Advice · Editing

Edit Until You Can’t

Our editing tale is ending, as in our final week we talk about how to know when you are done.

Week one was dedicated to getting started, week two address the biggest issues, while week three picked up smaller yet persistent problems to be on the watch for. And now you’ve done all that and you’re wondering: are we there yet?

This might be the most difficult part of them all, because the way you know you are done…is when your manuscript feels done.

Yeah, I know. Not helpful. So let me give it a metaphor, because that’s what I do.

If you’ve ever been to an earthquake-prone area, you know the paranoid feeling of feeling the floor tremble and thinking to yourself, “Is this really an earthquake?” No, it’s not it’s the neighbor doing pilates and you’re being oversensitive. But every time the couch moves for the first couple weeks, you wonder if this is it, this time, is it this an earthquake, is it now? You wonder and wonder and wonder…until the day you feel an actual earthquake, when the second it happens, you know it’s the real McCoy. You feel it in your gut.

And then you realize that your overhead light is swaying back and forth, and you never knew it’d do that, but of course it would. Because the earth is actually shaking.

Knowing your manuscript is done will feel like that. You will know it in your gut, and then the signs will start popping up everywhere.

I know that’s annoying to hear, because you’re saying, “But I’ve never been done! How will I recognize the feeling?” You will, trust me. But to help you out, here are a few of the signs you’ll see when you’re approaching done.

Editing is all about multiple passes.

I am deeply suspicious of any person or blog that states they edited their first novel once before publishing it, and for good reason. When I click—and I do click—these pieces are far too often lacking in both tightness and polish, two things that multiple passes add.

Yes, repeating this process again and again is a pain in the bum. Editing often is. The need to go through your manuscript several times slows you down at first, especially the part where you have to wait a month between passes every single time. It also means that the first book you write won’t be ready to be out there until quite possibly the second one is entirely written. Or the third one. Or the fifth.

But you know what? If that’s the time it takes, that’s the time it takes, and there’s no use in skipping steps only to put out a poorer product. It won’t behoove you.

Plus, the editing you’re doing now will affect the writing you do between edits. It will make it better, more polished, tighter, more self-aware. You are a better writer on page one hundred than you were on page one, whether you’re editing or writing. Repeat that to yourself as many times as you need to.

Your passes will change over time. After the first edit, you will stop finding stray homonyms and instead start to grind away at your love of the phrase “in all honesty,” until by the end of the second or fifth or tenth pass, you will find that what lies below is smooth, engaging, and vivid. Possibly longer, often shorter, but all in all, better.

But first, do no harm.

Somewhere in the process, you will begin to doubt yourself. You will read a sentence, or a page, or a chapter, and think, “This is the stupidest thing I’ve ever read.”

You will be tempted to stop editing, at that point. In fact, you will be sorely driven to stop doing any writing at all. You will want to walk away and never come back.

Yes to the first part, no to the second.

Editing is self-critique, and it’s hard. Don’t underestimate how difficult it is for you, mentally, to see your own writing with fresh eyes and identify its flaws. I always joke that editing makes me hungry, but that’s more true than it sounds. I’m concentrating far harder when I edit than when I write. Remember, you can write with your eyes closed, but you must edit with them firmly fixed on the lines in front of your face. “Stray but a little, and you will fail.” (You’re not helping, Galadriel.)

Take breaks. Drink your favorite beverage. When I’m stressed, my body temperature drops, so I wrap myself in a blanket to edit. Set a page-count goal for the day and stop when you hit it. Make sure you eat well, and don’t edit while you eat. Take care of yourself.

That said, don’t put the task off off. Push yourself to complete those allotted pages, and don’t be tempted to let things that need attention pass. If a page needs re-writing, do the work now rather than later. Things that nag won’t go away; better to get it done before you forget.

Because if it bothers you? It will bother the reader, I promise, a hundred times over. Trust that instinct and run with it.

Changing a page isn’t bad. Cutting a line will make it better. Repeat this to yourself, over and over, and you know what? After a few passes, I promise you’ll see that it’s true. You can do it, you can do it…

But don’t over-do it.

Remember how this whole time I’ve been saying that you are a better writer now than you ever have been? That is absolutely true. I do not deny it in the slightest. Keep that in mind when I say:

You’re not that much better.

Could you re-write your novel to be better than it used to be? Could you take apart every sentence and kill them dead and re-do them?

