Let’s not start off on the wrong foot. At a glance, this heading could be construed as meaning that it is possible to edit until the day you die, which I’m sure it is. However, the subject of this topic is over-editing – when you edit so much, the meaning of the story changes or it becomes flat.
Just to let you know, I have edited the first paragraph six times already. Editing for me is a compulsion, which is why I enjoy my job as an editor so much. There is a drawback though because every time I read a book, I can’t help making pencil marks in the margin where there are errors. This compulsion is annoying to say the least, so recently I tried to break the habit. I was given Richard Osman’s book, The Thursday Murder Club, for a Christmas present and because he is such a master with words, I decided to put away the pencil, as it would be rude to mark his novel – not only that, it’s the hardback copy, and I didn’t want to spoil it.
By the end of the first page I was agitated. There were two question marks that I felt were not needed, but I forced myself to overlook them. And so the journey continued – pencil marks not included.
It did make me wonder if Richard Osman had over-edited his first page to the point of adding question marks unnecessarily – or maybe I’ve got it wrong? I’m sure he’ll tell me one day if he gets the chance. Writers know how important that first page is to draw the reader in. It’s the hook that counts, so first pages have to be perfect. I have to admit my first pages and often the first three chapters are edited at least 100 times, if not more, and I’m not joking.
I don’t recommend this. It’s an obsessive state to get into. I literally have to be sick of reading my novel before I stop editing it. And I’m sure this manic frame of mind is not healthy. It has, however, illustrated to me how over-editing can ruin a story, so taking from my experience, I would suggest the following editing tips as a bare minimum for writers setting out on a journey to write a novel. The support of other writers is essential. I have assumed the work is being written on a computer.
- Let your first draft flow and don’t attempt to edit any of it, but do correct anything you realise is wrong.
- When you’ve stopped writing, read the chapter aloud to yourself – sometimes a Scottish accent helps, I don’t know why. If you’re Scottish maybe you have an advantage – or perhaps you should be reading yours with an English accent? Let me know.
- First edit: make improvements to the text as you go. I do everything on screen at this point, although you can print your pages off if you prefer. Hopefully things are going well and you’ve got a decent hook on the first page.
- Next print a copy of your first chapter in double spacing and read some – or all of it – to other writers, for instance in a writing group (on Zoom during lockdown obviously). Alternatively exchange your work with other authors so you can help each other constructively. Changes should be marked in red pen on the manuscript, (or however you agree to do it if you choose to exchange work by email). Only make changes to your manuscript if you agree with them. Sometimes your gut feeling will override the helpful comments of others. Stick with what you know feels right. It’s your novel, not theirs. Make a second edit.
- Read your amended work aloud to your writing group in your normal voice, (I once tried a northern accent and got slated for it by two northerners in the group), or read it to yourself (Scottish accent optional) to find out if the improvements work. If there are further improvements, make them in your third edit.
- Continue adding chapters as detailed above until the novel is complete. On some occasions you might write three or four chapters before editing. If you’re in the writing mode, don’t hold yourself up with editing. Let the writing flow, then edit.
- You won’t be able to read every chapter to a writing group, so choose the areas where you have a difficulty or are feeling unsure about whether or not the dialogue is working. You will know when you need help.
THE COMPLETE WORK
- Major edit: read the entire work on screen (not aloud this time) and edit as you go.
- Put the work aside for several weeks or months if you have the time to do so.
- Finally re-read and edit as you go.
- I recommend printing off a hard copy of the whole novel and asking another author to do a novel exchange with you. They read yours and mark it, and you read theirs and mark it. With any luck, it will only be spelling, grammar, duplication, inconsistency and other minor elements that need attention at this stage.
Don’t scrimp on editing because your first draft is rarely publishable – even if you think it’s a masterpiece, it probably isn’t.
Editing is never a waste of time, so don’t tell yourself off for overdoing it. But you do need to know when to stop. If you get carried away, like I do, it’s often your characters that put an end to it. You will change something and then have to change it back to exactly what it was before, generally to please your characters. At this point, accept you are done. At least for the time being.
Sometimes you may need to put work aside for years like I did with my first novel The Whispering Waters. I naively thought I’d written a bestseller and publishers would be fighting over it. I received several rejection letters after submitting the first three chapters. Undeterred I joined the Romantic Novelists Association and sent them the entire manuscript. It came back stinking of smoke and had a pretty upsetting report with it that I squirrelled it away for years. You have to be tough to be an author and needless to say, I didn’t renew my membership with the RNA. It didn’t stop me writing though and I wrote several more novels before feeling brave enough to look at The Whispering Waters again. It was then that I realised the person who had critiqued my precious manuscript had made some helpful suggestions. I’d interpreted them badly. After working on it and almost doubling the word length (which proves how much was missing from the story) I self published a book I felt happy with. Publishers are still not fighting for it, but as I’m a publisher, I feel justified in saying that I fought for it and the conclusion is a satisfying one. It’s received good reviews. If you read it, leave a review and let me know what you think.
And in case you are wondering, if I was to read it again, I know without doubt that I would want to edit it some more.
Some things never change.