10 Rules for Editing

I just finished the final edit of my own novel yesterday, and in the process I think I’ve picked up a few tips that might be helpful. Just like my tips on writing, these are my own rules, but I hope they’ll help you as well.

  1. Simplicity is key. Complex words and syntax do not justify their own existence. The only reason they should stay in the novel is if there’s absolutely no way to replace them.
  2. Don’t be afraid to make drastic changes. The first draft is like a sculpture in its first stages: you have to get out the chisel and remove a lot of dull stone in order to reach the beauty inside.
  3. Perfection ain’t all it’s cracked up to be. What matters more than perfectly-crafted sentences and stunning prose is the story being told. Be faithful to the story, and aim to tell it well. If you can do that, perfection won’t matter.
  4. Trust your inner reader. There will come a time when you’ve gotten enough feedback, or the changes you’re making are so minor that they don’t warrant sending the novel out to more beta readers. At that point, it’s essential that you listen to your inner reader, make any necessary changes, and then move on.
  5. Wring as much as you can out of the feedback you’ve gotten. If a beta reader points out a grammar mistake once, don’t just fix it and consider the problem solved. Chances are that if you made the mistake once, you made it several other times that the beta reader didn’t catch.
  6. Kill the commas. If a comma can be removed without changing the meaning of a sentence or breaking one of the rules of grammar, take it out.
  7. Focus on continuity. The writing process often results in characters that change drastically from the opening scene to the last one, themes that come and go, and descriptions that don’t quite line up. One of the essential roles of editing is to make sure that none of these jarring problems make it into the final version of your novel.
  8. Get in the right mindset. Editing is not proofreading. That comes at the very end, and should probably be done by someone else. While it doesn’t hurt to fix grammar and spelling issues as you come across them, that isn’t what you should look for.
  9. Give it a final read, no matter how tired you are of looking at the manuscript. This ties in heavily to the continuity point. How can you know if your chapters flow well and work together if you don’t give your manuscript one last cover-to-cover read?
  10. Never give up on something that needs fixing. If a scene absolutely doesn’t work, and can’t be removed without ruining the story, Rewrite it, play around with the order of events… Do anything, but don’t simply sigh and call it good.

I’d love to know your thoughts on this list. Are there any points you disagree with? Items you strongly agree with? Would you just like to vent some steam after a hard day? Feel free to leave a comment down below!

4 thoughts on “10 Rules for Editing

  1. Points 1, 5,6,7,8,9 and 10 are pretty well stated.
    Point 3: There is no perfection. The best a novelist can achieve is a sense of being an artist within the medium, knowing what that art is, and expressing that concept of art in the manuscript. If writers don’t like the word art, substitute imagination.
    Point 4: I’m not sure about inner readers unless that means going through a manuscript as you might have in fifth grade English, rather than doing graduate work from a bullshit professor in a college creative writing course.
    Point 2: For some writers making large changes actually means another round of editing and rewriting is in the works. This year I’ve had two experiences: Taking a novel that was 40 percent complete, and producing a manuscript that is 95 percent complete. The second manuscript was also 40 percent complete, but I may only reach 75 percent. A writer must be aware (conscious) of every step of writing to know how far along the manuscript is.

    1. You bring up several good points, especially on your explanation for point 3 🙂

      Point 4: yes, that’s exactly what I mean! The idea I was thinking about is reading as if you’re just doing it for fun, instead of analyzing and picking every detail apart (a trap I tend to get into in my own writing).

      Point 2: I’m not sure I understand this. I agree that the amount of editing necessary for each manuscript is highly variable. In my own experiences, I also like to remind myself that I may feel ninety-five percent of the way there, only to come across a chapter that clashes with the rest of the novel and has to be reworked.

      1. Point 2: An element of editing, rewriting, reworking is managed by the confidence the writer has. On the one manuscript, I realized I knew this story, even if it were not on the page. I could put it there in the next draft: bits here, bits there, sentences, words, deletions. With the second manuscript I realize I don’t have a clue to its worth. I know I’m closer, but that is no comfort.

      2. Oh, ok, I think I get it now 🙂 There’s definitely a lot of confidence involved in knowing what changes need to be made to a manuscript.

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