Effective editing

I’ve just finished editing my second novel, Chion, so I thought I’d share with you my thoughts on what I think is the best approach to the gruelling task.

1. Distance

If you choose to jump into editing your manuscript straight after you’ve written it, you won’t be able to spot all the mistakes. The problem is, you’re too close to the work. The memory of the prose structure is so fresh in your mind that you inadvertently jump to reading from memory while you’re reading from the page. Oh sure, you’ll catch plenty of mistakes, but you won’t catch anywhere near all of them. You also won’t effectively spot flaws in your plot, because you know it all off by heart. The only effective way to spot all your mistakes is with the eyes of a first-time reader. And you can achieve something close to that if you let the manuscript rest for a few months. Don’t read it, and don’t even think about it. Let yourself forget. Then, when you commence your editing, the story will seem fresh, and you will spot things you would otherwise have missed.

2. Knowledge

When editing your own work, chances are you don’t know everything there is to know about proper grammar. If your attitude is, “Ah, I’ve read so many novels, I’ve got an intuitive knowledge of what’s right and wrong,” you’re making a big mistake. I made this mistake with Ulterior. On retrospect, my grammar was still decent, and I didn’t make a mess of the thing, but having since read Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style, I realise that my first book could have been better polished. There is no excuse for not learning the craft. The fact is, if you don’t know what all the potiential mistakes are, then you won’t know when you’re making them.

3. Peers

It’s essential to get others to help you with your editing, because unless you are prepared to read through your manuscript fifty times, you will never spot everything. So get four or five persons to proof-read for you. Writer friends are best for this, because they will spot more flaws than the average joe, but make every interested party welcome. I allowed six persons to proof-read Chion. Two were aspiring writers, who made such a detailed analysis that I should call them editors. Another was a woman (who brought something different to the table, since I had a female lead character whom I wanted an opinion on). And the other three were non writers, each of which spotted many typos of the kind not spotted by a word processor (e.g. missing words, and wrong words such as “know” for “snow”). One person’s list of typos was never exactly the same as another’s, so all input was valuable.

4. Attitude

When seeking help from others, you need to do it with the right frame of mind. When you finish a novel, it is so easy to believe you’ve written something wonderful and to expect that your peers will like it, too. The first problem is, you’re making it hard for anyone to give you honest criticism. And secondly, you’ll get your heart broken, if somebody dares to give you honest criticism. When I ask someone to proof-read, I always give them a little speech that makes it clear that the only reason I’m giving them the manuscript is so that they can tell me everything that’s wrong with it. And when one of them tells me, “I didn’t like chapter twelve. It was unrealistic. Nobody would ever do that,” I rejoice. Because everything that’s broken can be fixed. My only worry is that I won’t see everything that’s broken. I love to see lots of red-pen marks on a manuscript. They don’t scream, “You’re crap,” they scream, “Come fix me.” The time to seek praise for your work is when you’ve done everything you’re able to do and you’ve got the actual paperback in your hands. (Notice I said “praise for your work,” not “praise for yourself,” but that’s another story.)

5. Persistence

On the flip-side, don’t let the fact that you’ve got outside help prevent you from personally reading over your manuscript several times. It’s not all about spotting mistakes; it’s about looking for ways to improve your prose. Restructure everything that reads awkwardly. Keep your eye out for opportunities to communicate with your reader more effectively. Polish, polish, polish.

6. Scrutiny

My final proof-read is the most gruelling of all. I read the manuscript to myself whilst pressing a pen-lid onto each word. It forces me to read slowly and carefully. One of the biggest curses of writing is how hard it is to spot missing words like “the,” “a,” “of,” etc. When we read, we naturally skim past these minor details. There’s an old trick you can play on your friends where you write down a sentence that contains several instances of the word “of” and you ask them to count how many instances of the letter “F” they can spot. Almost always, the person will skip the “F”s in the word “of”. So, pressing a pen onto each word helps me catch these lapses in concentration caused by our naughty brains taking shortcuts.

