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Three Simple Stages of Self-Editing

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Are there simple guidelines that can help us through the confusing task of self-editing? Let’s face it, it’s downright overwhelming to read through every single line of a novel, mark all the areas that need changing, and then go back through it again to make the corrections.

Surely there is some basic method that can help us through the editing mayhem.

As you know, over the past months I’ve been going through in-house editing on The Preacher’s Bride. During the process, I’m beginning to understand that the structure used by publishing houses is one we would be wise to model in our personal editing.

Publishing houses use three main types of edits: substantive, line, and copy.

1. Substantive (Also known as rewrites, developmental, or macro-edits)

This is the kind of big-picture edit where my editors read The Preacher’s Bride from start to finish to get a feel for the plot, conflict, tension, characters, goals, motivations, and other major issues. They made pages of notes and then shared with me the overall weaknesses of my story and characters, along with suggestions for ways I could strengthen those areas.

I spent approximately 6-8 weeks rewriting (and I mean rewriting), adding and deleting whole scenes, paragraphs, and sentences. After the first major rewrites, my editors re-read the book and then asked me to make a few more rewrites. The second set was definitely not as hard or time-consuming as the first.

Perhaps in our personal editing, we should likewise tackle the substantive edit first, before the other edits. Why bother focusing on word flow and spelling mistakes within a particular scene when we may have to delete it?

First, we should try to see the book from a reader’s perspective. We’ll need to go through it more quickly, without stopping too often, so that we get the flow of the story, see the gaps, catch the loose threads, and see the entire picture from beginning to end. We can scribble ideas into a spiral notebook, put sticky notes on troublesome pages, or jot thoughts on a chapter spreadsheet. Whatever works. The idea is to find the BIG problems first.

2. Line-Editing

My in-house editor began doing line-edits on The Preacher’s Bride approximately two weeks ago. This is the type of edit where she combs through the manuscript line-by-line, studying each page and paragraph carefully.

At this stage, my editor makes most of the changes herself. She emails me when she needs to get my input (usually a couple times a day). Since I write historical fiction, she’s mostly asked me to clarify words or phrases used during the 1600’s. (As a side note, make sure to keep all of your research materials, biographies, and any pertinent information. I’ve had to dig through mine many times.)

In our personal editing, we should begin our line-editing once we're done with the substantive rewrites. We'll need to read our manuscript again, this time slower, searching more carefully and looking for things like: POV issues, showing not telling, awkward dialogue, wordiness, unclear passages, repetition, clichés, etc.

The changes we make during line-editing polish our manuscript and add flavor to each page.

3. Copyediting (Also known as Proofreading)

Once my editor is done with her line-editing, she’ll send The Preacher’s Bride to another editor who will do copy-editing. My understanding is that this will involve checking for the minutest details: spelling, grammar, formatting, typos, continuity errors, detail accuracy, and other small scale problems.

During our editing process, this should be the last type of edit we do in a final read-through. If we have Microsoft Word or a similar word processing program that catches grammar and spelling mistakes, we probably won’t have much work during this edit.

However, just because a copyedit is last, doesn’t mean it’s less important. Taking care of the minor details of our novels helps us present ourselves as professionals and says to the agent or editor who reads it, “I take my work seriously and you can too.”

Do you have a basic method for the self-editing mayhem? How is it similar or different from what I’ve outlined? What other suggestions do you have for self-editing? Please share! We’d all love to benefit.

61 comments:

  1. I like what you've shared and how it's broken down. I think another important element to mention is in between those editing times we need to put the ms down and back off, if only for a day.

    Fresh eyes can save us--at least me--days of useless editing. ";-)

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  2. Jody, this was a truly interesting post. I think you've got a point about the substantive edits. They may wipe out, or add entire sections that will then alter the need for the other forms of editing. It is such a difficult task to comb through your manuscript with all of these things in mind. Perhaps sticking to a strict purpose, such as one category that you've outlined here, might make the process easier. Thanks for your insight!

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  3. Oh yes. I hate the macro edits. I know they are necessary, but WOW. They are a lot of work. Great post Jody

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  4. What a great, helpful post! I've learned so much from this, thanks! I definitely agree with salarsen, it's imperative for me to simply "back off" from time to time during the editing process!

