Thursday, October 10, 2013

Editing like a madman

By Gayle Carline
Mystery Author and Gal Who Forgets her By-Line

It's a lie that persists. There is an image of the writer, with a box of empty paper on one side of a typewriter. The writer fills each page, until the empty paper on one side has become a novel on the other side. It's sent to the editor, who adores it. Kind of like this:

Or not.

Even with the knowledge that we all write on computers (sometimes even using author-friendly software), we can't shake the myth that we think it, write it, and ship it out.


If you are an author who cares about the quality of your book, you edit before you send it to an editor. Even if storytelling is your strength but grammar is your weakness, you make the attempt to at least give your editor and your beta readers something coherent. "The End" is not the end.

This week, I began editing my latest mystery, Murder On The Hoof. It's set at a horse show, and it's my first attempt at adding romance to a whodunit. I don't know how long the process will take, but I can tell you the steps involved:

1. Forget the manuscript. After I've written "The End" I close the file and walk away from it for at least two weeks, if not a month. I want to feel like I don't even remember what I wrote, so that when I open it for editing, I'm surprised by the words on the page.

2. Sweeping, silent read-through. My first pass is to get rid of my go-to words (apparently I like to say apparently a lot), find typos, POV changes, and basic inconsistencies.

3. Read aloud. Next, I read the manuscript out loud. Some things sound great in my head and awful in my mouth. Before you think, hey, who cares, most people don't read aloud, read Jenny's post yesterday. Audiobooks, folks. Not to mention that this pass strengthens the work.

4. Read aloud into a digital voice recorder. Chapter by chapter, I read the whole thing into my DVR (about $20 on Amazon). Then I sit with a pad of paper and play it back. What's the difference between this and just reading aloud? Now my mouth is no longer in gear. My ears can focus. You'd be amazed at the stuff I find. I really batten down the hatches with this.

5. Analytic read-through. This is where I go all geek-girl, due to my engineering background. I parse out the chapters and figure out how many words, how many scenes, and whether those scenes are ramping up the tension to action. I want to know if the pacing is correct. Have I ended the first act about a third of the way into the book? Do I have chapters that are too expository without pushing the drama forward?

6. Final read-through. When I think it's all done, I read it through one more time. Yes, I've actually caught errors here, too.

Each one of these steps may have multiple rounds, as I edit, then re-do it. As you can see, when I turn something over to my beta readers and my editor, it's as clean as I can possibly get it.

I know what you're wondering: why on earth do all this work when I'm bound to get comments and corrections anyway?

With an editor, I want to get my money's worth. If I'm paying for a content edit, I don't want them stumbling over typos. Some editors I've worked with charge by the hour. They've actually come in under budget because my manuscript was so clean. (And yes, they still had changes/comments.)

With beta readers, again, I want them to concentrate on the story. If it's got inconsistencies and plot holes, how is that going to help them? Plus, it's like having company over to the house - I gotta make sure the place is clean!

So that's how I do it. Writers, how do you make sure your slip isn't showing? Readers, how many errors do you allow before a book turns you off?


  1. So true, Gayle. My first book took me 12 times through before I was satisfied. Now, it's about half that. It is amazing how many mistakes you can find the second and third and fourth times through. We owe it to our readers to find those mistakes before they do.

    Realistic look at the process.

  2. My process is similar, only I don't listen to myself reading the story out loud. I can't handle the sound of my own voice. I also write a second draft, in which I fill in details and make minor changes, before I begin the word-for-word editing process. I'll start the second draft of Jackson #9 sometime next week, a process I enjoy. By about the fourth read through, I start to hate my manuscripts.

  3. Great points, Gayle!

    I usually advise my clients (and writers who read my blog posts) to start with a big-picture edit before reading aloud and editing for style and flow and grammar.

    Why do a word-by-word line edit of a chapter that may need to be rewritten, condensed, or deleted? So I advise them to start by looking at plot and structure and the order of chapters and which chapters and scenes have too much "telling" - info dumps, backstory, etc., that slow down the pace and take us out of the story, etc. Also, at this time, look for plot holes, character motivations, inconsistencies, implausibilities, time sequencing, etc.

    Then, when the heavy lifting is out of the way, concentrate on voice, style, phrasing, dialogue, etc.

    That way you're not spending time smoothing out the phrasing of chapters and scenes that maybe should be rewritten or deleted.

    Great ideas!

  4. I use text to speech. The mechanical voice doesn't skip or add words, which I might be inclined to do after reading the thing a gazillion times. What makes me nuts is that errors still get through.

    My third book should be back from the interior designer this week. I plan on one more go-round with text to speech before I send it off to be printed. Wanna bet that even at this stage I find something?

    1. Yep. I bet you do. I remember thinking Snoopy's book was ready to go. I had my paperback proof copy and it all looked good, so I downloaded the Kindle version to my Fire to make sure that looked good. The plan was to skim through it on the plane to LCC, then start actually reading another book. I ended up taking out a notepad and writing all the stuff that needed to be corrected in Snoop's book instead!

    2. Peg, how do you get the text to speech? Is that on your computer? Did you have to buy it? Is it part of Word, or Scrivener, or what? Thanks!

    3. It came with my computer. In System Preferences, there's a Dictation and Speech feature. I choose between 3 male and 3 female voices already loaded, have the ability to customize, and can adjust their speed. It's pretty cool.

    4. Great! I'll check that out, Peg! Thanks! This blog is a treasure trove of great info! :-)

  5. I can definitely relate (oops, an adverb slipped by). I've recently started using SmartEdit ($59) and am finding it invaluable. It goes through about 13 different checks and shows where many problems (including all the adverbs, repeated words, etc.) show up. Handling those problems before they go to an editor is a great time- and energy saver.

  6. I wrote about this extensively in response to something posted on Steven Pressfield's blog. You're right, Gayle, it's a persistent myth. But the more we write - or edit - the more we remember (remind ourselves?) it's a myth.

    It's a cliche to say everyone's process is different. Perhaps someone once said that real writing is revision. If not, someone should have.



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