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How To Get Started: The First Timer's Editing Guide

Congratulations! You've finished your novel and have typed those long-desired words "The End". Time to kick back, relax, and celebrate right?

Nope. The truth is that you've reached the peak of your writing experience, but not the finish line. Now it's time to begin thinking about part 2: Editing.

To many first-time writers, editing may sound like a big scary word and seem like a huge complicated process that requires tons of help to accomplish. You may think you need professional help, that your skill level isn't high enough to do it yourself, or overwhelmed because you simply don't know where to start first.

That's okay! The great news is that editing is not as hard as it first appears. There are several types, tons of tips on how to go about it, and in the end there's really no "right" or "wrong" way to start. For those of you who have never gone through this stage of the writing process before, I've created this August writing series with you in mind. Everyone could use a step-by-step walk-thru and that's what this post is all about.

That's an excellent question.

The very first thing you should do after finishing your draft is to *drum roll please*

Leave. It. Alone.

Yes! You read that correctly. You should NEVER go immediately from finishing your book to editing. Why? The reason is because you're tired, you've probably been staring at your computer screen all day already, and you're too emotionally close to whatever just happened at the end of your book. Not to mention that there is a sense of accomplishment that you want to revel in, but maybe also some sadness that it's now over.

All of that is normal, BUT it does affect your ability to edit objectively.

The best thing you can do for your draft is to give yourself some time away from it. Process all of those feelings, take time to rest and recover, and then when you're ready, start mentally preparing yourself for the second half of the writing process. Editing is a different mindset from writing entirely, so it helps to approach it with both fresh eyes and an open mind.

That is completely up to you. Some writers take a few days, others a week, others months or even years. Deadlines also play a role in how much time you can take a breather.

Personally I find it helpful to give myself a couple weeks. This is because I want time to refresh and to honestly stop re-reading my draft (as I'm a writer who re-reads constantly during the writing process). This means that I am overly familiar with my writing and need time to forget what I wrote in order to approach it with my "editor" eyes.

Judge when the time is right for you by testing the waters. If you take a few days and feel inclined to begin, try it. If you start reading and find yourself feeling "bored", or thinking about rewriting things right away, or feeling like everything is awful or on the flip side that your writing is amazing- give yourself more time. You're not ready to begin editing until you're a clean slate, meaning that your feelings about your writing is neutral and you don't feel the need to rush any changes.

on the flip side...

You finished your book and you're feeling proud of yourself. Your writing is amazing, you're in love with your characters, and the plot couldn't be any more perfect even if you tried. Do you still need to edit?

YES. YES. And more YES.

Everyone and I mean EVERYONE needs to edit their work after they finish writing their book. It doesn't matter who you are, what skill level you're at, how many books you've published before, how many drafts you've written, or how you feel about it. Trust me, your work is not perfect. Undoubtedly there are grammatical errors, pacing issues, inconsistencies, and any other number of issues.

Don't make the mistake of thinking that when you hire an editor that they want you to give them a completely unpolished draft for them to then wave their magic wand over. It's simply not the case. Most editors/publishers won't even consider a draft that isn't already as clean as it can be. They certainly won't waste their time on one that is full of errors.

Okay, so you've resigned yourself to having to engage in the editing process. The next question on your mind is:

By now you may be a little confused. You know that other writers on Instagram are always posting about what phase they are in the editing process. You've also seen some where they're talking about their editors reviewing their work. Then there's the call for beta readers, which apparently is an entirely different process.

That begs the question: Are they all editing? Why? Do you have to utilize all these forms?

Think about it as editing in three stages.

Stage 1: Self-Editing

Let's face it, drafts are messy. There's no way around it, that's why they're called drafts.

Self-editing is when a writer sits at their desk and reviews their own work. It is checking for grammar errors, consistency, correcting any major issues with pacing, timing, or gaps that occur naturally when writing. It's making sure that things like setting, weather, and time period are consistent, factual elements are correct, and that characters are consistent in their goals and motivations.

It's also an on-going process. Usually writers do multiple drafts and multiple rounds of self-editing before they feel like their draft is ready to move on to one of the other stages. Things have a tendency to change when you edit, which often means going back over to write more. It is the smoothing out process that will hopefully bring the draft to a more reader-friendly version.

In all honesty, this is probably a longer process overall then any of the other editing stages simply because it depends on the writer and it depends on what they're working on.

Personally I've been through five drafts of my current novel, with several rounds of editing going on in between. Do I feel like draft five will be good enough to send to the next stage? I don't know yet. But what I do know is that with each draft that I self-edit, the stronger the overall book becomes.

Stage 2: Beta Readers

Beta readers are amazing! They are such a great resource for writers gearing up to publish a book. They are the friends, other writers, mentors, teachers, family, etc. who are there to help you find the strengths and weaknesses of your story.

Think of them as your "eyes" into what your readers are going to think once you publish. When a stranger picks up your book for the first time and flips through the first chapter- that's the kind of insight you're going to get from your beta readers.

Typically you have a good mix between writers and just regular readers in this group. The writers will tell you things based on the their perspectives as writers and the readers will give you a further understanding of how a reader will actually read and interpret your work.

Depending on where you are in your writing process, beta readers can be enlisted at any time. Obviously you want to have the book finished or mostly finished before you ask them to read, but beyond that you can realistically ask for their help whenever you feel like it.

I typically wait till the third or fourth draft before I start asking for people's opinions. Mainly this because I know my first draft is going to look nothing like the real book and because the second one is mainly me fleshing out the bare bones of the first. Only until later versions do I feel comfortable asking for people to read it because I want the best first impression for my story that I can give. That and by the end of the fifth draft, I know for certain that the story is going to maintain the same shape by the time I publish.