7. Perfection -1

The sad truth is that even with all of the above, the chances are you’ll not discover every single error. I was fairly thorough when editing Ulterior four years ago. When the book came out, I kept track of every error reported by readers. There were six or seven in total. However, when I scrutinised the manuscript again recently, with a view to publishing a second edition, I found four or five more. The best advice I can give you is aim for perfection, but settle for a little less. Otherwise you will be re-reading your manuscript until doomsday.

That’s it. That’s what I do. It’s not a routine that anyone taught me. It’s my own, and I think it works pretty well.

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26 thoughts on “Effective editing

  1. Michael Reed says:

    Some nice points.

    1.) You’re absolutely right about the importance of distance. I sometimes wonder if there is a connection between the respective faculties of creative ability and of ‘making things fit’. It’s amazing how often a guitar solo sounds badly conceived and tuneless the next morning 😉

    2.) I’m trying to improve my knowledge of grammar. Last year I started learning Latin and I have a few books on writing/English. I try to digest a bit of the online version of Elements Of Style from time to time. I wrote a bit about this process on my last blog/news entry.

    4.) In all fairness, some people ask for criticism when they mean praise. I normally hand out criticism when it’s asked for. I feel that it’s the biggest favor I can do someone if they want to improve, as I do.

    7.) I think that this can be applied to creativity in general. “Perfect is the enemy of ‘good enough'” as they say. One thing I’ve learned over the last couple of years is that something that is finished and released is probably better than a perfect little fragment that is never finished.

  2. A.P. Fuchs says:

    Sound advice, Darryl, on all fronts.

    And I agree: you have to settle for a little less than perfection otherwise you’ll never actually release the book.

    A writer needs to know when to put his/her book away and move on to the next one.

  3. Darryl Sloan says:

    Mike and A.P.,

    You’ve both commented on the “perfectionism” issue. I have an aspiring writer friend who lives down the street from me, and we talk regularly about story ideas. But he never gets anything written. And it’s not because of laziness. It’s because he’s pursuing an ideal. He spends a lot of time learning all the intricacies of English grammar from various books, telling himself that he’s not yet knowledgeable enough to begin. All that study will certainly stand to him in the long run (and it really helped me when he proof-read Chion), but I keep nagging him to get something written.

    I think we all agree, perfectionism is as deadly to creativity as carelessness. Balance is the key.

  4. Michael Reed says:

    How do your writing sessions go? I consider 1500-2000 words in single sitting to be my upper limit. However, a session that produces 250 or so words can also be quite worthwhile. About 1000 puts me in the zone where I can have fairly guilt-free evening.

    I am hoping that in producing some more articles for tech-news sites, I am improving, amongst other things, my stamina.

  5. Will Hadcroft says:

    Just read your latest blog (while listening to Murray Gold’s Doctor Who music CD – it’s tremendous!). I pretty much went through the process you describe there for my new book.

    Five people have read it. One was my boss who took it on holiday and couldn’t put it down. Another workmate reports a similar effect. The boss’ sister read it and enjoyed, as did the workmate’s wife (she even said it was better than what she was reading currently – can’t remember what – and he said it betters by far The Da Vinci Code). As there is a gay character in it, I also loaned it to a homosexual couple, one a Big Finish director, the other a failed actor come professional gardener. The latter read it in a day. Finally I gave it to a friend who is a real nit-picker, and he read it in six hours on a plane, spotted the grammatical errors, but claimed that the only downside he could see was that it isn’t long enough.

    As you can imagine, I’m rather pleased about all this.

    To separate it from Anne Droyd and my other projects for children, I will be publishing it under a pseudonym. It will be interesting to see what, if any, impact it has.

  6. Darryl Sloan says:

    Mike,

    I am not nearly as disciplined as a would like to be. When writing a novel, I try to use the rule “Right something every day.” I don’t really care about a daily word-count. My big problem is simply in keeping a project from grinding to a halt for months at a time (or infinity, in some cases). If there’s a daily movement of words, I’m happy. After all, a mere 200 words a day would get a 73,000-word novel written in a year.

    However, being the stereotypically undisciplined arty type that I am, I rely on my enthusiasm, which usually comes in fits and starts. I’ve seen myself write a ten-thousand-word short story in two days, but that’s a rarity. If you would ask me to provide an average daily word-count figure, it’s about 1,000 to 1,500, written in a single sitting.

