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Setting Up Our Editing Toolbox (Novel Editing Part 2)

Updated: May 26, 2022

Before we dive into the steps of novel editing, we need to go over some basics. Here are the four main tools that we’re going to cover in today’s self-editing post: time, audience, proper mindset, and extra eyes.

Tool 1: Time

The biggest tool in your toolbox, particularly in the editing process, is Time. Let your story sleep quietly on your harddrive or on a cushy cloud or in a drawer somewhere. Let it get a nice layer of dust. I always beg my students to let their papers or stories sit a few days before editing them. Shoot! Even a few hours would help before they look at them again. I tend to think that the longer the work, the longer the rest time needs to be.

For me, the sweet spot is around two weeks to a month for a novel. I usually give myself a month right after the draft is completed and then two weeks between major editing passes. This downtime gives me the chance to cleanse my literary palate with a fun book, maybe read something on craft, catch up on tv shows or movies that I haven’t watched. I don’t hold off on those things because I’m afraid someone’s voice will bleed into my work (it won’t). I’m just a bit obsessive when I draft, so I tend to blaze through a draft like a snowplow running through its first snow. After that, I’m refreshed and ready to look at the novel with reader-like eyes.

Drafts are always written for us, the writers: editing should always be done for our readers. Which means you need to think like a reader, an educated reader, but a reader nonetheless.

Tool 2: Specific Audience

This brings me to your next step that you can consider while you’re letting your story rest. Who is your reader?

I want you to take a moment to consider who your audience is. Before you rattle off some abstract age/gender/pay range, get super specific. I mean, I want you to be more specific than the usual demographics for your genre. Give flesh to your reader. Let me give you my example and then we'll discuss things a bit more.

For my novel Stitchers, I have two ideal readers. One’s name is Hortense, and the other is Rebecca. Hortense is in her thirties with a career. Her great passions in life are reading and knitting. In fact, she attends a weekly knitting group and loves to read anything that has to do with knitting. She’s a voracious, whale of a reader, willing to try just about anything she can download onto her Kindle. Rebecca is Hortense’s best friend and is married-and-harried with kiddos still at home. She’s tried knitting just for Hortense’s sake, but she nearly stabbed herself one too many times. She too enjoys reading, but where Hortense is a free-for-all kind of reader, Rebecca likes to stay in her lane of fantasy, particularly urban. She might venture into other subgenres, but she’s pretty well entrenched. She can’t stand evil-readers…I mean, e-readers. She wants to feel the paper in her hands, smell the pages, and hear the creak of the pristine spine of a new book.

Now that I have my readers, I can tailor my edits to them. I know that Rebecca is going to want certain tropes to be fulfilled, but I also want to make sure that I surprise her. I won’t be able to get away with genre-bending with her like I can with Hortense. With Hortense, I better know my knitting stuff, have my research down. And neither of these ladies are going to be ok with subpar fiction. Their reading lists are too long to waste on bad work. I have to bring my A game.

You may be demanding why on God’s green Earth I have suggested this, a suggestion I make to every student I’ve taught. But I’m methodical in my quirks. You see, aiming at a specific audience will help you when you need to make those hard decisions and cuts. You can’t write to hundreds of thousands of potential readers in a specific demographic, but you can edit with one or even two people in mind. The more specific you are, the better chance you will have at making evocative choices. This exercise also helps you when you’re taking aim at marketing. You need to know what your readers buy, how they buy, who they listen to about book recommendations, why they read, and where they do their buying. Notice that I automatically include some of this information in my ideal reader description.

Tool 3: Mindset

Now, just a moment more before you pick up your red pen. Let’s talk a minute about mindset in terms of goal-setting and how we approach editing.

One way I get tasks that I hate done: I reward myself for their completion. I absolutely abhor folding laundry, especially all the tiny clothes my sons wear, but when I’m done, I reward myself with a Mommy-alone break or extra reading time. Seriously. I tell myself I just have to get through it so I can have some extra alone time.

It’s the same with editing, even though I actually enjoy it. I set a goal and reward myself when I reach that writing or editing goal. It will give you something to look forward to even if you’re not super thrilled about the work.

But I’m hoping that this next mindset shift will help make editing more enjoyable. We’re changing the order that we typically edit. Most of us have been taught that fixing sentences and grammar is where we start. It’s not. How many times have you started editing a chapter or scene for grammar and then realize a few pages later that you have to scrap the whole thing because it just isn’t working or that it's fluff? Believe me, I’ve been there with you.

As I mentioned at the end of the previous post, we need to start with big picture editing and then drill down into finer detail editing. This means we are frontloading the process with all the wonderful things we love: story, character, plot, wordcraft. This stage of editing is where we get to solve puzzles and sculpt our story into something beautiful. We get to put off grammar stuff (the fine details) until the end when it is actually useful.

Tool 3: Extra Eyes

Alongside how we view editing is how we view ourselves, a.k.a. knowing our limitations. I don't want anyone under the delusion that learning to self-edit means you don't need an editor at some point. You do.

Remember how time provides us with distance from our work so that we can see it a bit more like a reader? The flip side of that is that you will never have enough distance and objectivity to fix all your mistakes/holes because this novel, this word-sculpture is your baby. Self-editing is all about getting your novel as good as you can get it and then passing it along to critique partners and professionals. It's about saving you time and money. Believe me, hiring an editor can be expensive. You do not want to waste your money (and time) on having an editor look at your first draft. (Please, don't do this.)

To avoid this rookie mistake, get critique partners and find a groovy editor. I'll be talking more about them as we go through the stages, but I have to give that little PSA.

Pens at the ready

Ok. Let’s get those red pens ready. We’re going to start first with developmental edits. Resist the urge to go through and grammar check your work or to polish your sentences. That’s a different step. Keep each edit in its own lane.

In case you missed missed it, here are are the series links:

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