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Approaches to Editing

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Paul Whybrow

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It's very easy for mistakes to slip through the editing process, even with respectable publishers and famous authors, as detailed in this article on editing, about Jonathan Frantzen's novels.

The lost art of editing

I've previously commented on the Colony, that I've noticed a decline in editing standards by publishers. Last night, I started reading a crime thriller, which was universally praised when published in 2001, and in the opening pages saw a glaring error, where, in the space of three paragraphs, a town was twice described with the phrase "which was fifty kilometres away."

In editing my own novels, I always do a daily read through, noticing obvious errors of repetition, spelling and punctuation. Despite doing tons of research before I begin writing, making copious notes in a separate document, there are always facts that need checking, which I indicate by typing FACT CHECK in the text. I tackle these as the mood takes me.

Over the last four years, I've experimented with different ways of editing.

When I wrote my first novel, The Perfect Murderer, I made the beginner's mistake of not paying attention to the recommended word count for debut authors. In my chosen writing genre of Crime, I produced 179,000 words, almost double the suggested 80,000 limit. I will say, in my defence, that I was reading Donna Tartt's The Secret History when I started writing, so might have been inspired misled by its 193,000 word length. :rolleyes:

* Approach 1: Do the vast majority of editing after typing The End.

Editing The Perfect Murderer took 5 solid months of 12 hour days. I didn't feel like a writer anymore, more like a quality control technician. I've compared this way of editing to several things in other postings on the Colony:

~ Doing multiple deep cleanses of a kitchen, after cooking up your story using the freshest of ingredients. Even though the kitchen looks perfectly clean and gleaming, you go in again to search for more errors in your manuscript.

~ Crawling through a stinking swamp looking for poisonous frogs.

~ Scraping barnacles off a battleship hull with a nail-file.

Editing this way soon transforms your hard-crafted story into an intractable object that you start to hate the sight of:

Ultimately, literature is nothing but carpentry…Both are very hard work. Writing something is almost as hard as making a table. With both you are working with reality, a material just as hard as wood. Both are full of tricks and techniques. Basically very little magic and a lot of hard work are involved.” Gabriel Garcia Márquez

Never again would I edit a book in this way.

* Approach 2: Do it in 4-5 chapter chunks. This is much less daunting and more manageable, making me feel like I was saving time on the final edit.

But, it also left me with a peculiar view of how my story was evolving, as if the chunks were children's building blocks resting against one another, and was I going in the right direction, so they could they be rearranged to make a story house?

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*Approach 3: With my WIP, the fifth novel in the Cornish Detective series, I've been staying in the atmosphere created by writing one chapter, reworking it and going back a dozen times to make more alterations. This has slowed the daily word count—which I've never been concerned about.

Hanging around in one chapter has made me consider my characters' motivations more: I'm not yet sure if this is a good thing for the overall feel of the story, or if it's tempting me into adding unnecessary filler when I round out the characterisation. Instead of looking like building blocks, each chapter is taking on the feel of a separate short story.

I tend to use spell checker and grammar and punctuation correction software after I've done my thing. I stopped using Grammarly, after the recent controversy. Instead, I rely on LanguageTool, Ginger, and, if I feel like being told off, then ProWritingAid brings me down to earth with a bump!

Overall, I want my writing experience to be as relaxed and enjoyable as possible, and I see no point in making life difficult by tackling the entire manuscript in one block. Cleaning things up in stages works better for me, and that includes fact-checking.

How do you approach editing?

Do you climb the mountain of your manuscript in another protracted expedition, searching for better ways you could have done things?

Or, do you revisit the journey in sensible stages?

How often do you rework a sentence, paragraph or chapter? I've sometimes found myself obsessing with this, agonising over word choice, before realising that the only readers who'll appreciate my finesse will be other writers—the average reader will speed over my exercise in style without noticing a thing! It's at this point, that I tell myself to stop poncing around and just get on with telling the story....

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Tim James

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How do you approach editing?

