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Editing 101: Part I

It has taken me two years of concerted effort, reading several books, listening to many podcasts, and writing multiple novels and short stories to understand the value of editing, and to start to come to grips with ways to do it. Over the next series, I want to talk through editing methods, editing tools, and also when to stop editing and head back to the drawing board.


First, we need to get some terms in place.


Editing has layers, and they are not the same. They use different tools to achieve their ends and are not usually done together, though they can be. Just like writing a novel, there is no right way to edit; there is only a right way for you. To be sure you have found a method that works for you, experiment with multiple ways.


From top-level to bottom grit and detail, we have:


Beta reading. This is like a manuscript edit, but where no comments are left chapter by chapter, only a kind of final “this is how I feel.” Everyone has had the experience of reading a book you know is not good but liking it anyway, and reading a book that is objectively good but disliking it. When you tell a friend why, you are doing a kind of light beta edit review. It is one level down from just reading the book as a reader for fun. Everyone should do this for their novel at least once after you have finished it.


Manuscript editing is a top-level edit, which pertains to the structure of a book. Do plots work? Do characters work? Are they consistent? Did you drop threads of the story? What about your theme? Did anything jump off the page as boring? Too remote? Did you change the point of view without meaning to? This is very much the chapter and structural level of the book. Did you tell the story you thought you set out to tell? People don’t generally read this way, so learning to do a manuscript edit is a skill in its own right.


Line editing is the next deeper level of dive. This is less concerned with the consistency of the story and more concerned with the individual sentence and paragraph structure and how they hang together. This can be grammar and spelling punctuation issues, but more often it can be voice. Do characters sound like themselves? Are you fixing up white room issues so people can picture a scene better? When you read it, does it flow, or is there effort in the task? Did someone’s eyes switch from green to blue partway through by accident? This is a very slow kind of reading, often with rule books beside us as we learn how to restructure sentences. Like manuscript editing, it is yet another skill that takes time to learn.


There is also copy editing and formatting, which is literally how the book looks on a page, and print structure, which we won’t talk about much here.


Finally, there is the dreaded garbage pile. I don’t recommend deleting any book you have ever written. But sometimes something we create can’t be salvaged; it needs a fresh start. A complete rewrite is its own kind of edit and shouldn’t be discounted. It is always easier to tell the story a second time.


We will go through each of these, with tools and tips, to help your stories take the shape you want them to. But remember, you can’t edit what you haven’t created, so get out there and write.

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