I’m deep into the final edit of The Dragon’s Egg at the moment, and I thought it might be of interest to go into my editing process a little bit. Everyone has their own way of tackling the editing part of the job, and none of them are better or worse than any other, as long as the end result is a more polished and well-written piece of work. The only strategy I don’t recommend is skipping the editing process altogether. There are people who write a single draft and send it off into the world; Mark Lawrence, author of Prince of Thorns, is one of them, and if you write as well as he does, you can do whatever you like, frankly. But for mere mortals, or those of us with less experience, a solid editing process is essential.
Here’s my system:
1) First draft editing This sounds like a contradiction in terms, doesn’t it? The first draft is the writing-from-scratch part of the process, and editing is what you do when you’ve got the words down. This is true, and a lot of people like to keep the two well apart. Concentrate on writing, they say, get into the flow, make notes of possible changes if you must, but don’t interrupt the first draft writing to edit.
But that’s not what I do. Instead,I edit as I go. Firstly, before I start writing each day, I read everything I wrote the day before and do some light editing – tightening sentences and paragraphs, improving descriptions and dialogue, cleaning up typos. Then I start writing, but if I come across something that needs (say) a change in the earlier part of the book, to add foreshadowing, to weave in a McGuffin that the plot now needs, or simply because the evolving story makes something not quite right, then I’ll go right ahead and make that change. Why? For me, it’s all about context.
What does that mean? When I’m writing a scene, I need to know exactly where the characters are, how they got to this point, what they know and don’t know, and what they’re feeling right now. Context, in other words. Now, meticulous plotters will have all that information written down somewhere, but I write the story as I go, so the details are all in my head. If I come back to a scene later, I won’t necessarily remember the precise context. So for me, it works much better to fix problems as I go.
2) Interlude Once I’ve reached that final chapter and written ‘The end’, I like to leave a book to brew for a while. I set my first book aside for five months while I wrote the whole of the second book, but nowadays I find that a month or so is all that’s needed to give me a little distance and perspective. Again, not everyone wants or needs to do this, but it works for me.
3) Full read-through and first-pass editing When I feel the book has brewed sufficiently, I create a mobi file from it and put it on my Kindle. Then I read it through from start to finish, as a reader. I keep a notebook handy, and write down anything that comes to me. Then, I fix whatever I’ve found. But because of the whole edit-as-you-go thing, my first drafts are pretty clean, so there isn’t much in the way of major changes to be done. I know plenty of authors who practically dismantle the book at this point, adding or removing whole scenes, chapters, characters and sub-plots, but that would drive me insane. The cleaner I can get the first draft, the better I like it.
4) Beta reading and final edit Once I’m happy with it, I look for beta readers. I have a couple of paid-for beta readers that I use regularly, and several author friends who are kind enough to volunteer when their own work permits. My daughter is also an informal beta reader, who gives me an invaluable reader’s-eye-view of the book. My author friends are terrific for craft issues. They’ll point out problems with motivation, pacing and description, and suggest ways to make a scene stronger. Which is great, so why pay for beta readers as well? Mainly because, as professionals, they give me guaranteed feedback to a schedule. Volunteers may get caught up in their own work, or real life may overwhelm their good intentions, but a professional is guaranteed to give me solid feedback by a set date, and that’s golden. When all the feedback is in, I work through it and make the final edits.
5) Proofreading This is the final step in the polishing program. I was lucky enough to find an excellent proofreader at the first attempt, who weeds out typos, missing and duplicate words and (my weak point) fixes punctuation. I can manage the basics fine, but knowing when to hyphenate, when to use en-dashes and em-dashes, when to use ellipses… she has all of this at her fingertips. She also starts the formatting process for me. I give her a Word document, and she creates the styles and sections so that I can finalise the formatting before uploading.
6) Post-publication editing Some people don’t touch a book after it’s been published. It goes out into the world, and that’s the end of it. Some will update the beginning and end sections (frontmatter and backmatter) to add in links to new books as they come out. But a lot of self-publishers tinker with a book even after it’s live, changing anything from minor typos through a full proofreading edit to changing the ending. My policy is to fix any obvious errors if they’re reported to me. This doesn’t happen often, but if someone points out a misspelling, I’ll fix that. But I don’t change the story itself, or add or remove text — with one exception. A reader wrote a review pointing out a couple of inconsistencies in the plot. In one case, it was clearly a misunderstanding of what was going on, which is fine, it happens. But in the other case, I could actually see the point. It wasn’t truly inconsistent, but I could totally see why a reader might think it was. So I added a sentence to clarify the situation.
So that’s my editing process. Editing is a little like sculpting. You start with a solid lump, then you hack chunks off to make a rough shape, then you smooth and refine and polish, in smaller and smaller iterations until the work is finished. It doesn’t matter whether the smoothing and polishing goes on alongside the initial hacking or as a separate process, so long as you end up with all the roughness worked out of it.