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  5. I agree. Giving ourselves some distance between each of the stages definitely helps us come back with more objective eyes.

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  6. I did learn one major thing about my manuscript while I took a break from it for two-three months. I saw it in a whole new light when I cambe back to it, and the substantive changes I've made to it, I think, have made it much stronger. Being away from the manuscript helped me see more clearly the BIG problems when I came back.

    Awesome post, Jody!

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  7. I definitely have a harder time with the macro edits. Those big changes are harder for me to see. Where line edits are way easier to spot and are fun to fix. And I'm a plotter so a lot of the scenes I played around with and ordered before I wrote.

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  8. I also appreciate what others can point out to us that we might not catch on our own. There's such value in that.

    I'll go through a MS three times and still find I can hack away at whole scenes. So even when I'm doing the line by line I'm still checking back on the macro edits.

    It's a beast, I tell you.
    ~ Wendy

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  9. This is the three steps my publishing house uses too. It works for me.

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  10. Great post! Mine is basically the same thing, but the second one is the one I sometimes need help with. Many times I fail to see breaks in logic, etc.
    Thanks for sharing all this interesting stuff!

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  11. The big edits--yeah-- I need lots of help with those. THey scare me. Tearing apart whole chapters or deleting and rewriting them. But I know that's what can make the book. thank you!

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  12. Good post. I've tried to solve the substantive edits ahead of time with my agent's input on the plot and outline. We are still hashing out the fourth book; I hope it will save trouble down the line.

    It seems the place I fail to spend time in making sure the arc works, etc. Hard to "fix" later.

    Kinda like if that house's foundation ain't solid, pretty window treatments won't help make it a good place to live...

    Blessings,
    Patti

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  13. I do all that. Learned it from being an editor. But the one thing you might add is time away from the manuscript. If I'm constantly looking at it I miss things. So I give myself a break between each step and work on other things. Usually that time gives me a new perspective and I'm not so bored with it that I skim.

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  14. A few years ago, a friend of mine won a year-long mentorship with a mid-grade author. She has since passed on all the revision techniques this woman taught her. Gold.

    Before this time, I didn't think to see the big picture. Now I go back through a piece with the character's motivations, stregths, weaknesses, and secrets in mind.

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  15. Jody, thank you for this post. It hit right when I needed it. I now realize I'm trying to do substantive and line edits at the same time and have ended up a whimpering mess at the task. This makes so much more sense.

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  16. I've never thought of it broken down like that, but my edits pretty much follow that pattern.

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  17. I'm bookmarking this post for the future. It is that helpful. Thank you Jody.

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  18. Jody, wonderfully broken down and articulated. As an freelance editor, this is the process I've intuitively applied.
    I find that doing the developmental edit makes the copy edit difficult for reasons other have mentioned -- I get too close to the text myself and lose the "fresh" pair of eyes (that I bring to the dev edit). These two editing phases require different mindsets.
    I would always separate the copy edit and the proofread into two distinct phases since the proofread typically takes place after the ms is typeset, and errors may have been introduced. I enjoy your blog.
    Best,
    -Lianna

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  19. Substantive or content edits are where a couple of critique partners that you trust are invaluable. They read the novel cold and can see where things are lacking or unclear. They have the the objectivity I lack and the expertise I need.

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  20. My process is similar to what you've laid out. However, I do make micro-edits as I find them.

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  21. My memoir went through several micro edits. It was grueling, but so very necessary. I really can't add anything to what you've written here, Jody. It's thorough and excellent, as always.
    karen

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  22. Thanks for sharing this.
    One piece of advice I got that helps is to read your work outloud. When you do you'll hear whether words/phrases work.

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  23. Thanks for sharing this.
    One piece of advice I got that helps is to read your work outloud. When you do you'll hear whether words/phrases work.

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  24. The only real tip I have is to put a little bit of space and distance in between yourself and the manuscript before you begin editing. In my not-so-extensive experience, this makes it easier to make big changes because I've learned I'm not quite as attached to certain scenes, situations or characters when I've had a little bit of time away from them.

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  25. Another fabulous post, Jody. Revision is such a giant, beast of a thing! It's nice to see it broken down like this. Macro edits are so exhausting but so important. :-)

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  26. Thanks for another informative post, Jody. One thing surprised me. You said your editor makes most of the line edits herself. Will you get the chance to approve them, or do you just have to accept her changes?

