My editing process

As most of you probably know, I’ve been editing lately. This novel is the one that’s the closest to being finished (or at least as finished as it can get when no one but me has seen it), so I figured I would take this time to share what I have learned about editing.

This should go without saying, but just to make sure everyone’s clear about this: THIS IS JUST MY EDITING PROCESS! What works for me might not work for you. And that’s fine. This is not THE way to edit; it’s just MY way. All that matters is that you find a method that works for you. I’m sharing my process because I’ve found it can be helpful to see how other people edit. I like reading about other people’s editing processes to get ideas for how to improve my own and to help get me in the editing mood. As such, I’ve also added a list at the end of this post featuring the editing posts that I’ve found most helpful.

I should also mention that I am a planner, and some of what follows presupposes that you have gone into writing the first draft with some sort of plan. If you didn’t, that’s fine – you might just find that some of the specifics don’t apply to you.

Step 1: Figure out whatstory you wanted to tell.
The first thing I do, before I even look back at what I’ve written, is figure out what I hoped the novel would look like. I write a brief summary of what the overall plotline is, and then I jot down the main threads (plots and subplots) that appear and where I wanted those to go.

So with TILT YOUR HEAD AND SMILE, the novel I’m editing now, I basically had the following plots/subplots:
○ College/career (main plot)
○ Romance
○ Parental pride
○ Sibling rivalry
○ Friendship

I’m not going to share my summaries because that would give things away. But I would just write down what’s happening in each thread at the beginning, middle, and end of the novel – or at least what I wanted to have happen. If I added a new subplot while writing, I will go ahead and add it to this list. Once I have a clear understanding of all of the plots and subplots that I wanted to include, I am ready to move on to the next step.

• Step 2: Read the manuscript.
As some of you might know, I have a habit of throwing out my first drafts. That’s part of why I write them so fast – the first draft is just a practice round for me to figure out how my original outline works. Occasionally I’ll write a first draft I like, but more often than not I’ll end up throwing it out and writing a second draft, and then it’s that second draft that I’ll end up editing. But before I can do that, I have to determine if the draft is worth saving.

That’s what this reading is for. I never print out my work until it’s gone through the first few rounds of editing (because I’ve learned that I waste way too much paper if I print out the first draft), so I just read it on my Nook. But you can read it however works best for you. I like to try to read as much of it at one time as I can so it’s all fresh in my mind. I also generally have a notebook next to me so I can jot down any notes I have about big picture problems – mostly thinks dealing with the plots/subplots listed above.

When I’m done reading, I look over my notes and think about what I read and decide if it can be fixed or if it needs to be completely rewritten. If it needs to be rewritten (as most of mine do), I’ll start back at the planning phase and then write a new draft and then start back over at step 1. If it doesn’t need to be completely rewritten, then I move on to the next step.

For TILT, I had already rewritten it several times, and I had reread it back in September, so I knew that I didn’t have to start all over again. So when I started editing it again this month, I started on Step 3.

• Step 3: Make the spreadsheet.
In the past I’ve written this down on notebook paper, but I started using Excel this time because it was easier to go back and add things. I figure the first two scenes won’t really give much away, so I’ve included a sample picture:

editing chart

As you can see, I start with the chapter and scene. I keep a running total of all scenes (1-92), but you could also do it by chapter (Ch. 1, Scenes 1-3; Ch. 2, Scenes 1-2). I include a summary of what happens – just enough to help me remember the key parts of the scene – and then a justification of why that scene is important. Sometimes it’s not the whole scene that matters but rather a bit of information that we learn in this chapter. I’ve found this is helpful for deciding when to cut a scene. If it’s only important because it contains the same information as something else – or if I could just as easily share that information a different way, I know I can cut the scene.

Next I list all the characters present and then use parentheses to list characters that are mentioned even if they aren’t physically there – though if someone’s communicating via phone or computer, I consider that present. I used to only list main characters, but then I started including all characters, which was helpful when trying to decide if I had too many characters who only showed up for one scene.

For the thread column, I list the main threads that appear in the scene and then use the parentheses to show threads that appear but aren’t the main focus. For instance, the first scene in TILT is mostly about how she’s about to graduate college, and we just see a small hint about the romance plot, so the romance thread is mentioned in parentheses. For the second scene, on the other hand, all three threads are of equal importance, so none of them go in parentheses.

Notes and word count are, I think, pretty obvious. While I do not yet care about the length of each chapter, I like having that information there because it will be useful later.

