Editing Strategies

With my third book in the bag and just finishing up the first phase of editing, I thought I should probably address this stage in writing a bit here. I’ve alluded before as to my old process, but thought I’d reexamine it now that I don’t adhere to that anymore.

One might even say I’ve edited my process somewhat.

I should also probably point out that prose has always been a great worry of mine. As I stated in my very first blog , it scares the crap out of me since I figure that’s what people are always judging the book by. And while I know intellectually readers care more about the characters/ plot/ world than the prose (at least readers of fantasy do), my prose still feels like my soft underbelly I’m exposing each time I put a book out.

A lot of that probably comes from having come up in the screenwriting field, where prose doesn’t really matter since no one other than the film crew is going to read it. That’s extremely freeing as it allows the author to just focus on characters/ plot, but that doesn’t mean screenwriters don’t focus on their prose. A traditional screenplay is only 100-110 pages long, which means each word counts. Especially when producers are looking for any and every reason to not fund a project. Which is why we’ve learned a few techniques that could help with editing your novel and make that underbelly a little less soft.

Here are just a few of my own personal strategies:

XXX – When writing my rough draft (okay, I guess this is sort of cheating since it’s before the editing phase), whenever I can’t think of a word or will need to circle back to something, I put in XXX instead. Not only does this maintain my writing flow by keeping me from getting hung up on a word or taking a 15-30 minute break attempting to discover the difference between a brigade and a company, for instance, this also allows me an easy phrase to search for with the old “Ctrl-F” when editing time comes around.

I use this for words that I think I’ve overused and need to look up later in the thesaurus, and also as notes for subplots I’m going to need to add in later. Stuff like visual motifs, themes, or maybe character tics.

I also use this for continuity, especially in this series where I’m working with numerous timelines. So when I state something like “these last two years,” I now have a note to go back and verify if this is actually true. Same with character descriptions where I make mention of eye or hair color or anything that contradict with what I started many years ago.

Proper Name/ Pronoun/ Eyepatch Cycling – I’ve written about the eyepatch in this sense before, which is basically an epithet for your character that isn’t their name. Because the eye requires some variety when reading, it gets pretty monotonous if you keep either referring to your characters by either their names or pronouns.

So I mix it up by cycling between them as much as I can. For instance, in this series I have the character Caddie, who I can refer to as her name or her/the girl/ the child/ Hendrix’s daughter/ etc. Same with Graff, who can be he/ the Render/ the big man/ etc. By cycling through these distinctions, you not only keep things from getting visually monotonous, but also remind the audience as to your character’s epithets.

This holds true for objects as well, as Graff’s glass dagger quickly becomes blade/ knife/ weapon/ etc. so as not to bore the reader.

Beta Readers – I’m not as good at this as I should be because I started writing novels mainly to escape from producers/ directors having their say in the story I wanted to tell, but beta readers are exceedingly useful in the rough draft to give you perspective. After spending months/ years embedded in the story, you become myopic to it to a certain degree and need an outside perspective from someone who’s encountering the story for the very first time. These are the folks who can point out that you told not showed, or that a scene doesn’t make logical sense, or that they think a character’s decision felt like it was serving the plot rather than the character. It’s best to get all these things smoothed out long before the copy editor.

Copy Editor – I eschew an actual editor for the same reason I scrimp on beta readers, but I could not exist without my copy editor Chris Xander, who gives my work at least the sheen of legitimacy. I’ve written elsewhere why typos are particularly the bane of self-published authors, which is what makes copy editors so essential if you’re going to take writing seriously. That said, a copy editor cannot catch everything, so it’s best to go through it again after the fact. I also employ my e-ARC (Advance Reading Copies) friends who receive the book before release to see if they can catch those 3% of errors the copy editor did not before it hits the shelves proper.

Paragraph Lengths – Personally, I prefer short paragraphs due to my screenwriting upbringing where writers try to keep every paragraph under three lines long. This helps with the flow of reading so the eye doesn’t get too frightened upon encountering a huge block of text. Obviously the three-line rule of thumb doesn’t work for novels, but be mindful of how the paragraphs flow and try to break them up as often as possible.

To-Be Verbs – I was taught in high school that to-be verbs (is/was/etc.) are the bane of punchy writing, although they are somewhat unavoidable, which was why we were allowed one per page. As that last sentence should demonstrate, one per page is untenable in everyday writing, but “Luca runs” sure as hell reads better than “Luca is running,” so whenever I encounter a to-be verb I try and find a more active alternative. If one doesn’t spring to mind immediately or the sentence then feels unnatural in rearranging it, I move on and don’t give it a second thought.

Word Dictionary – I use MS Word for my writing and take advantage of the dictionary function as much as I can. Especially because I write fantasy and use made up words and names. Nothing is worse than inconsistency, so the first time I encounter that terrible little red line under one of my made-up words, I go and verify its spelling in my bible, then “Add to Dictionary” to ensure it’s spelled correctly throughout the rest of the novel.

