all in one sitting, awesome! At this point, you’ll determine what needs to happen next. If you’re lucky, you wrote it and edited it well enough that you can move onto publishing. Otherwise, do the process over and over as many times as it takes to make the book awesome!
I’m sure there are a lot of other great methods for editing out there, and I’d love to hear your process! I’ve used this method a few times now and seen awesome results, but I'm still refining the process. If you can afford a copy editor, go for it! Do everything you can to make the book as polished as possible.
Especially if you will be self-publishing.
There is no agent/editor/publisher to tell you what needs to change to make the book sell. If you’re on your own, you’ll have to work even harder to make sure it’s amazing. You’re putting your name on it, so make it count! You can’t really unpublish a book once it’s out there, and once a reader knows your books are full of typos and loose ends, chances are, they won’t bother with your next one.
Present a beautifully glistening work to an agent or the public and you just might be the one to stand out from the slush pile or from the millions of other self-published books.
Every edit is worth it. Don’t scrimp. Take your time and make it good!
Denise Drespling is the author of short story, “Reflections,” in the Tales of Mystery, Suspense & Terror anthology (October 2014) and “10 Items or Less,” in 10: Carlow’s MFA Anniversary Anthology (April 2014). You can also find her work in these anthologies: The Dragon's Rocketship Presents: The Scribe's Journal and Winter Wishes.
Hang out with Denise at her blog, The Land of What Ifs, her BookTube channel on YouTube, or on Twitter, Facebook, Goodreads, or Instagram.