As S.K. said in her last blog post, we’re celebrating the month of September with an in-depth look at the publication process. Now, I’m going to assume that you have a finished manuscript. Your story is complete. Your characters are well-rounded and you’ve inflicted on them all necessary challenges and sufferings for growth and all that good stuff. Your plot makes sense, has a good arc, interesting climax and satisfying denouement. Now all you have to do is polish it up and get it ready for the press.
So that’s where we’re starting. In this series, we’re not going to tell you how to write a novel or how to develop complex characters. Maybe another time. We’re just going to make sure the book you publish is the best it can be. In this article, I’ll give an overview of the different stages of editing many writers like to follow, then in subsequent articles we’ll go more in depth about each stage and give practical h0w-to advice.
So, what are the main stages or types of editing? I honestly don’t like calling them “stages” of editing, as if you have to follow them in order and do them only once. Usually when I edit, I’ve got an eye on at least two of them. Maybe we should call each of them an “editing focus.” And they kind of range from macro to micro, so that’s the order I’ll present them.
This may or may not be a kind of “editing,” strictly speaking. You know how I just said you’ve got a nice finished manuscript with good characters and plot arc and all that? Well, the first thing you want to do is take a good long look at that manuscript. You might even want to put it away for a week or longer before undertaking this step. But the idea is, you look at all the elements of your story and say, “Is this the absolute best it can be?” Is that character as interesting as possible? Is that plot twist too predictable? Is this character a cliche? Is there enough detail in the world-building to make the setting come to life? Is there too much, making the prose dull and boring? Is that chapter 10 where Egbert finds the stray kitten really necessary to advance the plot, however attached I might be to the scene?
This is what is commonly called or thought of as “consistency editing,” and it’s pretty much the most macro-y of the macro edits, technically speaking. In this focus, you will be rereading your manuscript from start to finish. Basically, what you’re doing is watching for errors in consistency in your story telling. This can be something as big as the story arc or as small as details like eye color. You have no idea how easy these are to miss, and how annoying they are to readers.
The next focus is what you’ll hear editors refer to as “line editing.” I’m kind of torn about whether this Focus should be next, or Focus 4. Focus 4 is more of a stylistic edit, so I like to put it last because it doesn’t make sense to do stylistic edits on prose you’re about to slash from the manuscript. However, line edits can catch mistakes introduced by Focus 4, so….maybe the best way to think about it is that you will probably end up doing two stages of line editing — one here, and one at the very end. More on that later, though.
For now, all you need to know is that line editing is where you take a magnifying glass to your manuscript, line by line, and look for anything that can structurally weaken your story. You’re looking for language misuse, grammar errors, punctuation errors, spelling errors, and even things like mixed metaphors or overused phrases. I’ve got some tips to make line-editing less of a headache…those will come in a future post.
This focus is something I’ve heard called “syllabic editing.” Here you’re going to be paying attention to the flow and sound of your story — how it strikes the reader’s mental ear. Often times with syllabic editing you will be looking at tightening up your prose, cutting unnecessary words (hence, syllables). But I like to think it has a poetic purpose too, not just smash and slash. Sometimes you’ll end up adding words. Sometimes you’ll cut and rewrite whole paragraphs…or even entire scenes…if they just don’t flow the right way, or convey the right tone. A lot of times you will be looking at better ways to say something, if the original phrasing is too bland or passive.
At this point, after running through all of these steps and doing a final line edit, you will be ready to prepare the actual manuscript file for the press. We’ll be covering that whole process in future posts, too, so never fear. In the next post, we’ll take a closer look at Focus 1.