  7. Darryl Sloan says:

    Will,

    Interesting that you’ve put a gay character in your story, since I know that you hold fairly traditional Christian views, like myself! I’m intrigued that you appeared to get positive feedback from two gay persons.

    I never criticise a book for being short. Cosnider the classics such as Wells’s The Time Machine and Stevenson’s Jekyll and Hyde – both under one hundred pages. A well-written story finds its own length. Unnecessary padding invokes boredom in the reader.

  8. Darryl Sloan says:

    Will,

    I almost forgot … I wanted to say a word on your desire to use a pseudonym. Unless there’s a drastic need for anonymity, I would advise against it.

    You have an existing fan-base and you should build on it rather than starting all over again. The fact that the new novel isn’t a children’s book is of no consequence. I rather like the idea of an author who isn’t pigeon-holed into one genre.

    I have an idea for a very personal novel worked out, and the idea of writing it under my own name is pretty scary. But I think it would be the right thing to do.

  9. Michael Reed says:

    “Why I Enjoy My Secret Alter-ego As A Serial Killer” by Darryl Sloan. Sounds good.

  10. Darryl Sloan says:

    Hush! 😉

  11. Anonymous says:

    Darryl,

    I’ve just realised I’m not signed up to your blog! I’ll have to post as an “anonymous” blogger. Anyway in answer to your points;

    1. Gay Characters. One of the driving motives for me writing the book was my struggling faith. I was feeling quite vulnerable emotionally at the time, I had been deeply disturbed by the tsunami tragedy, and had got wound up by Professor Richard Dawkin’s programme “The Root of All Evil” (which called for the abolition of all religion and the concept of God). I was also fascinated by how similar sets of circumstances could turn a religious person into an atheist and vice versa (eg. an atheist might experience the loss of a loved one and begin to wonder what the purpose of life is, and consider the idea of God, but by the same word, a religious person can be affected by the death of a loved one and conclude that a loving God would not permit such overwhelming suffering, and so therefore cannot exist).

    So I wanted to write a book that, through its narrative, examined these controversial views head on and be entirely honest. In the story there is an atheist, a marxist, a materialist, and a gay man. The central character not only believes in God, but knows without any shadow of a doubt that He exists. By throwing these people together, I was able to sort out some issues – not least the ones raging away in my head.

    I presented the views of the gay character in a balanced way, I thought, but I needed a real gay person to react to it favourably. Thankfully he and his partner did.

    2. The shortness of the book (Is 70,000 words a short read? I don’t know)was pointed up in disappointment rather than criticism. He was disappointed that it was over so soon because wanted to see how the lead character (a man very much out of his depth) would deal with situations not explored in the text. For me, this disappointment is a good thing, because it means the reader extended the story in his own mind – which means I got it right!

    3. Pseudonym. My new book explores what I believe to be an increasingly selfish and decadent world through the eyes of an innocent. Gradually he is changed by us, not for the better, and the woman who becomes his closest friend is gradually changed by him (she starts out a staunch atheist but is quite different by the end – it’s that thing of two characters being affected by the exact same things but reacting very differently). The story points up the not-so nice elements of human nature, and as such I wanted to show them exactly as they really are. In the first draft I put in quite a bit of swearing, I being intent on depicting the aggression in the human psyche in a realistic way. But having seen a documentary on John Wyndham in which one commentator said the writer tried to reach the broadest possible audience, I have gone back to the manuscript and toned down the language (the F word has been changed to “bloody” and “bleeding” – not as offensive, but still packing a punch and still unpleasant).

    I know that my Christian elders and betters will not regard my expose of the human condition (and my hatred for it) as a good enough excuse to employ such language. I know what I want to do, I know the point of what I’m doing is honourable and decent, but I don’t think they’ll “get” it. So it’s going out anonymously.

    Additionally, the book is written in diary form, and to complete the illusion of it being a real diary, I want to credit it to the central character. I’ve even written an author biography of him to go in the back (everyone who has seen it to date has laughed out loud, which is very gratifying – it’s the reaction I was hoping for).

