An expert’s guide to editing your writing

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Learn how to take your writing from raw first draft to polished manuscript with our advice

Good editing in the writer’s (not-so) secret weapon. It is what makes the difference between your messy first draft and the honed, polished manuscript that represents your best work, ready to be sent out for the attention of readers, agents and publishers.

No matter how much raw talent you have, good editing is what will turn your work into good writing. Each time you go back to your work and revise it, you have the chance to make it, not just less worse, but much better.

Before you get to the editing stage, though, you need to complete a chunk of work. The first thing you need to edit your writing is – your writing. You can’t edit writing that isn’t there. Your first draft is not supposed to be polished writing – this is where editing comes in. You can alter, and hone, a first draft, both structurally and then later, at sentence level. What you can’t do is pre-edit work that isn’t there. So complete a draft and remember it doesn’t matter if it’s rough. It’s meant to be rough.

Make sure you know the difference between story and plot by reading this.

Once you've bashed out your first draft, it’s time to start the editing process.

What are your editing needs?

Different kinds of edit are necessary at different stages of your writing process. Some of you might have the necessary skills and be able to do the edits yourself. Other writers may find there’s immense benefit to be had, especially early on in the process, of investing in a professional edit, particularly at the development and structural stages.

Other editing requirements will depend on your publishing process.

• If you are at the stage of submitting to agents and publishers, you want your manuscript to be as polished as possible for it to have the best possible chance of success. Your manuscript may need developmental, structural, copy and line edits to get it to this stage, and should be meticulously proof-read for errors before you send it out.

• If your manuscript is accepted by an agent, it is possible that the agent will suggest further structural edits before your manuscript is ready to be sent out.

• If your manuscript is accepted by a traditional publisher, it is likely that they will require at least one edit, and possibly more, before they consider your book is ready for publication. When it comes to line and copy edits, you will work with an editor, who will make suggestions for changes. The book will be proof-read in-house and passed to you to check the proofs and mark up any changes.

• If your manuscript is to be self-published, it is up to you to decide how polished you want it to be. For it to have the best chance of success it should be edited just like a traditional manuscript, and to the same standards of excellence – the difference is that it’s up to you to ensure that the edits are done, and outsource them to the appropriate professionals when necessary.

Different kinds of edits your manuscript might need

There are several different kinds of edit you may want to consider for your work.

•  A DEVELOPMENTAL EDIT is the first edit you will want to consider. It will help you get your ideas together and structure the piece of work. This kind of edit is about refining your ideas, developing your narrative and theme and fixing issues such as under-developed characters, plot holes and inconsistencies. This is the first edit your work will need and it is common to have it done by an expert such as a literary consultant who can assess your manuscript to provide you with an overview of what works and what needs working on before you progress your manuscript to the next stage.

• A STRUCTURAL EDIT will look at your story structure. It will make sure your plot structure works, that all your narrative progressions are well-timed, that your sequence of events is effective, perhaps that your chapters and sections are paced well for your particular narrative, and whether everything in the manuscript needs to be there or if the manuscript would be more effective if certain sections were stripped out.

• A COPY EDIT is aimed at making your manuscript error-free. It means going through the manuscript to ensure your grammar is correct and any mistakes are weeded out. A copy edit will ensure that the grammatical tenses are correct and there are no discrepancies in point of view, character inconsistencies, word repetitions etc. It will strip out wrong use of elements like dialogue tags as well as misspellings, typos etc.

• A LINE EDIT is similar to copy-editing but it focusses on the prose and the writing style. It will look at word usage to ensure that the manuscript flows well, sentence by sentence.

• PROOFREADING is the last stage of the editing process. It involves checking for inconsistencies in spelling, style, layout, etc. It will remove clunky page- and word-breaks, make sure page numbers are correct, and weed out any tiny errors that may have been overlooked on previous edits.

Other edits you may want to consider:

• FACT CHECKING. This is an edit to make of the accuracy of any factual references in your manuscript. It’s particularly useful and necessary for non-fiction writers, but it’s also handy for writers whose manuscripts include historical or factual material. You wouldn’t want a reader’s enjoyment of your historical novel to be spoiled because you’d dressed your hero in a garment that wasn’t worn during your period, or the reader of your thriller be put off because the gun your spy just fired doesn’t wasn’t available until the year after your action takes place.

