You wrote a book! It’s done! Huzzah, huzzah, well done you! Are you done?
No: first you must edit. But what the heck does that mean?
A year ago, I was in the same boat as you. I read online that I should edit my work, so I did. As in, I read it aloud, and changed a few words, and figured I was done.
Ha. Ha ha, ha, oh my sweet summer child…
While the reading it aloud part was a great idea, my editing hadn’t even remotely begun. That’s why I’m writing this post: to explain to you, darling reader, possible writer, how to edit your manuscript.
Or anything, really.
First, give it some distance.
I don’t mean mail your work to Peru, I mean put it down and don’t look at it. Do something else, anything else. Play video games, actually deign to speak with your family, heck, start writing something else. But whatever you do, leave your work alone for at least three weeks.
Three weeks?! That’s, like, enough time to write a new book!
Yes, it is. And it’s also long enough for you to forget the nit-pickety little details of yours.
Really, you don’t have to wait for three weeks. A month will do just as well, or two. I wouldn’t worry about more than that, but if you’re busy, hey, you’re busy. But when that time is up…
Print it out.
You’ve been staring at your work on a computer screen for weeks upon months, so changing format will change the way your brain processes it. Sentences that your eyes are used to seeing a certain way will fall into a new light. It might cost you a few dollars or euros or pounds or yen, but printing is worth it, I promise.
Then, find a nice colored pen, a comfy chair, a flat surface, and a nice chunk of time, because now you are ready to edit.
Or you would be, if only you knew what editing was. Alas.
If you search for “how to edit” online, you’ll read a lot about copy-editing versus line-editing, proofreading and how an author shouldn’t attempt it, re-writes, structural edits, big edits, me talking about my hard and soft edits, jesus christ where does it end?
Don’t try to google these, they probably won’t help you at this point. Editing is one of those things that, while there is no one right way to do it, there’s no wrong one, either. Rather like cooking, where there are better results and worse ones, but surprisingly few will give you food poisoning, and nothing is ever golden.
(Except in baking, which I think is akin to poetry, and we are not talking about that here so hush.)
That is why I’m making a list of things you should know that will help you decide how you should edit. It’ll sound like I’m telling you what to do; I’m not. I am telling you what I do.
Come with me… and we’ll be… in a world of my imagination…
Before you pick up your colored pen, you should know how many words books in your genre generally have versus how many yours does.
Books cannot wander off willy-nilly to any length; readers expect a certain girth, and don’t you quote at me that “It’s not the size that matters, it’s how you use it,” no, be quiet. You are new at this, so listen, because what you heard in high school is true: size does matter.
A good length for a first book is between 50,000 words and 100,000 words. You may add 20,000 to the upper limit if it is fantasy, and subtract 10,000 from the top if it is romance. For all else, do google the phrase, “How long should a [genre] novel be?” and listen to the results.
If your book exceeds this length, you’re going to be cutting. If it is not even close, you will be beefing up. Though chances are, you’ll do a little of both. And by a bit, I mean a metric fuck-tonne. Yes, that’s a scientific term.
Okay, now that you’ve got that in your head, you next need to understand:
Change is good.
If you finish your edit and all you’ve done is corrected a few spelling errors, either your manuscript didn’t need editing, or you’ve missed the point. Editing is messy. Editing is blue ink all over the page and trailing onto the back, it’s scribbling in the margins and slashing out whole characters. Yes, some pages will be gorgeous and perfect, but many will be absolute horror stories.
To illustrate this point, I’m including a page from my last edit of A Better Man below. Take a look.
Seriously, look at that thing. I’ve crossed stuff out, I’ve amended, I’ve changed the scene.
And it’s better for it.
You must, as an author, understand: they are just words. You can make more of them.
You don’t have to delete what you’ve written even if you decide it should go; I keep a file for every single book I’ve written that’s simply full of old scenes. I make a new copy of the manuscript for each edit, so I can go back and look at how each has changed. There is nothing wrong with saving your old work, things that are no longer necessary.
However, there is something wrong with thinking that you cannot make better. That sentence you wrote on page six? Guess what. You’ve written 90,000 words since then, 90,000 words of practice. Chances are, you can blow that awkward thing out of the water.
And that’s what editing is about: you’ve grown as an author since you began this project! You’re better now than you were then, I promise.
Next week, I’ll go into the particulars of editing, and show you how I went from tweaking word choices to writing big fat X’s across inadequate work. And most of all, I’ll show you why you should too.
Though before then, is this a good time to mention that my first newsletter goes out tomorrow? Sign up now to receive a copy, which will include my short story “The Foreigner’s Loneliness”! Previously published in an anthology, it’s yours to read if you sign up now!
If you have any questions, please feel free to write them below and I’ll do my best to answer them. Thanks for reading, and join me next Monday for Editing, Part II!