    As for it not mattering that my children’s author identity will be superimposed on my adult book – I think that it does matter. A friend of mine told me she let her ten year old son watch “Torchwood” alone in his room because ‘he loves “Doctor Who” and it’s got Captain Jack in it’. She was horrified when I told her “Torchwood” had sex scenes, same sex kissing, and a reference to masturbation in it. This tells me the potential is there for readers to think Will Hadcroft equals children’s fiction, and as such I want there to be an obvious distinction between that and any adult novel I write. A pseudonym makes that distinction.

    My established fan-base, they will be able to feast on “Anne Droyd and the House of Shadows” in the summer. I will be making every effort to build on what I have achieved with “Century Lodge” and “The Feeling’s Unmutual”, so no worries there.

    Hope this answers your questions sufficiently, Darryl. Thanks for bothering enough to make such intelligent and considered comments.

    Will Hadcroft

  12. Darryl Sloan says:

    Will,

    If you choose “Other” as your identity, it allows you to post under your name and web site. There’s no sign-up process for my blog, as such. Anyone who has a blogger account is invited to use that identity to post with. Hope you’ll drop by often.

    Getting a blogger.com account is something you should do, incidentally. It has brought a new lease of life to my humble abode on the web.

    70,000 words is longer than I’ve ever written. Ulterior was 63,000, and Chion is a mere 40,000 – the bare minimum for categorising it as a novel.

    I like short novels, because I want to have the time to read a lot of books. I’ve been ploughing through Stephen King’s 1,000-page tome It for ages now, and it’s starting to annoy me how long I’ll have to spend with it until it’s done.

    On using a pseudonym, the comparison with Torchwood isn’t entirely valid. Torchwood appears to be presenting adult material for the questionable purpose of titillation. You, when writing for adults, are doing so with much more honourable motives. I would suspect that a child who manages to get hold of your book will come away from it educated rather than harmed. Children as young as eleven have read Ulterior, and it features references to teenage sexuality and even to child molesting. I never had one complaint from a parent. And let’s remember, our friend Sam Youd successfully published adult and childrens fiction under the John Christopher name.

    On language, I try to be as polite as possible without making a villain look like a pansy. I sometimes use “damn” and “hell,” but nothing any deeper. Swearing’s only a sin against polite society, but we have to remember that polite society will make up some of our readership.

  13. Will Hadcroft says:

    Oh yeah, “Other”!

    Maybe Torchwood isn’t quite the same as what I’m doing, but I don’t want someone who has read Anne Droyd and Century Lodge to pick up Diary of a Parallel Man and then be shocked when a character says “bleeding” in it.

    My abhorance for decadant humanity cannot be expressed the way I want to express it without showing the decadance in deed and in word.

    I will promote the book among the adults in my audience and one or two press people. But really it’s an experiment in self-publishing. If it pays off, I will work out a definite campaign for Anne Droyd and the House of Shadows and aim for a summer release for that.

    The reaction I’ve had for Parallel Man thus far suggests that word-of-mouth might sell a few extra copies.

    I hear what you’re saying re Sam Youd writing as John Christopher for both adults (The Death of Grass) and children (The Tripods Trilogy).

    Will.

  14. Anonymous says:

    Been trying to do more writing myself recently. It’s something I was encouraged to do by various friends to pass my time while I’m in Finland. Your tips are spot on I think. I tend to start things and give up due to not feeling I’m doing the story justice and move on. It’d be nice to finish something one day. I’d like to at least get two of the short stories I’m working on now finished before I return to the UK in April. I’m not going to beat myself up about it if I don’t though.

  15. Darryl Sloan says:

    “I tend to start things and give up due to not feeling I’m doing the story justice and move on.” I never give up; things sometimes just go on permanent hiatus, which is almost the same thing. Waning enthusiasm is a terrible curse.

    You should seriously knuckle down and do some writing. You’ve got a good command of grammar, and some of your blog-writing is seriously funny. It would be nice to see that humour translated into storytelling.

  16. Jeffrey Allen Davis says:

    Speaking of editing, on your response to Mike’s question about how many words you try to finish in a sitting, you said “Right,” rather than “Write.”

