How I write - Editing Part 3 - How I actually do it
This is the fourth in an occasional series of posts about writing process stuff that has worked for me, and the third in a sub-series about editing. This time I’m talking about how I actually edit in practice, right now, on my current work-in-progress, The Disaster Club.
Image by Alexandru Molnar from Pexels
I started this series by taking a look at the things I tried (and failed) to do when I was trying to learn how to edit my novels. Hopefully reading about the many, many dead ends that I encountered will help other writers to avoid the same frustrating mistakes.
In my second post in the series I talked about the trial and error process I went through while attempting to systematically develop an editing routine. You’ll see in that post that I worked my way through a number of different approaches, eventually settling on a lightweight, low-prep method using my Kobo eReader as the main review tool.
In this post, I’m going to try and explain the full, synthesised process that I’m using right now to write my next book, The Disaster Club, a contemporary spy thriller. I will look at the changes I’ve made to my drafting/editing cycle, the new-to-me experience of working with critique partners during the drafting process, then the repeated passes that I do using my lightweight markup method. I’ll close out the post by having a think about future adaptations I might make.
My new first draft writing cycle
I write for about five to seven hours a week, sometimes going up to ten or twelve hours when I’m approaching a deadline or really enjoying a particular part of whatever I’m working on. That usually breaks down this way:
- Monday to Friday, I write from 0630 - 0730 each morning
- Saturdays I edit (or sometimes write, then edit, depending on what else I have on) for between one to three hours.
- Sundays I take off if I can - some people swear by writing every single day, but personally I need at least one day where I can choose to not look at quite as many screens as I do the rest of the week.
I’m a pretty fast first drafter, so that means I fairly consistently get somewhere between 1,200 and 1,600 words per week day, then usually another 1,500 to 3,000 words on Saturdays, depending on the drafting/editing balance1.
I’ve had a fairly consistent six-days-per-week writing cycle for about three years now, but this draft is the first time I’ve deliberately dedicated some of that time, mid-draft to doing editing. This was inspired by my experience with editing The Burning Line, where so much of the big, meaty structural edits I had to do early on could probably have been avoided if I hadn’t just forged ahead on the first draft, heedless of the chaos in my wake.
In practice, this means I produce somewhere between 7,000 and 12,000 words in a week, then, on Saturdays, I do what I call integration editing. This generally isn’t me editing what I’ve just written that week. For one thing, I’m still too close to that work. Instead, I’m generally editing material I wrote two to three weeks before. This editing is not the eReader method that I outline below. Instead, I’m working directly in Scrivener, pulling up a specific scene, zooming the text way in so I can only see a sentence or two at a time, then slowly making my way through the text.
What I’m looking for at this stage is two-fold - I’m scanning for clumsy or distracting or annoying stuff, lines that don’t work, dialogue that rings false. I’m basically trying to fix the things that I know I tend to get wrong in my very first draft.
But I’m also looking for things which I know I’ll need to keep track of; the elements of the story that I’ll be referring back to, events and characters that could introduce continuity errors, locations and descriptions that are or will become important. This is the point where I create character sheets to make sure I get people’s names right, double check points of research, make notes about more complicated stuff I need to look into and generally try to rectify everything I can see that looks wrong or half-baked.
At the same time, I’m also integrating feedback from my critique partners.
Working with critique partners
The Disaster Club is the first book I’ve ever drafted with the direct support of critique partners. There’s a lot of divided opinion out there about the perils of letting other people read your work early on, with several writers swearing it’s always a dreadful mistake, resulting in bland, written-by-committee prose that tries to please everybody and thus pleases nobody.
But the people in my critique group are thoughtful, sensitive, open-minded readers with an amazing ability to pinpoint things I’m just not capable of seeing while I’m drafting. And the writer who I strong-armed into inviting me to the group had told me several times how much the process of working with them had improved his own process.
I’m pleased to report that he was right - it’s been a wonderful experience. Once I had sorted out my writing cadence and realised it made sense to get two or three weeks ahead of what I was submitting to the group so that I wasn’t slowing down or speeding up or suddenly dumping tens of thousands of words on my partners, it has turned into a fruitful, inspiring and exciting partnership. Writing can be very lonely work, especially when you’re creating novel-length work. That middle 50,000 words or so can be a real slog sometimes. Having people reading the work, two or three weeks behind where you’re currently drafting, seems to combine the best of both worlds - timely feedback just when I’m doing that first cleanup and integration of my work, but without undue influence on the work as I write it.