• Step 4: Read and highlight – and fill in the spreadsheet.
Now I go through the novel again, filling in the spreadsheet as I go. I also highlight the text and write notes about things to fix. If there’s a paragraph I’m thinking about deleting, I’ll highlight it orange. If it’s a paragraph I want to rewrite later, I’ll highlight it yellow. If I need to add more description or setting information, I’ll highlight it green. If there’s something that doesn’t work with the plot, or something that I feel should be expanded, I’ll highlight it blue. Character problems are highlighted pink. Then I fill out the “notes” column on the spreadsheet to remind myself of what needs to be fixed, or possible scenes to add or delete.

If this were my first time reaching this stage with a manuscript, I would try not to make any changes until I had gone through the whole thing. Since this is draft 5.2, though, I felt safe making some changes as I went. So I went ahead and wrote in a couple of scenes and deleted a few that I knew for a fact were not adding anything to the novel. Although it should be noted that these “deleted scenes” went into a special Scrivener folder – just in case I later changed my mind and wanted to bring them back. I also fixed typos and awkward sentences as I went – for the most part. Anything that required serious thought, though, I made a note to fix later.

Step 5: Examine notes and make changes.
Depending on how detailed my notes were in previous steps, this could be a simple matter of just making a checklist for each scene, or I could have to write a whole new outline. If there’s a weak thread, I have to figure out how to make it better. Then, once I have a game plan for what I need to fix, I start making the changes. I have to rewrite scenes and add new ones. If I’ve deleted something, I have to make sure that the story still flows. If there was important information there, I have to find a way to include it elsewhere. If this is my first time through the novel, this takes a lot of time.

For this particular novel, I made most of the changes as I went because, like I said, this is draft 5. I was pretty sure I had most of the novel in order, and I got impatient and went ahead and made most of the changes as I went. But often this is the stage where I get stuck. I start making changes and then get overwhelmed and stop and then never come back.

• Step 6: Rest and (possibly) reread.
Once I’ve made all the changes I planned on making, I let the manuscript rest a while. At least a week. Maybe longer. Depends on what else is going on. If I’ve made a bunch of changes in the last round of edits, I’ll reread it – once again without taking too many notes. The goal is just to see if I’m done with the big picture edits. Do I have all the scenes I wanted? Are there any scenes to get rid of? Are all the characters developed? Are the plot lines as developed as I wanted?

If there are still big-picture issues to sort through, I’ll go back and work on those, following the same steps as outlined above. If I’m happy with it, though, I’ll move on to the next step. Note: “happy with it” doesn’t necessarily mean I think it’s as good as it can get. It just means that I’m happy with the order of all the scenes and that I don’t wish to add or delete any.

• Step 7: Print out the manuscript and reread and take notes.
When the big-picture edits are done, I feel comfortable printing out my novel. I’ve tried to print my novels out before this part, and I always end up hating myself for wasting the paper and ink when I inevitably throw the whole thing out and start over. Now I wait until I’m reasonably sure I’m not going to make any more big changes, and then I print it out. Now I make sure that there are no grammar or punctuation mistakes. I fix oddly worded sentences. Basically, all the line and copy edits occur now. I should probably separate this phase, but I just can’t do it. Really, I probably will have been fixing problems as I’ve seen them, but I try to hold off until this point.

• Step 8: Make changes, rest, and reread (again).
Hopefully this time the changes are easier to make than in step 5 because these shouldn’t be major changes at this point. It should really just be a matter of typing up the changes that I wrote on the paper copy. Then I’ll let it sit for a little while longer (again, depends on what else I’m doing), and I’ll read it again to make sure I didn’t miss anything. This is my final draft before I show it to anyone else.

• Step 9: Get outside opinions.
This is the point where I would share it with beta readers or critique partners or whatever. Or, as is the case with me, this is when I try to find a critique partner for the novel.

So that’s my editing process. As promised, here are the links to some of my favorite posts on editing:
Tackling Revisions by Susan Dennard @ Publishing Crawl
Marissa Meyer’s “Process for Major Revisions”
Jody Hedlund’s “Self-Editing Checklist”
Holly Lisle’s “One-Pass Manuscript Revision”

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Posted on December 22, 2013, in Editing, Tilt Your Head and Smile. Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. Katie, this was very generous of you, explaining your process so well 😀 I actually like the way you outline, though it’s making me think you’re a bit of a pantser if you’re making your chart (outline) AFTER you’ve written the draft. I appreciate your chart and how you organize it. At some point I’ll check out the other links, too. Thanks so much! 😀

    • I’m glad you found it helpful! Although I’m not really a pantser. I have an outline that I mostly follow while I’m writing. The outline I mentioned here is mostly just the condensed version so I just get an overview of what happened. Or sometimes things change while I write. I have to have an outline before I can write, but I’m still open to change if it turns out something should be different.

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