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Editing: Where Real Writing Begins (Novel Editing Part 1)

Updated: May 26, 2022

When it comes to the writing process, self-editing your novel can be about as pleasant as scraping gum off your shoe. Or at least that’s how many writers I’ve spoken to see it. After all, all the fun is in the creation of the story. Right?

I must admit that there is something thrilling about laying down those first keystrokes that lead to a completed draft. I’m a discovery writer at heart, so I get it. But there’s a lot to be said about editing. During the editing process, we get to breathe life into dying scenes, reimagine and invigorate our settings, or add nuance to our dialogue. We get to take the time to savor our word choices and draw out facets of our characters that we didn’t know when we first began the draft.

No one creates the perfect first draft. Anyone who says they do must be great at bluffing in poker. You see, it’s during editing that we get be word-sculptors. If you’ve never seen someone sculpt clay, I encourage you to do it right now. It’s the perfect picture of how the writing process is.

We start with a lump of clay as our first draft, and during editing, we add and remove and refine until we produce something gorgeous. You see, the best kept writing secret is that all the real writing happens when we edit. It’s where our stories mature.

Before working on my latest novel, I had edited previous novels without much thought to the actual process of what I was doing. I had all the time in the world to fumble my way through. Now, between being full-time mom and a full-time mom, I knew I had to streamline my process if I was going to get a novel published. And I realized that I had no idea how to revise and edit my novel. No clue.

School never prepared me. My teachers just red-penned my work, like that’s what editing is all about: fixing grammar errors. (It’s not, by the way.) I’ve learned all sorts of things about craft, but implementing that knowledge into the editing process just left me scratching my head.

In a writing workshop, I asked agents (who are also writers) and traditionally published writers if they had any advice on editing novels. After gaping fishlike, they told me it’s a process we just have to learn for ourselves. (Not helpful.) But, they also shared their own processes. And this was quite helpful. As you can imagine, the way they implemented changes differed wildly, but the overarching concepts were similar. It also struck me, as I listened to them speak, that I had been asking the wrong people. I needed to look for experts in the field, so I start looking for the editors and their process.

Diving in

In this series, we will explore strategies to make editing your novel more effective. Editing can feel super overwhelming. There are a lot of moving pieces, and it’s not always as instinctive as writing. It doesn’t have to feel like you’re climbing a mountain: it’s more like climbing some stairs.

While I lean toward the discovery style of writing, I swing the opposite during the editing stage. For me, breaking the process down into editing types or steps keeps me on track (and not feeling overwhelmed) and makes my work nearer to what I truly want it to be. It is my hope that in showing you my framework, you will be equipped to develop your own style of editing just as you have developed your own way of writing.

First, let’s define our major terms and the different types of editing. I’ve chosen to break down the steps according to the different types of editors. Please, be aware that, like almost everything in life, no one can really agree on what the types of editing should be called or how they should be defined. I’m merely going by what I’ve read as well as the types of editing that you might hire or encounter in your career.

Editing versus Revision

Yes, there’s a difference between the two. Technically and simply, revision is when we make major changes to our work, and editing is when we make grammatical-type changes. However, for our purposes, they’re both steps in our editing process. It’s not a hill to die on, but I didn’t want you to get hung up here.

Four Steps of Editing

Imagine the stages of editing as a staircase. Each step narrows our focus from bigger items to the more focused. Each step also helps you level up to a stronger and cleaner piece of writing. Here is an overview of each step.

Step 1: Developmental Editing

Big picture editing. Here we need to think of the plot, your main character’s growth, and pacing issues across the whole novel. Basically anything that affects the entire novel, not just a single scene.

Step 2: Substantive

Mid-picture editing. We narrow our focus just a hair by looking at plot, character, and pacing at the scene level. We want to make sure that each scene is pulling its weight here.

Step 3: Line Editing

Sentence editing. This is moving into the territory most of us are familiar with: polishing our prose and strengthening our sentences.

Step 4: Copy Editing

Grammar police editing. Most people think of Copy Editing as Proofreading, but Proofreading is the final step before publication when someone takes a final look at the layout of the actual book, if the margins are correct, or any last-minute pesky errors/typos. Copy Editing is where we let our red pen have its day. Most likely, Copy Editing is what many of us (myself included) have thought editing was all about. It was our first step when it should have been our last.

Where we go from here

Now that you have an overview of the editing steps, I want you to know what to expect from this series.

First, once I hit the individual steps of editing, I’m going in the order in which you should edit. You want to start broad and go narrow. After all, you don’t want to spend too much time polishing a scene or chapter when it has to be totally rewritten or, even worse, totally scrapped.

Second, doing self-editing is no substitute for hiring a professional editor. Self-editing is part of the writing process. So is hiring an editor. At some point, you need another set of eyes on your work. At the very least, indie authors need to have a professional proofreader to go over and polish things. You're never going to be able to find and fix your mistakes. I'll be making suggestions for how to find editors and critique partners along the way.

Third, each editing stage will have its own Implementation Ideas. These Ideas are ways that I work on my own novels. Are they exhaustive Ideas? Nope. But they are in my Writer’s Toolbox, and I like to share my tools.

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