    Just teasing.

    I set a time frame when I’m writing. I’ll get up at about 5 AM, shower and pray, then try to get at least an hour of writing done before I have to help my wife get our daughter ready for preschool. I’m always satisfied if I do that. Of course, when I’m not in the middle of a story , I don’t have bags under my eyes.

  17. Darryl Sloan says:

    That was my subconscious being naughty. When you get so fast at typing that don’t consciously think about what you’re doing, your brain sometimes makes mistakes, and these mistakes often make an odd kind of sense, i.e. the wrong word comes out rather than merely jibberish. I wonder is this proof that there is such a thing as a subconscious?

    Man, I’d love to have that kind of discipline. But I’m such a night-owl. I rarely get to bed before midnight. Good for you. They say the best part of the day for creativity is the morning.

  18. Jeffrey Allen Davis says:

    Actually, it’s a trait that has been passed down in my family for generations. Seriously. My ancestors . . . right up until my paternal grandfather . . . were all farmers who had to “get up with the chickens,” as my mother used to say. Though he wasn’t a farmer, my father continued the early morning tradition. I do, too. My daughter seems to be showing signs of it, much to my wife’s dismay.

  19. Darryl Sloan says:

    Well, I don’t know where I get my laziness from. I certainly can’t blame my parents.

    Although on the matter of creativity, I may have inherited something. My mum and dad were both once in a band. Dad played guitar and mum played the drums. I also remember mum painting with me as a child.

  20. Karen says:

    great advice! i especially agreed with letting your work rest for a bit and then come back to it later with a fresh mind. that’s what i do when i write, the minute i finish, i either put down my pen and close the notebook, or close the window to microsoft word and then don’t come back to it for a while. i usually don’t wait for several months though. several days at the very longest!
    it’s also so important as an artist of any kind, to take criticism with an open mind. if you want praise, ask for it. if you want criticism, don’t expect praise (though hopefully you will receive some!). i tend to be asked to edit and criticize more than i ask it myself (not being a copious writer, at least, not yet!), and i also reassure the author before i start, that hopefully what i say will help them, and i always give strong reasons for why i did or didn’t like something. i don’t just say, “i didn’t like it” or whatever and then just leave it at that. that’s really doesn’t help anyone very much!
    other advice i sometimes give (and you know this already because i told you in person!) is to write as a reader…it’s rather like splitting your brain so that as you are writing, you are also reading what you write as though you are seeing these words for the first time. though if you don’t have a split personality, putting your work down and coming back to it later works almost as well! lol!
    anyway…to all out there who are possibly reading this….good writing, good reading and good luck!

  21. Darryl Sloan says:

    Karen,

    Try re-reading something you wrote a long time ago, with a view to editing it. Quite a different experience than editing a few days after writing. Dean Koontz has a really oddball editing strategy. He writes one page, then edits the hell out of it until he’s completely satisfied. Only then will be move on and write the next page. This flies in the face of what I consider to be useful, but I can’t argue that he’s a great writer. It would also be nice to finish the write the last page of a novel without the feeling that there’s loads of work still to be done before it’s publishable.

  22. Absolutely right on all counts. I couldn’t agree more! It saddens me how much bad writing got into my first book just because I didn’t now better. Ah well. You liked it so it can’t have been all that bad…

  23. Interesting points you make there Darryl, however i have a worse problem than editing (which i rarely even reach!), i tend to hit the zone when i write, often writing 5-10,000 words on my first sitting, literally hours of work, which always feels great at the time, but as soon as i come to the 2nd day/night of writing, and re-read over some of what i’ve already written to get the ‘feel’ again, i always see fault in everything i’ve written.
    It’s not about grammar or spelling (although neither are perfect), i just find fault with my story, my ideas, my abilities, etc.

    I used to write an awful lot, mostly poetry, lyrics, short stories, etc, all of which i was fine with as i could finish each item in one sitting, but as soon as i’d write anything that would take more than one sitting, it was doomed. and still is.

    The longest story i’ve ever finished was 7910 words long, written in one sitting and as it turns out, edited by a friend, who the story was actually written for.

