Writing a novel feels great, doesn’t it? It’s so emotional! So engaging! (All right, well, it can be, when you don’t feel like you’re yanking ideas out of your brain with a pair of pliers.) But when you’re in the zone, everything you write feels powerful, important, and deep.
Then you edit it. And whoops! It’s… not. It’s clumsily worded, it doesn’t make much sense, and that scene you loved to absolute death feels shoehorned in. So you feel angry and maybe a little embarrassed, because it all felt so good at the time.
To nobody’s surprise, many writers hate editing.
But not me. I friggin’ LOVE editing. This is probably–just a guess here–why it’s also my day job.
So I thought I’d do a few posts about how I edit my novels and why, contrary to popular belief, it doesn’t need to be a soul-crushing process.
First thing’s first: there are a lot of different types of edits.
I’m going to start with an observation about something a little different. Have you ever noticed that people who don’t write often think that writing is a single, monolithic skill? They figure that you are either “good at writing” or “bad at writing.” If you ask them what “writing” is, they’d probably think that it’s just the act of having an idea and writing it down. There are no other talents involved. Just have ideas. Be literate.
But when you write your first novels, you learn otherwise. “Writing a novel” involves dozens of completely separate skills. Writing dialogue, pacing logically, creating micro-tension, and developing realistic characters are all completely different talents. Some of them will come naturally. Some of them are really hard!
Editing is exactly the same.
There is no one, monolithic thing called “editing.” You cannot hand your piece to an editor, tell them to “edit it,” then walk off knowing you have explained everything about what you need them to do. There are many kinds of edits that do many different things. And some of these will be easier for you than others.
Editing will feel overwhelming if you think editing means “I’m going to sit down in front of a document and magically know whether every word, sentence, scene, and chapter is perfect.” Thankfully, you don’t have to.
It’s easiest to edit in phases, from the largest level of edit to the smallest.
In the editing world, there’s a thing called “levels of edit.” When you hand your work to an editor, they often want to know what level to edit it at, and that tells them what to look at and what to ignore. This isn’t standardized, so every organization has a different number of levels of edit, and those levels are called different things. So I’m not speaking out of authority here, OK? These are the levels of edits I think about when I’m doing my own novels. They’re not even the same ones I use at work.
But when I’m editing my novels, I come at them from several different angles:
- Structural Edits: Structural edits look at concepts and how they are organized. A structural edit asks big questions: Do the events that occur happen in a logical sequence? Do characters act in a consistent way? Do details and concepts remain believable and consistent?
- Scene-level Edits: Scene-level edits look at scenes. Does every scene have a purpose? Does every scene add information, build on the stakes, and do so in the most interesting way possible? Does each scene include some sort of micro-tension? Does each chapter end on an interesting, engaging note?
- Line-level Edits: Line-level editing is the first level of edit that acutally deals with the words you used. Does every sentence communicate the meaning you want it to? Did you use the words you wanted to? Are you using words that literally convey the meaning you want them to (as opposed to words that sound lovely but don’t convey your intention as well?) This is when you remove fluff and look for opportunities to use stronger words and more active voice.
- Proofreading: Proofreading is literally just looking for errors in grammar. You look for typos, punctuation, and spelling errors.
And–here’s the clincher–you can do these one at a time.
These steps go from big to small. They’re also in order. It doesn’t make sense to obsess about your word choice and fix all the typos in a scene you’re going to delete. You don’t want to agonizingly polish your dialogue before you come back and cut out a character.
That said: Do some people edit everything at once? Of course! And if that works for you, that’s totally fine.
But if editing seems complicated and intimidating, it can be very helpful to think of these as completely separate processes that you do one at a time.
And remember: you’ll probably need to practice these.
These are all completely different skills.
Structural editing is kind of like a college English class. You’ll be good at it if you’re good at critically reading content, challenging every assumption, and playing Devil’s advocate. (Since they know [this important thing], wouldn’t it make more sense for the characters to do [this]? Why wouldn’t this character do [that] when they’ve previously shown to believe [whatever]?) Line editing requires the ability to look at words critically, and to think about how they communicate meaning. Proofreading requires a strong knowledge of grammar.
And I’ve known authors with pristine grammar who struggle with pacing and authors who have aced scene-level tension and should have their semicolon button pried off their keyboards. We all have things that come more naturally to us and things we have to practice.
And that’s probably enough for one post!
This post is long enough, isn’t it? I’ll probably do a series on this.
But just remember: editing isn’t just the act of taking a first draft and just editing the whole thing, magically. There are many different kinds of edits that look at totally different things. And editing a novel–which is a huge and monumental task–can be broken up into different phases that look at different things.
And next time, maybe I’ll talk about how I do structural edits!