Stage 3: Professional Editors

This is the stage that means you're serious about publishing. You've done the hard work of writing a book, self-editing it, and sending it for feedback from your beta readers, and then have gone back to do some more self-editing. Maybe you've gone back further and even written another version of your draft. But now you're here, you're serious, and it's "go" time.

Professional editors are there to help you get your manuscript ready for publication. Depending on how you decide to publish, your process of finding an editor will differ. If you're self-publishing it'll be up to you to find an editor to work with. If you go the traditional route, your editor will already belong to your publisher's team so you won't have to find them yourself.

These individuals are highly trained and competitively sought after. They have specific knowledge and experience in both the publishing industry and editing books in general. Hiring one will provide you with the secrets of the industry that you simply won't get anywhere else. They can also help you find other resources like other professionals in the industry that they know.

Though I'm not quite at this stage in my own writing, I do know writers who are. Everyone that I've talked to about it say that its a worthwhile experience and that your book does gain a lot of polish overall. There's also the added benefit of feeling more prepared for publishing in general, which never hurts! I know that when I do start the process of publishing, I'll definitely be hiring one for myself and I think you should too.

Okay, so you now have an understanding of what editing is, what it does, and who can do it.

What next?

After you've given yourself time to let your mind refresh and your draft age, it's time to pick it back up and begin editing.

Don't let the thought of starting keep you from doing. The process of self-editing can be done in many rounds and there are all sorts of things you can look for that can make your writing stronger. During this month's series we'll be walking you through what you should be aware of, ways to clean up your manuscript, and tons of tips to help out.

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Here are some tips to help you get started:

Read your draft aloud:

One of the best ways to begin your editing journey is by reading the section you're editing aloud. You can do this by reading it out to yourself, enlisting the help of a friend or sibling, or by using a virtual dictation tool such as Natural Reader.

Reading what you wrote out loud or listening to it serves two purposes: 1) You get to hear any mistakes you might have made and 2) You get to hear how things flow together. This is useful for dialogue or for when you aren't sure if the flow of your sentences works. It will also help you see if your tone, atmosphere, and pacing are where they need to be.

Check your spelling and grammar:

The most obvious tip of all. You should be looking for spelling and grammar errors when editing. A large part of the editing process, it's crucial that you find these mistakes and fix them. You can do this by picking up a dictionary and double-checking any words you're unsure of, using the thesaurus to change any that you feel are weak or repetitive, or by using a grammar guide like those written by Grammar Girl or The Chicago Guide To Grammar.

You can also use a service such as Grammarly, a free browser tool that will help correct spelling and grammar mistakes, make sure your writing is concise, and that you're using the best possible phrasing. Even better, this add-on works across the board and can even help you write better emails. Together these tools will help you clean up your manuscript and rid it of careless errors.

Seek out repetition:

One of my personal pet peeves, this is another common mistake writers tend to make in their manuscripts. It usually happens when we're tired or trying to drive home a point about a certain detail. It occurs when we state something in a sentence but then go on to say the exact same thing only in a different way in the next line.

Here are some examples:

1. He didn't want to think about anything. Everything was too overwhelming to think about.

2. She loved him, but couldn't stand the thought of leaving him. She would hate to leave him because she loved him.

3. As a child she loved playing tag with her friends. They would play tag every night.

See what I mean? This is a problem because it's annoying to read, but it also slows down your overall pacing. It's because your mind processes that something is being said twice and that thought keeps you from continuing on smoothly.

You can easily fix this by removing the words or phrases that are repetitive (highlighted in my examples in red) and either replace them with other words, or remove the entire second sentence in favor of more related but not repetitive details.

Search for trouble words:

The next step is to go back through separately and search for trouble words. These are the words we tend to mix-up, spell wrong, and misuse. Naturally, since English is a difficult language, there are a bunch. Here is a list of them:

Check for these in your writing and make sure you're not getting them mixed up. I tend to confuse who's and whose the most! To help you further with this issue, check out Grammar Girl's Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing. Her first chapter is devoted to trouble words.

Remove crutch words:

Crutch words are the filler words we use to take the place of something better. They're the words we use when we aren't sure what to say, the ones that fill the awkward gaps in our dialogue, and the ones we tend to overuse the most.

Examples of this would be words like: uh, always, very, like, nearly, almost, realize, etc.

To see the full list and to learn how to identify your own crutch words, check out my post Grammar 101: Eliminating Crutch Words.

By eliminating these extra words we make our sentences more concise and powerful. Crutch words are harmful because they fluff our word count and slow down the pacing of our writing. Plus, no one wants to read a character who says the word "like" as much as some of the people we know in real life.

Use the process of elimination:

The best way to edit is to look for one problem at a time. Searching for all of the above at once almost guarantees that you'll miss an error along the way. Essentially negating the purpose of editing in general.

Yes, this way does stretch out the process overall, but it requires less time individually. You simply scan for one word or one type of error and since your mind doesn't have to switch back and forth between spotting all sorts of problems, it goes faster than if you tried to take note of everything.

You can also use this method for editing non-grammar related things. Scan your novel for themes, symbolism, characters, consistency, pacing, etc. It's more effective because you'll be looking at the big picture rather than trying to sort out all of the elements together.

The stigma surrounding editing is that it's a long and arduous process. This simply isn't true! Editing doesn't have to be painful and it certainly doesn't have to be one that requires a ton of research before hand. This month Writing It Wells is taking the hassle out of editing with our new writing series. Keep checking back for more! We will be releasing more posts about editing every Tuesday and Thursday.

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