The (Logical and Emotional) Stages of Editing
Editing is quite the process. It’s not something just do one afternoon (though it is something you have to make time to just do whenever humanly possible); it has stages, and if you don’t have any kind of plan regarding your plan of attack, you could easily end up floundering and drowning in your own words.
(Which is a terrible way to go, in case you were wondering.)
Everyone’s approach is going to be different, but it helps to know the general stages of editing when you’re working out your plan.
Stage One: Letting It Sit
This is the part where, once you’ve completed writing the draft, you just set it aside for a while and leave it be. You don’t read it, you don’t touch it, you just put it away and do something else with your brain for a while. It’s important to get some distance from your book immediately after finishing it, seeing as you’ve just been so deeply immersed in it that your head is a jumble of words.
Technically speaking, this part is pretty easy. It involves putting it down and not picking it up again, which, as I said, is easy in a technical sense.
In an emotional sense, this part can be either extremely easy or extremely difficult, depending on your temperament and how you felt about writing your book. For some, it’s a relief to put their novel away and not have to deal with it. For others, it’s nerve-wracking—they want to edit now. If that’s you, then resist. Occupy your time with something else—reading other people’s books is a great one, but also spending time on any other hobby or just catching up on the sleep you likely lost finishing up that last draft.
Stage Two: The Read-Through
After about a week or two of letting it sit, the next thing for you to do is to pick it back up again. That’s right—it’s time to read your work!
For this stage, you want to be ready to take some notes. This can be done by reading on the computer and using the “comment” feature available in most word processors. Personally, I like to print a draft and make comments on the physical document. It just feels right for me. Doing it on the computer has the benefit of being able to find your comments quickly and easily, but you could also put flags next to each of your notes in the physical copy if you prefer that method.
Here, you’re looking for everything from typos to plot holes. Make note of all elements of the story you want changed, be it a character’s personality or a storyline.
Emotionally, this part can be draining. You have to read your own work, and sometimes that isn’t easy. Uncovering all the problems with your writing can be painful, and even embarrassing, but don’t see it as airing out all your flaws—see it as a chance to polish up your story and bring out the best in it. Remember: No first (or second, or even third, and sometimes even fourth) draft is perfect, so take a deep breath and do your best to leave the judgment at the door; it won’t serve you here to beat yourself up. Just get the job done.
Stage Three: Implementation
Once you’ve read through your book and made note of everything you want to work on, it’s time to start implementing those changes. This part can be tricky.
There are a lot of logistics that go into this. Fixing things like typos is easy, but something like realizing there’s a plot hole that destroys your entire story line, or realizing a character isn’t serving your story and removing them or changing them. There’s a lot of figuring things out and making sense of things and wondering what in the world you were thinking when you wrote it the first time.
This is usually the stage where people start hating themselves, their lives, everything in the world, and especially their own writing. They vow never to write again, and decide that perhaps burning their manuscript would be best.
Remember when I said breathe? Breathe. It’s pretty common to cycle through various drastic emotions during this time—they range from “My GOD I’m a creative GENIUS. This book is going to sell SO MANY COPIES!” to “I am literally the worst. Ever. At everything. Oh god. Is there anything tall I can jump off of!?”
There are going to be parts of your book that make you feel awesome. You’ll be so proud—blown away that you wrote something that funny/deep/cool. These are countered by parts of your book that make you want to crawl into a hole and never come out. Just remember that the crummy parts aren’t you; the good parts are. Use the amazing to inspire you, and remind you that you really are a good writer.
Stage Four: The Read-Through – Part II
Once you’ve implemented all your changes (and this can take a while), then let it rest for a day or two, you have to read your manuscript. Yes, again. (Note: There’s going to be a lot of this in your life. You’ll read your books more than you’ve ever read anything before, and significantly more than anyone else will read it. So prepare yourself for this).
Very similar to the initial read-through, this is much of the same. Unless you find anything huge in this read-through, keep it pretty light—fix typos, clean up dialogue or wordy scenes, and just that.
You’ll experience a lot of mixed emotions around now: Pride at how well it’s coming along, annoyance at how there’s still so much to fix, and even a little fear about sending it out into the world. Speaking of which…
Stage Five: Beta Readers
Look at your list of writer friends, talk to them, see who’s available, who’s a good fit for this manuscript, and who just feels right for this round of edits. Pick a few—three or four—and reach out to them. If they’re available, write up an email that explains exactly what you’re looking for. Tell them what kind of insights and feedback you’re looking for, that way they know what to have in mind while reading.
Try not to freak out. They won’t hate it. They won’t think you’re an idiot. They won’t tell you to give up on writing forever. They won’t even pick on you—they will offer you their guidance, insight, and advice. They will lovingly work to keep you on track and help your story get where you want it to go.
Now, some critique partners won’t be so gentle, but that can be a good thing, too. Most people will tell you a little about their critiquing style, so if they say, “I’m brutal” and you know you can’t handle it, then find someone else.
In any case, just remember that their reviews aren’t critiques on you, they’re critiques on the book, which is not you. This is hard to internalize, but important. Again with the breathing at this part. Just hit send and let it go.
Oh—one more thing. Don’t read your manuscript after you send it to anyone. No good can come from it.
Stage Six: Beta Reader Notes & Implementation
Once you get notes back from your critique partners, read through them and see what you like, what you agree with, what you want to include, and what you want to discard. You are not contractually obligated to make all the changes suggested to you—they are simply suggestions. You can do (or not do) whatever you want.
Much like before, this is just combing through the notes you’ve decided to implement and making those changes.
Again: They don’t hate you and they don’t think you’re stupid. These notes and suggestions, these questions about what’s happening or why someone is acting a certain way, they’re all ways to help you improve your writing. Breathe. Again. Some more. That’s it.
Stage Seven: Lather, Rinse, Repeat
Ok! You did it! You edited your novel! You might have to do this a few more times—repeat this process as needed, until you start to feel like you’ve really got a handle on it.
The process will start to feel pretty natural after a while. There’s a system to it, even if the system is unique to each of us.
Don’t let yourself get caught in an infinite loop, here. You can edit into eternity if you let yourself, so know where to draw that line in the sand. Know when to call it “done”. There’s a point at which you have to let your baby out into the world, so edit until it’s ready, then set it free. And remember—you got this