Do you climb the mountain of your manuscript in another protracted expedition, searching for better ways you could have done things?

Or, do you revisit the journey in sensible stages?

How often do you rework a sentence, paragraph or chapter?

My approach (and I'm not sure it would work for everyone) is this:
Stage one - An idea pops into my head and festers there for several days, keeping me awake and generally getting in the way of normal service.

Stage two - Fed up with not being able to concentrate on anything but the story building in my brain I reach critical mass and have to start writing. I write and write and write. It all comes out in one huge burst of creative energy and I struggle to get it down on the page, writing it more or less as I think of it. At this point it almost certainly lacks some structure and the plot line may be a bit iffy.

Stage three - Having finished what I laughingly call a first draft I then start to type it all into Word. (Yes, I know! Others think I'm a dinosaur because I write it all out longhand, but that's the way I work.) During this period I'm also making notes about shape, characters, objects, plot, etc. and chopping it up into chapters. Stabilising he whole plot and looking for gaps that need filling. I also tidy up the grammar and punctuation.

Stage four - I put it all in a draw, along with all my notes, for several months while I think of something else.

Stage five - I open it up again and give it a good read through along with all the character profiles and plot notes, reminding myself of the whole story. Then I find the flaws and change, edit and often discard bits and write new bits. I get the whole plot correct first, all the action at the right places, etc. Then I go through, chapter by chapter tweaking each scene to make it as good as possible. I'm looking for bad descriptions, dull dialogue, repetition, awkward flow and anything that does not fit my characters' "styles"

Stage six - A final print and check through for any typos, punctuation errors, misspellings, formatting errors and other technical issues.

Then it's ready to possibly submit to agents or let other take a look.
But as a famous writer (I forget who, it might have been Stephen King again) once said, "A book is never finished. It's just that eventually the publisher gets fed up waiting for your editing to stop and rips it out of your hands."
 

Tim James

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How often do you rework a sentence, paragraph or chapter? I've sometimes found myself obsessing with this, agonising over word choice, before realising that the only readers who'll appreciate my finesse will be other writers—the average reader will speed over my exercise in style without noticing a thing! It's at this point, that I tell myself to stop poncing around and just get on with telling the story....

I'm reminded of this:
Oscar Wilde, related that once while on a visit to an English country house he was much annoyed by the pronounced Philistinism of a certain fellow guest, who loudly stated that all artistic employment was a melancholy waste of time.
“Well, Mr. Wilde,” said Oscar’s bugbear one day at lunch, “and pray how have you been passing your morning?”
“Oh! I have been immensely busy,” said Oscar with great gravity. “I have spent my whole time over the proof sheets of my book of poems.”
The Philistine with a growl inquired the result of that.
“Well, it was very important,” said Oscar. “I took out a comma.”
“Indeed,” returned the enemy of literature, “is that all you did?”
Oscar, with a sweet smile, said, “By no means; on mature reflection I put back the comma.”
This was too much for the Philistine, who took the next train to London.
 

Amber

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I mostly edit as I go.

How do you approach editing?
In a disorderly organized fashion.

Do you climb the mountain of your manuscript in another protracted expedition, searching for better ways you could have done things?
Every fiction manuscript I've finished I've put away never to be seen again. I've turned in other types of ms and mostly I edit as I go.

Or, do you revisit the journey in sensible stages?
To date sensibility hasn't come into play.

How often do you rework a sentence, paragraph or chapter?
This I do a lot.
 

Carol Rose

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I self-edit as I go so when I turn in a manuscript, it's as clean as humanly possible. It's painstaking work, but it's MY name on those books and I don't like it when mistakes slip through. When I get edits back from my editor, I still go through that book with a fine-toothed comb.
 

MrDisco88

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I've worked as an editor (magazines), and there is simply no substitute for getting someone else to edit for you. No amount of distance from your own work (achieved through either time or some kind of psychological trickery) seems to overcome the fact that as the author you know what your intentions are. A non-professional edit from a lay (but literary) friend trumps any edit you do yourself, in my experience.
 
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