How Much Editing is Enough?

I love to write. But I also love to review and update. Sometimes I’ll spend hours just working through a single chapter, envisioning the story and not changing much. Other times I will kill a whole section and write it again, because I can see that I didn’t get it right the first time.

But I’m also stubbornly focused on finishing things, so I have to move along to the next editing phase at some point. Here’s my editing process, up to and including professional editing. I’m not proposing that this is the only or best way to do it; just outlining my approach.

First I finish writing the book. In the most recent case I finished writing three books in the Gunners series, and then turned to the task of getting the first one ready to go. (I’m getting the second one ready to go right now.)

Editing the book, Step 1.

In the end, I want people to like the story. The book is for the readers. It doesn’t matter what I think of it. I need to know what other people think of it. This means getting reader feedback on a manuscript is essential, and that presents a challenge: Everyone is busy, only some people I know are in the target audience, and of those, only some will be willing to read the manuscript and have the time to do it. So my first editing step is to make sure I’m not pitching a rough draft at early readers.

Aside: If you have discovered a boundless source of good early readers, please reveal your secret. I find it hard to line them up, and therefore important to make the most of limited early reader opportunities.

My own editing process takes a lot of time. I review and update the manuscript, then review and update it again. For my latest book there were probably at least ten rounds of this, with different types of approaches and objectives:

Fast read for story flow. Identifying issues of consistency and story flow requires — for me, anyway — a fast read of the entire book. The goal is to read the book as a reader would, straight through, and make sure it works. Things that tend to stand out include plot element errors (such as place / time inconsistencies), weird scenes that don’t really fit in or don't add anything to the story, loose ends, ordering of scenes that could be better, and so on.

Pruning. In a pruning round, I’m looking for words/phrases, sentences, paragraphs, or entire scenes that should be cut. Some of these will have been discovered in a fast-read round, plot elements or scenes that are too slow or too complicated — or that for some other reason bogged me down as a reader. I’m also looking for trite expressions, over-used words or phrases, or other little things that need to go. The goal is to tighten up the writing.

Impact review, by chapter. I do this in a non-linear way, on purpose. I might sit down and read just Chapter 4, then another time sit down and read just Chapter 9 — randomly. Does this chapter hold together? Does it start and end in an interesting way? Would moving things around improve it? It’s useful to pay attention to which chapters I’m inclined to pick, and think about why. Are other chapters weaker than these?

Plot line review. My latest book is set in two time frames, and there are plot elements that cross between the two. So I also needed to read by plot line, jumping around from one chapter to another. Goal, of course, is to make sure the sequence of events in each major plot line is right. Related to this is an outline review. I outline my writing, and read through the outline periodically as a review of the story flow and plot.

Editing the Book, Step 2.

Once I think I’m pretty close to “done,” I do some rounds of copy editing, looking for typos, wrong words, sentences that need help, etc. This isn’t a substitute for professional editing. I know I’m too close to the manuscript — not that I feel that every sentence is perfect, but I’ve simply read it too many times, and will fail to notice plenty of mistakes. But I do my best to weed out the errors.

At this point I’m ready for some early readers. Even given all the time I’ve spent fussing over it, I pitch the task to them as “… read an early, rough version of the story.”

The purpose of having early readers is to identify things that need to be changed. If my readers tell me, “It’s perfect! I wouldn’t change a thing!” then I will wake up from my daydream, get their actual responses, and get ready for another round of edits. Either that or find some other early readers who won’t shine me on.

Aside: I might be wrong about what I ask of my early readers (maybe you have a better set of questions, in which case please speak up), but at least I’m consistent. I ask them to tell me overall impressions of the storyline, the flow of the action, and the characters. I try to keep it simple: Did you like the story? What didn’t you like?

I tell them copy edits aren’t necessary, but it’s fine to make note of any errors that jump out at them. There are two reasons for this: (a) Early readers are not professional editors, and (b) I don’t want them looking for wrong words and typos. I want feedback on the story. Note that I deliberately say that they can make note of anything that jumps out, because I do want them to tell me about little things that annoy them, such as words they don’t like or are used too often.

Editing the Book, Step 3.

This is really a repeat of Steps 1 and 2, after early reader feedback. I change things as needed, and repeat the whole process. If I can, I get more early readers to read the updated version. But at some point I have to get on with the job of releasing the book.

Editing the Book, Step 4.

This is the professional editing part. Once everything is looking good to me, it’s time for a round of serious editing by a professional editor. This is the last line of defense between me and my readers. It's where the problems and mistakes that I’ve missed (ten times or more) get fixed.

Good qualities in an editor include ruthlessness, lack of interest in my tender sensibilities … that kind of thing. As with my early readers, I’m looking to make the writing better, not to receive adulation for my extreme writing genius.

Aside: Editors tell me that a lot of writers get sensitive about their edits. I guess I’m missing that gene. It doesn’t make sense to me. As with anyone else, I would love my editor to love my writing. But the whole purpose of hiring an editor is for someone who is not me to find things that need to be fixed. If my editor were to say, “Oh my god, this is dreadful,” I suppose I might think I’d picked the wrong person. But I’d have to give serious thought to the possibility that the work is dreadful.

In practical terms, each time I get an edited version of my manuscript back from my editor, I realize how much I needed that round of editing. If I ever submit a manuscript and get back a version with no edits that seem important to me, I’ll stop hiring an editor. I won’t be able to pay for one anyway, since the only way that’s going to happen is if I’m dreaming or dead.

Editing the Book, Step 5.

There isn’t a step 5, unless you count reviewing the proofs. Once the final edits are done, it’s time to format the book for ebook and print, and get to the task of releasing it. That’s fodder for another post or two.

Gunners book pages