Editing – What is Editing and why must you do it? Part 1
Editing is an essential part of the writing process. None of us are perfect, so we need to edit. Editing improves the quality of writing. Editing also has various forms and stages. If you don’t understand exactly what editing is then you won’t get the best quality texts.
Types of Editing
Not all of these, strictly speaking, are editing. They are all essential parts of the post production process for writing.
I’ve listed them in the order that I think that they need to be done when you’ve finished the first draft. I cycle through 1-3 until I am completely happy that I have a publishable product. Only at that point would I go through 4 & 5.
It should go without saying, but run an automated spell checker over your draft every time you change anything. It won’t catch wrong use of homophones, or odd word choices. However it will make sure that every word in your manuscript is a proper dictionary word. Where you’ve had to make up words, add them to your device dictionary.
Development editing is the process of refining your story. Looking at it holistically and making sure that it works, that the scenes are all necessary, the characters are well-developed and interesting, and there are no obvious plot holes.
Sometimes this is called structural editing, story editing or substantive editing. What distinguishes it is that there is a lot of judgement involved. It isn’t about grammar or other rules of writing. It is about deciding whether the story works as presented, and how to polish it to make it better. It’s a big picture process, not worrying too much about the word choices or sentence structure etc (that comes in the line editing stage).
This sort of editing can result in radical changes to the order of scenes, the addition or deletion of scenes, merging, removing or adding characters. In short a re-planning (or planning if you pantsed it) of your story. It could also involve going back through a draft and adding in clues, or signals, earlier in the draft so that later scenes make more sense.
This is the stage where you look at the sentence structures, the choice of words, and try to remove the superfluous ones. You also try to ensure consistency and accuracy in the text. If you are referring to something in a scene then you want to look it up and check that you are correct. e.g. if talking about what you can see from the US Capitol steps you would look at some pictures to make sure you didn’t get it wrong (or if you are feeling adventurous go stand on the steps and see for yourself). It should also make you consistent in your descriptions of things, names, etc.
You also need to look at the language to make sure that you are clear, precise and creating the right tone and emotions. This is where the grammar and homophone issues get sorted. Every word needs to be examined to make sure that it is a) necessary; b) appropriate; and c) correct. You need to do the same at sentence level too.
What you should end up with is a text that follows your own voice, is easy to read and conveys the meaning and tone that you intended to. It should also be free from spelling, punctuation, and grammar mistakes. Realistically, you won’t get rid of all errors in a long document, it will take a lot of different sets of eyes to spot them all. But you need to try. Hard.
This is the second to last stage before publication. Don’t do it until the very last, because if you change any of the content in the story then you’ll probably need to do this step again.
Simply put, you need to make sure you have a good layout for your text when it is published. This means having a clearly distinguishable transition between paragraphs, sections, chapters and parts of your story. If you are producing both paper and ebook versions you’ll need different formatting for each.
This is the very last stage, and it ought to be done by someone who has never seen the text before. Proof-reading should spot all the formatting and textual errors and flag them up to be corrected. It should also ensure consistency in how you’ve used words. E.g. Government or government? Sometimes it can be useful to give your proof-reader a style sheet to help them. The style sheet will show your preferences for capitalisation and spelling of words you’ve used in the story.
The stages of Editing
You need at least three stages when editing. Each of those stages iterate on the types of editing 1-3 mentioned above.
Firstly you should do what you can yourself to be happy with your story. This will save time and money later. It also helps you to understand the story and the editing process. To self-edit you need some distance from the writing. It’s best to do other things before trying to edit your own work. If possibly leave it weeks, or even months.
A good source with more detail is Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Browne & King. It goes into a lot more detail than I can, and gives you lots of things to look for in successive passes through your work. You can read a chapter and then do that to your draft before reading the next chapter and doing that. It makes it easier to go through when you are just looking for one sort of thing at a time.
There are also software tools that you can use to edit, but more of those in part 2.
Use beta readers
Once you are mostly happy with your work, try it out on other people. You need beta readers that can give you feedback. Folk that can articulate what worked and what didn’t. Did they engage with the characters, are there holes in the plot?
In the main beta readers will help you with a mixture of developmental editing and proofreading. They might also touch a little on copy editing, but not to the extent that a professional editor will. The key thing with your beta readers is that they must be able to give you honest feedback. You don’t want them to be kind to you. The more they rip your work apart the stronger you can make it.
Use a Professional Editor
Professional in this context is someone who knows what they are doing. You are very likely to be paying for them, but pay isn’t the definition of professional. There are ways to achieve this without paying people (see part 2 for how to find a good editor, and what you can do if you can’t afford to pay one).
A good editor will be clear about the different types of editing and which they do. So they should have different options depending on what you ask them to do. You might find someone who you get on well with to do the whole lot, or you might use a different editor for each stage. Generally using the same person will let you build up a relationship. It is noticeable that many authors seem to have a symbiotic relationship with an editor. So think about this when you are looking for your professional editor.
More on how to choose a good editor in part 2.