On The Disaster Club, the feedback from my group has helped me to avoid a couple of long, boring detours into side plots that weren’t going anywhere, recognise where I was marking time instead of making the story happen and both deepened and strengthened the characterisation of several key people in the novel. My first draft characters can often feel a bit like ‘plot robots’, doing things solely to make plot points happen and only gaining depth and texture after multiple editing passes. Now, I’m finding a sense of who my characters are and what they want far faster, because of the smart questions my crit partners ask me.
This process is not for everyone 2 (for one thing, it involves a fairly hefty mutual reading and reviewing workload), but so far I think it is definitely for me.
Lightweight editing with an e-Reader
So, in the first half of July, I’m hoping to have a completed ‘beta draft’. I’m not calling it that because it’s going to beta readers, rather it’s a beta draft (as opposed to my raw ‘alpha’ output) - it’s been through my crit partners, I’ve edited and integrated their feedback and smoothed out the most egregious edges. It is not by any means a publishable novel, but it should, at least, be a functional one.
This is the point where I’ll start using my whole-novel editing process - treating the draft like a reader or editor would, as a whole, integrated thing that needs to be refined into a finished piece of work.
I covered the basics of my eReader-powered editing process in my last post, but the basic approach is this:
- Load my book onto my Kobo Libra eReader
- Read the book
- Note anything I want to address with a system of acronyms/abbreviations, including recurring or systemic issues, using the built-in annotations feature
- Export the list of annotations, which helpfully include the text they’re attached to in the draft
- Use this list of text samples and attached summaries as my task list
- Rinse and repeat
This approach is fast and, most importantly, has almost zero prepwork or admin associated with it. No reams of paper, no huge spreadsheets of carefully categorised amends and no hand-written, indecipherable notes.
Why avoid Big Lists of Pain?
I’m a spreadsheet guy, okay? Over the years, there has been little about my life that has not been helped (or at least made more manageable) by being placed into tabular form, carefully prioritised and then systematically fixed.
As a result, I spent a lot of time trying to work out a way to systematise the collection, categorisation and resolution of everything that was wrong with my books.
However, the thing about books, right, is that they’re really fucking long. And in the 100,000 to 120,000 words or so of my typical first drafts, there are an overwhelming number of things that might be wrong. So if you decide to Make a Big List, as I did, you’re going to effectively punch yourself in the face three times over - firstly as you read your book, noting everything down (takes ages, especially on paper). Secondly as you carefully copy all those changes and notes into some kind of spreadsheet, kanban board or database. Then thirdly when you slog through them. It generates an immense amount of work, all of which feels faintly virtuous and productive initially, but is actually just kind of depressing.
Reading as a reader
When I’m reading my books for editing3, I don’t want to be thinking about spreadsheets. I want to seamlessly note an issue, then carry on reading. And I don’t want to be sitting there trying to re-compose a sentence in the margin of the page, or striking out words for editing later. I want to get my thought down and keep going. Optionally, I may want to note where it’s an issue I’ve seen before, so I can be sure I’ve caught all the instances where I called a side character Gerald instead of Geoffrey. My eReader approach allows me to do this. I might pull up the annotation keyboard two or three times in a page, or not at all for five or six pages at a time. But when I do, I’ve got it up, typed in a half dozen characters and dismissed it again before I’ve lost my place. It’s incredibly quick.
Actioning the notes
When I’m done, I use Calibre to export a simple text file (or I just work straight off the annotation view on the Kobo Libra). If I’ve exported a text file, then I can use Cmd + F to quickly jump around the file, sorting out all the Gerald/Geoffrey instances and other similar recurring problems. Or I can just work my way through them sequentially.
Crucially, I’m not farting about with page numbers or chapters or anything else mutable. Books-in-progress change constantly, so it makes sense to use the power of modern word processing packages to search for phrases instead of counting page numbers. Each annotation I’ve made is attached to a specific chunk of text, which I can use as a search phrase to find the exact paragraph or snippet of dialogue that I want to change.
Once all the lines in my text file are gone, I’m done! No spreadsheets required.
