Let’s face it—we all know editing can be a slog. It requires a critical eye and a measure of aloofness as you go through your draft making decision on what works and what doesn’t, what needs cut and what needs fleshed out. You need to look at your work objectively and know when to be ruthless and when to be forgiving. It’s one of the toughest parts of the writing process, but it can also be incredibly rewarding.
I like to think of editing as an opportunity to develop my work even further by shaping and building upon the foundations I’ve already laid. By taking what’s already there and polishing it until it shines brighter than it did before. Sometimes this means cutting extraneous words to make the underlying meaning flow better, but sometimes it means adding flavour and flair to enhance what’s already there.
Editing is giving your prose its best chance to shine. It’s where you give your story the care it needs to really come to life. And that’s why, even though it can be a slog, I actually really enjoy the editing process.
I’m going to talk a little bit about what works for me and take you through a 7-step guide to my editing process. Keep in mind that the way I edit might not work best for you—it’s not a one-size-fits-all kind of thing. The best thing to do is discover what process helps you the most.
Step 1: The developmental edit
The first thing I do is a full readthrough as if I was coming to the book for the first time, with no prior knowledge of it. This readthrough is to catch the big issues—structure, characterisation, pacing, plot points. The developmental edit isn’t about changing wording or catching typos, it’s about how your story reads and how it feels.
I read on-screen with a notepad and pen next to me and jot down anything that comes to mind as I go through. My notes tend to focus on the big issues—yes, there might be some typos or weak prose I notice as I go through, but that can be fixed later. I might write down notes such as “character X needs more info on background to inform his motivations”, “pacing in chapter Y is too slow”, “not enough description around plot point Z – needs more clarity.”
You can get as specific as you like – maybe there’s a certain page that’s got too much exposition that needs cut. If so, take note. Maybe there’s an exchange between two characters that needs to be fleshed out a bit more. If so, take note. This stage is for identifying the larger issues in your book and taking some time to reflect on them and decide what you need to do to improve them.
Step 2: The rewrite
The next stage is putting all my notes to use by going through the story once again and rewriting the parts that need work. This could mean a number of things, from cutting out exposition, dialogue or whole scenes, to adding something new to better explain what’s going on. I go through my notes in order and mark them off as I go.
By this stage, everything I’m writing should be as polished and as close to perfect as I can get it. The last thing I want is to have to come back and do these two steps all over again because I didn’t quite get it right the first time. By the time I finish Step 2, the structure and pacing and overall readability of my book should be pretty close to the finished product.
If you’re still not happy, then it’s back to Step 1 again. Take the time to get it right!
Step 3: The word search
This is the part where I realise in horror how many overused/unnecessary words I’ve used in my novel.
I really like to do this because I know I have a few “go-to” words that I’ll use frequently, and this helps me make sure I don’t overuse them.
The best way to do this is open up your document and perform a search for words that you’re likely to have used a lot of times throughout your novel. A lot of these will be unnecessary ‘filter’ words that put distance between the reader and character and detract from the impact of the writing (seemed, thought, realised, wondered etc.) Some will be gestures (smiled, nodded, shrugged, shook their head) etc. And some will be words unique to you that you know you have a habit of overusing. I’ll attach an example list of the words I search for at the end of this article.
DO NOT WORRY ABOUT ‘SAID!’ Unless you’re using it in every single line, there’s no need to panic about ‘said’ appearing hundreds of times in your book. It’s almost an invisible word to readers, and unless you’re attaching it to every single piece of dialogue, the chances are you’ll be fine.
One thing I’m conscious of during this stage is not going overboard and cutting out every single word. Sometimes there’s perfectly good reason to use filter words. Gestures are great if it adds to the character development or describes the action well. There’s no need to drastically cut down on these words, but it’s helpful to see how often you’re using them and if there’s an alternative or another way to phrase what you’re trying to say.
Step 4: The line edit
This is where it gets real. I’ve done the developmental edit, I’m happy with my story structure, I’m pretty sure I’ve managed to cut down a bunch of overused words. Now comes the microscope.
I find it’s best to do this stage by reading through my manuscript in a different format than what I’ve used to write it. I used to print the entire manuscript, but ink and paper and can be a bit pricey when your novel is coming in at 100k+ words. Now, I use Calibre to convert my Word document into a MOBI file and side-load it onto my Kindle. I find that I pick up far more mistakes looking at a physical copy—whether that’s printed pages or on an e-reader—than scrolling through pages on a computer screen. Trust me. I didn’t think it would make much of a difference when I first did it, but it does.
Now comes the painstakingly slow part. I go through every word, every line, keeping an eye out for any kind of mistakes. If I’m doing this on my Kindle, I keep a notebook beside me to mark any issues I find. Typo? Mark it. Grammar issue? Mark it. Weak sentence? Mark it. This is the time to be ruthless.
I tend to only do a couple of chapters at a time—no more than three. The more I do it, the more fatigued I’m going to get and the higher the chance of me missing something or letting something slide that I’d otherwise be more picky about changing. Take your time. You’ll get there.
Step 5: The rewrite, part two!
I tend to rewrite as I go, stopping after every batch of chapters I’ve line edited to gather my notes and make the changes in Word. Rewriting after every few chapters helps break it up a bit and means you can rest easy knowing all the changes have been made in your document.
(Maybe I’m just paranoid, but the thought of having a novel’s worth of line edits lying around before I’ve typed them up makes me so worried something will happen to them and all that work will be for nothing!)
During this stage, it’s really important to take my time and get things right. There’s no point in making these changes if I’m adding more mistakes to what’s already there! Don’t do it when you’re tired or can’t concentrate—make sure you’re fresh, alert and ready to go.
Step 6: The final readthrough
We’re almost there! By the time I’ve finished typing up the changes from my line edit, I should have the closest thing possible to my finished novel. This final readthrough gives me one last chance to experience it as a reader, taking it all in and making sure it is as good as it can be from beginning to end.
Similar to the developmental edit, it’s a good idea to have a notepad and pen next to you so you can make note of any last-minute tweaks or changes.
Step 7: Tidying up
This is where I make any final changes if there were issues I noticed in my final readthrough. Otherwise, it’s time for me to let out a big sigh of relief and pat myself on the back—I’m finished!
The final thing to make sure of is that your manuscript is formatted correctly and in-keeping with agency or publishers’ guidelines. Double check that the font type, size, spacing, margins, header/footer, word count, title page are all to the right specifications.
And that’s it! Here ends the tour of my editing process, from beginning to end.
There are lots of other editing techniques, tips and tricks that may work for you. Things like reading your dialogue out loud, going through sentences backwards. Personally, I’ve not found those things helpful to my own process, but others do. The most important thing is to figure out what works best for you.
I hope this was helpful to you! If you’ve got any editing tips of your own you’d like to share, feel free to drop them in the comments!
Bonus: My overused words list
Not an exhaustive list, but a helpful starting point. You should add in other words you know you overuse. ‘Twitch,’ ‘curl’ and ‘tug’ are some of mine, for example!