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  27. Hadn't ever really thought about how my process mirrors my publishing house, but it does.

    I learned to edit this way (big pix first) out of sheer necessity when I was a reporter/editor for a newspaper. Like you say, no point line-editing a page that may be deleted.

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  28. Great post, Jody. During revision I try to follow a similar pattern, working on the story as a whole, and then the language that tells the story.

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  29. Another wonderful post, Jody.

    YES, keep that research handy!

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  30. Thanks Jody, for another gem of a post. Though I go through several edits which pretty much follows the pattern of what you have shared in this post, I still tend to overlook certain things. Substantive edits is something I need to work on.

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  31. Hi Jody -

    Since I'm in the editing stage, your post gave me some great advice. I think I've been trying to do all the edits at once. It doesn't work too well.

    I need to go back and do the macro edit. I've already corrected one major problem, but know there are others.

    Thanks so much.

    Blessings,
    Susan :)

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  32. My revising/editing method matches yours. I find it easier each time I revise a new book. Also, critiquing other writer's helps me see problem areas in my own writing.

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  33. Great post, Jody. These interesting views into the processes you are working through are really awesome to read. Thank you very much for giving us these glimpses.

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  34. The best thing to do with any type of revision/editing is to break it down into manageable chunks. Which is basically what the big houses do when they guide you through edits. For me, I chunk my MS into three distinct parts. I only work on one part at a time and I basically do what you outlined.

    Big picture stuff, small stuff, and nitty stuff. I do it all on paper and then move it to the computer. This helps me go over it one last time for polish.

    Then I start part two...

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  35. Jody, I'm glad all this is posted, because next time I'm in for some major self-editing, I'll be coming back. Right now, the pieces I've been focusing on are mainly smaller with less breadth.

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  36. I never fully separated line-edits from copy edits. It makes sense. One thing that’s helped me is once I get down to the minor details I use find or find and replace often. Checking for that character whose name I changed, extraneous uses of “that”, etc. – it’s been a great tool to me.

    This is definitely a good guide, Jody. I wish I’d learned to do macro edits sooner instead of copy editing first! At least I was only part way through this manuscript before I caught on to the fact that I wouldn’t be “editing” but “rewriting”! I’m glad you’re putting this kind of information out for others just learning!

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  37. Great post, Jody. I tell my clients that having me check word choices before examining the big picture is like painting drywall you plan to rip out.

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    1. Well said. And then we argue to keep the drywall because it's so pretty, even though it's blocking the view.

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  38. Thank you SO much for this post, Jody (hah, got your name right this time)! This summer I'll hopefully have the first draft of my book done and start the editing process. While I own (and have read through) James Scott Bell's Revision and Self-Editing which was excellent, I was still a bit lost as to where to start editing.

    Thanks to your post, I have a clearer idea now and think I know where to start. I'm bookmarking this post for future reference so I don't loose it ;)

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  39. I am still in the first draft stage, but this post is incredibly helpful. I am definitely starring and keeping it for future reference. Thank you!

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  40. Macro-editing is the toughest because it's daunting the first time around. I need to set my wip aside for a day or two to really see the big problems. I like line edits, though, mostly because I'm a grammar geek! Those are fun for me. I catch grammar mistakes best when I read my wip out loud.

    Great tip keeping research organized and on-hand at all times!

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  41. An informative post, as always. I kind of take an approach like this subconsciously in my editing. Definitely I save the proofreading for the very end. But sometimes the other two are intertwined when they pour out of me, and I can't fight the muse!

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  42. One writer who wrote a Governor General's award for fiction in Canada spoke to my class. He said his novels go through about seven rewrites. Sometimes, one rewrite takes one hour for each page. A humbling thought.

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  43. Yes, yes, yes! Jody, this post is so timely for me, and I thank you for it.

    I'm in the substantive stage now. And have always been curious about the differences between line and copy edits. Thanks!

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  44. I didn't put a name to my revision stages but they almost match yours except that during my first complete read-through I can't ignore the obvious mistakes. After correcting those I put the ms aside for a couple weeks and then begin again with a macro edit, then a line edit and a final proofreading. That sounds like four revisions but it ends up being more like eight or ten of them because I keep tweaking endlessly. I look forward to the day when I can work with an agent and/or editor whose expertise will help me recognize when more work is required or I'm truly finished.