I was once very attached to the idea of ‘single pass’ revision, but as I’ve done more editing I’ve realised that just isn’t how my brain works. I can’t fix pacing in the same pass as I’m ensuring all my research references, dates and timelines are correct. And I can’t ensure that a character’s emotional arc is satisfying at the same time as viciously cutting all the repeated crutch words I overuse (my characters nod, smile and shrug a lot in early drafts).
So what I do now is a series of passes, loosely categorised as structural, logical, emotional and sparkle.
- Structural is big stuff - does this part work here or should it come later. Do these two characters need to be merged? Does the ending need to be different?
- Logical is pure plot mechanics - does this happen in the right order. Is this the right time of day? When I reference this later, is it different?
- Emotional is all about the characters - are they actually affecting the plot? Do they react like real people? Do they change and if not, why?
- ✨ Sparkle ✨ is the odd one out here (it doesn’t end in -al for a start) and kind of indefinable, but the sparkle pass (a term I borrowed from my work as a designer, where we would add small, lovely bits of detail and animation to a website or product that made everyone smile) is the last polish, where very often I’m knitting together everything I’ve done in the previous passes.
In practice, I might do some of these passes twice or even three times - once on my own and then again with beta readers and my agent. Eventually, hopefully, with an editor.
They also sometimes overlap and merge with each other - I’ve done readthroughs and revisions that incorporated all four elements.
If this sounds like a heap of work, well… it is. But I take a little solace in the fact that as I write more novels, my first drafts are improving in baseline quality and each editing pass I make is becoming faster and more effective. Like anything, you get better with practice.
I’m sure this process will continue to change and evolve. One of the things I’m thinking about doing in the future is taking the readthrough stage a little further by using an eInk tablet with handwriting recognition. The little on-screen keyboard I use to make notes on the Kobo Libra is not great, which is one of the reasons my abbreviations are usually three or four characters long (ANAC for anachronisms, CONT for continuity and so on). But if an eInk tablet could allow me to read an eBook file in the same way as I do now, but handwrite slightly longer editorial notes, it may make things a lot easier. I’m currently eyeing up the ReMarkable 2 and the SuperNote A5X as possible candidates for this. I’m going to get a chance to play with a SuperNote at the upcoming Cymera Festival (hi Marco!), so if I do end up getting one and adopting it for this process, I’ll write an update to this post.
And that’s a wrap
That’s the end (for now) of my three-part series on editing. I may well add additional posts in the future, or even wholly revise how I go about editing. I hope this has been useful for anyone who has read some or all of these posts. At the least, I hope it’s inspired you to have a think about your own editing process and see if you can get better at it.
I dreaded editing for years and avoided learning how to do it properly, which hamstrung my writing and my writing career for most of my twenties and thirties. If you’re feeling stuck with your writing, I recommend reading as much about editing as you can. I think it can be very easy to focus on pure output, word counts and imagination, because those things are exciting and feel like progress and are easily quantified. But it is editing and how effectively you do it that will make the difference, I promise.
I’d love to hear your feedback, so please feel free to @ me on Twitter with your thoughts.
Caveats apply here - I have a good work/life balance, no caring responsibilities and no kids. So I have the privilege of making the choice of getting up early to consistently write. This may be incredibly difficult or impossible for people who are not in my situation, for a whole host of reasons. It is true that if you want to write, you will need to find time for it somehow. It’s not true that if you’re not doing ten or fifteen hours a week you’re not committed. Sometimes 30 minutes every third fortnight is all that’s possible. Just do what you can and don’t listen to anyone who tries to make you feel shitty about it.↩︎
The absolute key here is finding critique partners with similar levels of energy, time, commitment and availability as you. Have these conversations up front so that everyone understands what they’re being asked for. And don’t be afraid to look for different critique partners if the groups you try out are going too fast or too slow for your own writing pace. But also, don’t be a dick. Sometimes people get overwhelmed with work or family or a dozen of other things and your pages won’t get read by everyone. Take what feedback you get and move on. Do everything you can to make your group small, resilient and flexible, so you can build the trust that makes for effective critique.↩︎
If you’ve never done this before, reconcile yourself now to the fact that you’ll have to read your whole novel all the way through probably at least four or five times, depending on how many problems it has. I think I lost count on The Burning Line at nine readthroughs or thereabouts. You will become deeply familiar with your own work.↩︎
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