Thursday, July 12, 2012

Editing: Where to Start

I blog a lot about the writing process, while I allude fairly frequently to the importance of edits. I mentioned several months ago I was thinking about a series on editing, which is arguably a more important skill than writing.

Don't get me wrong; having a finished manuscript is important, and it's an accomplishment. But, if you want to submit for publication, or self-publish a polished story, you'll want to edit. Nothing comes out perfectly in its first draft, no matter whether you're a plotter or pantster, or how perfect it seemed when you were typing madly at 3 AM.

The trouble is, no matter how inspired you felt, you'll always write the fastest when you turn off your inner editor. Sometimes, you have to admit to yourself that what you're writing is less than inspired so you can move on to the next scene, then the next, until you've finished. Permission to suck may be the only way you'll ever get the whole story down.

And that's okay. Like I wrote in that last link, it's when I'm convinced I don't need to fix anything that I'm in trouble. There's always room for improvement, no matter how well you thought you wrote something.

There is no right or wrong way to edit, unless you don't change anything. But I've had a lot of trial and error with how I approach editing, and I've found that the top-down approach works best for me.

Top-down means that I take care of the big things, first, and move down into the smaller and pickier elements with each pass of edits. So, in my initial read-through, I'm looking at the overall plot and character development, noting plot developments that need more foreshadowing, or making note of the passages I really, really want to keep. I also note scenes that might have gone on too long, dialogue that rambled for pages without revealing anything to the reader, or where I might insert description without breaking the flow. I know to look out for these because I know my limits. What you focus on is highly likely to be different from what I look for.

After I've gone through the manuscript and written myself notes, then I go back and actually make changes. It's important to look at the piece as a whole before I start my editing, because an early scene may work just fine with one ending, but completely ruin another story. I'm looking for consistency, resonance, and for the scenes to build toward the ending I decided on. I'm also evaluating characters' roles, figuring out whether I have enough or too many, and if I need to give them more to do.

The first set of edits, then, looks at everything as a whole, and brings it together. The second set is scene-by-scene, figuring out if they need to be cut or expanded or moved around. The third brings it in more, going paragraph by paragraph. I trim redundancy on that level, tighten scenes by removing dead weight, clarify or expand on concepts that are tossed out seemingly at random, give more insight into POV characters' motivations, and rewrite passages that make no sense.

After that is sentence by sentence, or a line edit, as real writers call it. That's where I evaluate each sentence's value, and trim or expand as needed.

Grammar edits are the very last step, and they're the pickiest. They're where I might read backwards to remove the context so I can tell if I used the right spelling of a word, where I'm looking for commas that don't belong or extra semicolons. A grammar and spelling edit is the last step because it doesn't matter if I misspelled a word if it's going to be cut, nor does a sentence's syntax matter if it's part of a scene that has to go.

If there are other methods of editing, I don't know what they are. This is what works for me, as I've discovered thanks to practice and talking to my writing group.

I'll have some more posts about the editing process, but it's always good to know where to start, isn't it?

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