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  45. Applause! And I think it's awesome that a publisher would accept a manuscript in need of major substantive edits. Must mean they see something special. :D

    I'll be hanging on to this.

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  46. Bravo! Wisdom oozes from your posts, Jody! It's so cool to hear how you are meeting a need for so many writers. Like others, I am bookmarking this page!

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  47. Right now, it's just mayhem. AHHHHH!

    I'm trying to move certain parts of Chapters around. My beginning will be in the middle, vice-versa.

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  48. Thanks for this great post, Jody! I learned a lot I didn't know before from it. Great stuff.

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  49. Great breakdown of the editing process Jody! Thanks! I find that I'm someone who needs to turn off the editing part of my brain when I write. Having an "editing layout" plan might make that easier for me. :)

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  50. A well time post, Jody.Thank you for the breakdown, it was interesting. I am rewriting my ms. Emily Bryan has been supportive in her critique of my first 500 words.(On show today). It made me look at my work through fresh eyes.

    I have a beta reader who has proven to be better than I expected. My editing has move along much faster since I asked for her help.

    I have a method I call it...typo, liko and oh no.
    I look for typo's, then for what I like and finally what I could/need to remove.

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  51. Thank you for this info, Jody. Having never gone through this process (yet:) I wasn't thoroughly familiar with it all.
    Blessings,
    Karen

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  52. Keli Gywn asked: You said your editor makes most of the line edits herself. Will you get the chance to approve them, or do you just have to accept her changes?

    My Answer: Hi Keli!! Sorry I forgot to answer your question! I saw it and meant to respond, but let is slip my mind! I'm sorry!
    My line editor emails me for input on anything that requires more than just a tweak. She asks for my opinion on word changes, repetition (how to change it), and anything else that might involve writing itself. She honestly hasn't found a lot that she's needed to change. But her eagle eyes have caught some great things. I do get another chance to read through everything at some point. But I'm positive that anything she's changed will be fine (otherwise she would have asked for my input).

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  53. Excellent post Jody! It's so hard to do the big picture edits, because the writer is so close to the story (even when it's a short story or PB).

    I do have another stage before the ones that you've listed. It's the polish and revise stage, where I go back through each scene and make it work, fixing things that stand out and trying to get everything right.

    For me, it's important to do that before trying to do the other steps bc otherwise, there's just too much in a first draft (even though I revise as I go) that jumps out when I try to read through it.

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  54. I love the order of these steps and the cleanness of it. It's interesting how hard it can be to get writers to let go of the copy editing stuff until the end - maybe because it's the easiest to do. :-)

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  55. Thank you for a wonderful post. I am writing my first book and trying to get my head around editing. I am up to Draft #2 but from what I read in your post I have a few more drafts to go! Thanks for an insightful post - I found it very helpful!

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  56. Great breakdown of the editing process. I'm tackling the macro edits on my novel at the moment. There's lots of big overhauls happening.

    I like your reasoning for doing spelling and grammar checks at the end of the process, I did copy and line edits first before I started on the big plot issues. I found this worked for me because: 1. I can't stand spelling and grammar errors and knew I'd be distracted by them if I left them in; and 2. As I went combed the story for these minor issues I took notes on the major plot flaws as I read through, so I had a list of them by the time I went back for the macro edit.

    I know once I finish the macro edits I'll be going through with a fine tooth comb again, since there will be new scenes and changes to the plot that bring more spelling and grammar errors to the manuscript.

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  57. Jody, thank you for posting this. It was incredibly timely. I've been going through my second draft and was trying to figure out how to organize my editing. You must have been watching over my shoulder.

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  58. I just hopped through a few of your editing posts. Great stuff! I am hoping to enter the revision process on my first ever first draft next week and I will be keeping all these tips in mind!

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  59. Wow, what an interesting and helpful post. At last I understand the editing process. Thanks for the tips.

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  60. Thank you, Jody. There's something about having it set out this simply that makes it easier to grasp. I used to think substantive editing was my weakness, and it may still be, but I've always tried to do it in with the line edits. No wonder it didn't work so well. Very helpful post!

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