Typo Search – When you do encounter a typo/ wrong word that the dictionary missed, immediately Ctrl-F for that same spelling and see how often it’s already shown up that you overlooked before you found this instance. This can be common mistakes like lose/ loose or maybe misspellings of your characters’ names like Mitchel/ Mitchell. But make sure to hunt these easy fixes down, because nothing looks more amateurish than inconsistency.

Consistency Counts – Whatever unspoken rule you decide on, make sure you adhere to it throughout. For instance, I don’t use contractions in my prose (and yes, I realize I used a contraction in that sentence; I meant in my books), and while I didn’t start by using the Oxford comma, I did eventually cotton to it by book two. I also refuse to use a comma before “though” when it ends a sentence even though this drives my copy editor nuts. I also won’t use semicolons or colons within dialogue.

Anyways, whatever unsaid rules that define your personal prosaic stylings, you should stick with them throughout and watch for any inconsistencies during your edits.

Grammatically Incorrect Sentences Work Good in Dialogue – No one speaks in grammatically correct sentences, although we should all probably write that way. So don’t feel bad when your characters deviate from what they taught you is proper in English class. In fact, you should insist on deviating from that to ensure your characters sound like humans. So while I won’t use contractions in my prose, I certainly do when my characters speak. I’ll also use sentence fragments and drop subjects to give it an air of vocal authenticity. Which is why I basically tell my copy editor to ignore anything that takes place between quotation marks.

First Chapters Matter More – You only have so much time to focus on editing unless you want to suffer from analysis paralysis, so focus your efforts where they can do the most good. You never get a second chance to make a first impression and all that. So make sure your first chapters are absolutely sparkling and free of errors so as to make it over the qualitative threshold.

Twice Over and Then Through – I like to focus on my chapters individually then as a whole book. This means I pick 2-3 chapters to go through a night then just focus on them by editing them twice in a row before moving on to the next chapter, which I then go through twice. Then once this is complete, I go through the whole book without starting over so as to focus on the flow of the whole thing. Then I start over and begin again before it goes to my betas.

Kindle Maybe? – The majority of my audience reads on their kindles, so one of my edits is to send it to my kindle in Word format and read it that way. I don’t know why this matters so much, but it really makes a difference, and I catch all sorts of errors/ issues I didn’t notice when reading on my laptop. I then mark them with a note or highlight (blue highlight means delete the word, yellow means finds a better word), and when I’m through I then fire up the ol’ laptop and make all the corrections I founds when reading on the kindle.

Time Off – As I said previously, an author quickly loses perspective on his/ her work from having lived it for the last few months/ years. So perspective is needed, not just from beta readers/ editors, but as the author. Unfortunately, stories embed themselves in authors’ brains and you’ll never be able to read it with new eyes ever again. But you can at least have some fresher eyes the longer you’ve spent away from your work. So that’s why I like to take a few weeks off between my first edit and second, which coincides perfectly with sending it off to the beta readers.

But one should never be idle during this time off. Sure, a few days lounging on the couch or with your favorite whiskey to celebrate is well-deserved, but if you stay idle too long you’ll get out of writing shape (at least I do). So I like to stay active by doing some blog posts or perhaps beginning my next project. Or even just a few writing prompts to help develop totally new ideas.

Know When to Quit – Editing can quickly become a compulsive activity, with the author obsessively going through the book again and again. With each new go through a few changes are made, and soon it seems that the commas you added this time around were the ones you deleted last time.

These editing sessions quickly fall into the realm of diminishing returns in that the value added in the second go through is not nearly as much as the first time. In fact, I believe each edit diminishes the value exponentially until you’re driving yourself mad adding/ removing commas.

So know when it’s time to throw up your hand and walk away. Know when that extra comma or passive tense isn’t going to destroy the immersive experience for the reader and that you’re doing yourself damage by just grinding your gears. For me, this is the point when I now hate my book and would rather gouge out my eyes than do one more read through. Only then do I know for sure it’s ready.

Set a Hard Deadline – This dovetails into the previous point in that if given an infinite amount of time, authors will never stop writing. So I find hard deadlines really help know when it’s time to stop because I legitimately have to finish one more edit and send it to the copy editor so he’ll have time to finish in time to get it to the ARC readers in time for my announced release date. In effect, I get it done because I now no longer have a choice. Yes, since I a self-published author that date is self-imposed, but I find it an exceedingly effective motivator.

So there you go, more than a dozen editing techniques gleaned from my time as a screenwriter. I’m sure I’m missing a few, but in true Hollywood style, that means I’m leaving myself open for a sequel somewhere down the line…

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MD Presley is a screenwriter, blogger and occasional novelist… which basically means he’s a layabout. But if you’ve ever got a hankering for some grimdark gunpowder fantasy with a female anti-hero, I have a suggestion...


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