• INDEXING. This is a very specific and specialist edit that non-fiction and textbooks books require to create and cross-reference the index with page numbers at the end of the manuscript. It is possible to do your own indexing but it is common for indexing to be outsourced to a specialist indexer.

• FORMATTING. This is all about typography: the layout and design of your book. It will include paying attention to fonts, line spacing, margins, indentations, etc.

How to edit your own writing

First of all, don’t try to edit work you have just completed. You’re too close to it. Put your first draft away for a while and work on something else, so that when you come back to the piece that needs editing you are able to see it with a hopefully dispassionate eye – almost as if it was work that had been written by someone else. This distance is vital so that you can see the work clearly.

• Catch all the basic errors. Clean out repetitive words, clichés, over-written passages, bad vocabulary choices. Change the passive voice (‘The bicycle was ridden by Bernard’) to the active (‘Bernard rode the bicycle').

• Cut any unnecessary padding. Does that lengthy descriptive paragraph slow down your narrative? Does your reader need a lengthy introduction to that minor character? The basic principle is that everything in your manuscript needs to earn its keep.

• Now do the same on a larger scale. Is that sub-plot threatening to take over the storyline? Is the reader’s focus being distracted away from the main character because you’ve made their best friend more layered and interesting? Does your detective actually need two sidekicks? Does your romantic hero really require all four of his best buddies? This is the time to make hard choices – what some people in the creative writing process call ‘killing your darlings.’ Remember, nothing deserves to be there solely because you enjoyed writing it. If you find yourself particularly reluctant to cut out a paragraph, scene or even character that gets in the way of your narrative’s progression, ask yourself why you have become so attached to the piece in question. If it’s because you think it’s especially ‘good writing’, remind yourself that sometimes you have to sacrifice these ‘good bits’ so they don’t detract attention from the overall picture you want to create.

• Make sure your writing has a good beginning. This is where you will grab, and hopefully hold, the reader’s attention, so put in time and effort to ensure that every element in your opening pages is in place and works as effectively as you can make it. It is very common for beginner writers to spend too long setting an opening scene rather than plunging a reader into the middle of a drama, so make sure that your book opens with something that will grab the reader’s attention rather than pages describing your central character’s routine existence.

• Appraise the manuscript’s overall structure. This is the hardest part of a self-edit and the point at which you might want to invest in a professional critique or development edit. If you have writer friends who are prepared to act as your beta-readers, this may be the time to ask them to read your manuscript with a critical eye and advise you if your book’s structure is effective.

Want advice on how to structure your novel? Read this.

Embrace the editing process

As with everything in creative writing, there are no absolutes when it comes to editing – beyond the fact that it will improve your work. If you want to write simply for pleasure you can embrace editing as a way of polishing your writing.

But if you want to write to a publishable standard, editing is as essential a part of the process as the writing itself. It's not something to be dreaded if you regard it as your opportunity to make your work the best it can be. It is very likely that you will discover how much you enjoy editing and the process of refining and improving your own work. For many writers, this is the stage at which they are able to shape their raw material and see it take form.

Don’t despair, though, if the editing process feels daunting when you first attempt it. It is a different way of seeing things, and an approach you may not be familiar with. If you’re too close to your writing, it may feel like a painful process rather than a necessary one. If this is the case, consider that it might be is a good investment to get professional help, and enlist an expert development editor, copy editor or proofreader.

It may be that, if you go down this route, your editor may suggest changes that you are unhappy about. In this case, think carefully before you commit yourself to carrying out the edits – or rejecting the suggestions. Talk to the editor in question about your concerns. The final decision on what to do remains with you, the writer, but it is well worth taking the experience and expertise of the editor into account.

Bear in mind that every time you go back to your work for another edit, it's a chance to make it better - to turn it into a book you will be proud to have written. Good luck with your edits, and with your manuscript!

Are you ready to have your writing critiqued by a professional writer who can help you take it to the next stage? Check out Writing Magazine's Critique Service!