This week I’m celebrating finishing my first pass of editing my manuscript! I thought I’d share my process of editing. And yes, it is a process. This might be my first pass, but I have several more to go. Here’s what I’ve done so far.
- I made a list with areas I thought needed more work. These involved thematic things like further descriptions of places, further development of themes, scenes that might need to be added, characters whose voices needed to be clarified, and narrative voice. I also noted grammatical/stylistic areas to look for: brevity, passive construction, redundancy, showing vs. telling, dangling modifiers, overuse of adverbs and adjectives, etc.
- I printed several copies of the manuscript. This was time consuming and a little spendy, but I wanted to have one hard copy for myself and a couple of extras for friends who had offered to read it and give feedback.
- Then I went at my manuscript line by line for a close-read editing session. I used a ruler, a pen, a highlighter or sharpie, and a stack of sticky notes. I had those bigger issues from my list in mind, but I mainly focused on a few things: grammar, brevity, and readability. I should mention that I have a high school teaching background and a significant amount of my job has been grading senior thesis papers. Seeing my own work in ink and paper put me right into editor mode (something I just can’t muster as well with a computer screen). When in doubt, grammargirl.com, the MLA Handbook, and The Everyday Writer were close at hand.
My manuscript finished at 99,000 words. While 100,000 words is the upper limit of acceptability for a Young Adult Fantasy novel, I really don’t want an agent to see my word count and inwardly groan because they’re just not looking forward to reading through that much text. I made it my goal to get it down to 85,000 words at most.
One of the best places to cut is wherever there’s repetition (something to which I’m prone), where I’ve “told” too much and should let the actions on the page speak for themselves (guilty, again), and where I’ve used unnecessary adverbs and adjectives, especially in dialogue. I also kept an eye open for whole scenes or passages that just weren’t pulling their weight.
Here’s a look at a page that’s been cut, edited, and re-worked:
Whenever I came to something that involved larger, thematic edits (a new scene, a reworking of a plot point, or a character revison, etc.), I circled that to come back to. This is the fodder for the second pass.
And whenever I needed to rewrite a passage that took up more room than the margins allowed, I used my stickies to make space.
One of the instant gratifications I could rely on was to transfer the hard copy edits to the Word document as I finished each chapter. I would do a page and word count and make note of how much it had gone down at the end of each chapter. By the end of the process, I had dropped over 12,000 words and was down to 87,000. I also dropped 40 pages. It felt great, like the time I chopped off my long hair for a chin-length bob my senior year of high school. Goodbye security blanket!
At the same time, I would update my Table of Contents (my favorite page), with any new chapter arrangements and the new page numbers, keeping track of how long each chapter is for consistency.
- The next step I’ve started involves using the find function in Word. I have certain words and phrases I want to scour the entire manuscript for in one sitting, and try to replace them with something better. Some of these are: felt, saw, heard, smelled, thought, realized, noticed, would, it, and beginning a sentence with There was/were. The reason for making a replacement is unique in each of these situations, but there’s an excellent article about it here. Another wonderful post with rules for writing (and links to Kurt Vonnegut, Elmore Leonard, and Janet Fitch’s personal rules for writing) can be found here.
From here on out, the remaining steps are forward-looking:
- The “second pass” involves going back and doing all the more involved stuff: the sharpie circled bits on my manuscript. For me, line by line editing is appealing, since the rules are set and the territory is familiar. Overhauling a plot element or adding a scene so far into the process feels daunting, but it will have to be done if I want this thing to be its best. I’ll also incorporate suggestions from my readers at this time. I’ve decided to consult an English friend to help me make sure that the dialogue coming from my British characters is spot on.
- The “third pass” will be a read-aloud edit. I know it sounds silly, but the same way that you catch something you didn’t see before when it’s in print, you can catch A LOT when you are forced to say every word. I have been reading the story, chapter by chapter, to a close friend’s children whenever I’m over to visit. We’re about halfway through the book, and every time I read them a chapter–even something freshly edited–I notice things I’d like to change or errors I missed. When you are doing a lot of cutting, it’s easy to miss a word.
- I have a last batch of readers (mostly teachers who didn’t have time until summer break) to whom I’ll send the manuscript for last input on the polished draft.
And then? Time to craft a perfect query letter, prep my pitch, and head off to the Pacific Northwest Writer’s Association conference in August. I only hope I can get it all done by then.