You’d think the hard work of writing would be the first round, where you’re getting the words onto the page. Nope! Apparently, that’s the easy part. Writing is a little like American Ninja Warrior – every subsequent level ups the difficulty.
If writing a book is a sprint (it’s not) editing, by comparison, is a laborious battle for inches. Entire days on a single paragraph. Grinding through chapters, struggling to find the perfect word or sentence.
There’s a horrible finality to this process. Up until this point, if I wrote something terrible, I could shrug and say “I’ll fix it later”. All the problems I ignored during the writing of the book came back to haunt me. All of a sudden it was tomorrow, today.
This post is all about the editing and rewriting process and the small number of tips and tricks I picked up along the way. I hope any new writers find this helpful.
1. At first, I had no idea what I was doing.
I guess this isn’t really a “tip” so much as it is “I feel for you buddy.”
After I finished my book, I dove into editing / rewrites the very next day. At first, I would just skim through chapters in random order with no real purpose. I made minor tweaks here and there. It…. wasn’t very productive. It turns out, the skill associated with editing and rewriting a book is wildly different than the one you use to actually write it, and I had to learn the editing skill.
Fortunately, I figured some of it out with the points below
2. Take a break when you’re done your first draft.
I REALLY SHOULD HAVE WAITED. I ended up spending a fairly unproductive March / April trying to make progress on a second draft of my novel, without much luck. I needed to take a break. I had now been writing, pretty much non-stop for six months to get the first draft done and my head wasn’t really in it.
The break was the best thing I could have done.
I stopped writing for a few weeks and shook out the cobwebs. I did a couple experimental projects for giggles. By the time I went back to my book, I could approach it with fresh eyes and a fresh perspective. Lesson learned. Step back from your work and let it marinate.
[Related: Want to know where your book is falling short? Get a free book coaching sample.]
3. You need a plan
When I was ready to begin, for real, I approached it methodically. I started at chapter 1 and worked my way through page by page. No more bouncing around. For each chapter, I’d focus on four components
- Basic spelling / grammar
- Cleanup. More on that in point 4
- Continuity. It was my first time going through my whole book sequentially (even writing it, I bounced around). I’d find points in chapter 12 that weren’t properly introduced. I’d find descriptions in chapter 6 that showed up again in chapter 20. Lots of this.
- Overall tough questions – for each chapter, I’d ask myself: do I really need this chapter? Does the character do anything? Does this advance the plot, or is it killing time?
- •I found all my Chekhov guns. Did every concept I introduced in the first third of the book have a payoff? Similarly, did every plot point have an appropriate introduction
The second round was massively more productive.
4. Learn how to clean your work.
I think every writer has linguistic traps they fall into and you need to figure yours out. Apparently, I have three major weak points:
- I use “just” way too often, e.g. “she just wanted ice cream” vs. “she wanted ice cream.” Overwhelmingly, the word “just” adds nothing to a sentence but it sneaks into my writing all the time.
- Past simple vs. past continuous. My default is to always write in past simple, as in “She was running to get ice cream.” There is nothing wrong with this, but it’s past continuous, meaning it’s long action. It’s describing something ongoing. The alternative is past simple, as in “She ran to get ice cream.” The second is interrupted, it’s a brief action. It’s not that one is preferred over the other, it’s more that I needed to make sure I was using them correctly.
- My paragraph subject order is wonky. Let’s say you have two paragraphs. The way I write in my first draft is like this:
Paragraph 1: She was running to the store to get ice cream. The alien attack vessel flew behind her.
Paragraph 2: Ice cream reminded her of a simpler time, one where she wasn’t being hunted by aliens. The lasers shot at her feet.
The two objects of focus in those paragraphs are ice cream and alien attack vessels. It should be:
Paragraph 1 (Ice cream): She was running to the store to get ice cream. Ice cream reminded her of a simpler time, one where she wasn’t being hunted by aliens.
Paragraph 2 (attack vessel): The alien attack vessel flew behind her. The lasers shot at her feet.
5. Kill at least 5-10% of the word count by eliminating garbage words
I feel like this might only apply to newer writers, but you should look to strip at least a few thousand words off your final book. To be clear, I don’t mean remove plot points, or take out characters. I mean literally remove words. For example, maybe you wrote a sentence like this:
“The ice cream tasted wonderful and she paused momentarily to enjoy it. The aliens still continued to blow up skyscrapers behind her, but she gave herself luxurious permission to revel in this last moment of normalcy. It would all end too soon. Before strapping on the Infinity Cannon and rising to do battle with the evil alien overlord Stan, she let the ice cream remind her of better days.”
So fine, there’s your sentence. Now go through and just kill words. Keep the points intact but be ruthless. Here’s the same thing after cleaning up for lazy writing and killing wasted words. Is it better? I think it is.
“The ice cream tasted wonderful and she paused to enjoy it. The aliens continued to blow up skyscrapers, but she gave herself permission to revel in this moment of normalcy, before strapping on the Infinity Cannon and rising to do battle with the evil alien overlord Stan.”
4,000 words. That’s what I managed to kill from my manuscript. Words that did nothing.
6. You’re never done, not really.
I did a ’round two’ edit and was finished by about June. I shelved the book again, and started other projects. I also gave it to a few early readers and got some feedback. I did a ’round three’ edit and made another round of changes / updates. I think I could continue this process indefinitely, so I’m just going to say that I’m “done”. I have a book that I am much prouder of than the one I had in Feb. Maybe it’s not publishable, but it’s mine and I love it.
Entertaining (?) aside – I did the math. At this point, I have spent about 200 hours on writing this book. Easily another 300 on thinking about it. Does this plot point work? Is this plausible? Is this really how the character would act? I have a gun in act 1, does it fire in act 3?
7. Do a final end-to-end read.
After you’re finished editing, you need to put the book down one last time. Give it a month or so while you do other things. Then, schedule a weekend and do a complete, uninterrupted re-read. Cover to cover. You have to take this last step and I guarantee you’ll find, and correct, more problems. The last end-to-end read is where you can finally check if your near completed book works as a single entity, or if there’s more problems you need to correct.
So there you have it. A few simple steps, hundreds of hours of laborious, thankless effort and you’re done. Nice and simple.
Michael James offers writing tips with humor and a solid dose of reality. His book, “Trapped: A Claustrophobic Thriller About Survival” mixes YA fiction, thriller, and horror in the first book of “Aliens and Ice Cream.”