Yes. It’s called writing a new novel; go do it. Do not attempt to Frankenstein your old novel into something completely new.

First of all, unless this was something you wrote fifteen years ago, it won’t be so much better as to merit the effort you will put into creating something new from it. Second, that original draft? It has a magic a forced re-do won’t have, a spontaneity of words and form that can’t be overestimated.

Of course, you might ask in return: why edit at all? But we know that answer. What is good can be better, what is loose must be tight, what is shining must sparkle, and what is messy must be cut. Not overwrought. Not squashed until it screams. Not dredged of any life.

Take a deep breath, and remind yourself that like making a scrapbook of your vacation, editing your book is about bringing out the best of the photos, not pretending you went to Cambodia instead of Tennessee. There is good to be found, now go find it. Dig and search and cross-out and scribble until you find that you are…

Picking at commas.

There are rules for commas, and I have read them. I have read them many times. My copy-editor explained them to me using samples from my own writing, and I frowned at them for many minutes attempting to stick them to my brain, I swear.

Nevertheless, commas continue to be a weird spot for me. And I’m not alone. I’ve spoken to several writer friends, and we all agree: if all you’re doing in your edit is picking at commas, put the pen down and call it a day.

Not just commas, little things. If in the last ten pages you’ve only re-phrased three sentences, moved half a dozen commas, and slashed out a dialogue tag, that’s fussing. You are not adding anything meaningful, and it is time to put those changes into the computer and step away.

Bring out the champagne! Tell your family and friends! You’re done, you’re done!

No, seriously, you’re done.

At a certain point, you just have to call it quits.

Yes, you can change another word, but don’t. That way lies madness. If you’ve hit everything above, chances are, the thing is what it is.

Now that it’s finished, you have lots of choices on what to do. You might be the sort to call in a beta reader or ten, you may wish to hand your manuscript off to a trusted friend. This might be the point where you contact an editor for content or copy, or you might begin your query (or send out the one you’ve already prepared).

Just make sure that whatever is done stays done. Maybe your book is not perfect, but that’s okay; there will be a next one, and a next, and a next after that. Writing doesn’t end with one book! Keep going. Not only will you be a better writer, but you’ll become a quicker editor, able to do in three passes what once took seven.

As long as you are putting words on a page, you will never stop growing. And I do believe that, for every writer out there. Wherever you start, whatever you do along the way, every word will lead to better ones, little by little.

Thanks for reading my series on editing! Have I missed any points you want to bring up? Do you have any lingering questions? Just want to share how your editing is going and have a little commiseration/celebration? Please comment below, I’d love to hear from you! Or give me a shout on Twitter.

Remember, there’s no one way to edit; if it works for you, keep doing it, and good luck.

Week 1: The Heck Is Editing?
Week 2: Edit Or Die, Because
Week 3: Perfect Editing Is A Lie
Week 4: Edit Until You Can’t



7 thoughts on “Edit Until You Can’t

  1. Whoever invented the comma was sadistic and enjoyed laughing at everyone’s pain. I’m serious. The worst thing about commas is even if you understand them, you still doubt how to use them. Commas are just another reason the English language is confusing.

    This is great advice though. Sometimes you just have to stop and believe you’re at the end rather than drive yourself insane.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks for this helpful advice! I’ve never felt truly “done” with a manuscript; at some point I always seem to give up during the editing stage because I get too frustrated. But I’m hoping to start editing one of my manuscripts soon, and hopefully this time I’ll actually finish what I start. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I hope I’ve helped you out! I really think editing is all about the stages, especially at first. As you wait for each edit and do more writing, things click into place. While keeping track of various side characters might take all your energy on pass one, by the time you hit two that’s no longer a problem and you can concentrate on other things.

      Good luck with your edit! I hope it goes smoothly.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. *bookmarks aggressively*
    Weirdly, I’ve never had a lot of problems with grammar. PLEASE NO COMMA HATE

    My relationship with editing though… I wrote a book, looked at it, and realized that it was horrible. So I pretty much completely rewrote it. Still rewriting it. Hopefully I’ll start editing mid-February.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Grammar has never been trouble for me, but I swear I learned a different set of punctuation rules in elementary school than I did in high school, and who knows what was up in college.

      Don’t sweat the first book too much, they’re the learning experience we get to build from. Whether we like it or not. Good luck with your re-write, and I hope this helps your edit!

      Liked by 1 person

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