    The awful thing is, i really love writing, or should i say ‘typing’, but i just can’t seem to make it work for me. I’m going to be doing an English Literature class at the local college soon, more for the qualification, as i messed about too much at school to get the grade i deserved, but i’m hoping it’ll maybe give me a bit more ‘know how’ in general and help me formulate my writing better, or just help me prolong my writing over more than one sitting!

  24. Darryl Sloan says:

    Paul,

    Maybe you’re concentrating too much on passion. Maybe all you need is to add a little discipline to the mix. I certainly can’t do an entire novel on passion alone, and I often have to force myself to begin each session. However, once I overcome the initial hurdle of getting started each time, things tend to run pretty smooth. Choosing to come back for more again and again is, however, a massive psychological hurdle for me, but I manage.

    I think you’ve got to treat it like school homework. When teacher says you’ve gotta write a one-thousand-word essay for tomorrow, then you’ve gotta do it, no matter how you feel.

    Refrain from re-reading what you’ve written before the whole thing is finished. You need as much motivation as you can muster, so that last thing you need to see are flaws. And everybody’s first draft has them. Let yourself believe that you’re super-brilliant until the job is done. Then at least it’s complete, even if it needs a major polish.

    As an alternatve, Dean Koontz has the odd strategy of writing one page at a time, and editing the hell out of that page before he moves on to writing the next one.

  25. I thought I’d give a bit of an update to my last post in this thread. I’ve since written quite a few short stories, some of which I’m very pleased with. And, against all hope, I did actually write some of them over more than one sitting!

    But, more than that, I’ve actually written a synopsis (well a sort of synopsis, I don’t think it’s the accepted form) for what I plan to be my first novel(la).

    I’ve gained a lot of confidence in my writing in the past year or so. I got some quite good feedback in the class I did (no results yet), and I’ve joined writing.com and submitted my work on there and again received quite good feedback.

    I think the main difference is I’ve learned skills I never had before. The tricks of writing, I guess. Before I always blagged it and sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn’t. Now I actually feel like I know a little about what I’m doing.

    Hence the synopsis, which I’ve never really done before. I used to just come up with an opening sentence, or a vague idea, and start writing, often not knowing the end until I’d typed it. Having a better idea of what I’m doing has really given me more control of where I’m going, which then means i can go back to it and pick up where I left off. LIke you said, passion isn’t enough, there has to be something more.

    I do have a question though: I know you’ve said a story finds its own length (and i totally agree with that), but do you stick to any guidelines for writing a novel? Ie. length of chapters, how many chapters, etc?

    I’ve done some research but everyone comes up with different ideas. Is it important at all? Or is it better to just let a chapter find its length too? And let the story unfold in however many chapters it takes?

    Actually, I know there’s a few writers that read this site, I’d be appreciative for any opinions on this. Maybe see if there’s a general consensus?

  26. Darryl Sloan says:

    “do you stick to any guidelines for writing a novel? Ie. length of chapters, how many chapters, etc?”

    With Ulterior I wrote lots of short snappy chapters, ending them with a cliff-hanger when possible. Often I wrote a chapter in one sitting. This technique actually didn’t help much with being able to pick up where I left off because continuous scenes were being split up as chapters, and I felt I had to begin each chapter in a fresh-sounding way.

    As a reader I do enjoy short, snappy chapters. They’re very more-ish, and before you know it you’ve got half the book read.

    I approached Chion a little differently. The narrative covered the events of four consecutive, event-filled days, and somehow it just felt right to structure it as a continuous narrative, with no chapter breaks (although there were scene breaks, denoting time passing). The only chapter breaks as such, were when night fell and everyone went to sleep.

    Philip Henry, who comments here, had a really nice structure in his book Mind’s Eye. It takes place over several consecutive months. Each month was a chapter, and each chapter was episodic in nature with a definite theme and conclusion. The chapters were all around the same length, which for me was just the right length for bed-time reading. The effect was very pleasant on the reader.

    Ultimately, there are no rules. Whatever works. I tend to let the feel of the novel dictate the style of chapter division.

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