A friend of mine who’s been working on his novel for over five years recently asked, “How many edits does a good writer do to make the story just right?” Without hesitation I replied, “Well, that depends.”
Deeming a piece of writing “just right” is the same as saying some object is beautiful—it’s in the eye of the beholder. I mean, what’s just right for one writer might be totally different from what’s just right for another. For writers, knowing the story you want to tell and actually seeing it on paper may be two different things. Writers know how their characters will behave and how their world reacts to them, but unfortunately that doesn’t always get on the page clear enough for your readers to know. Proper editing ensures your reader will see what you want them to see and know as much as you’re willing to show them. But perpetually tweaking a story is a waste of time, in my opinion, especially when proper editing will turn that draft into something worth publishing.
Editing isn’t—and shouldn’t be—a one-time endeavor or one-size-fits-all activity. It’s a process. It’s a necessary part of the journey your story must take from first draft to published book. There are several different types of editing, and each type handles specific tasks.
(1) A developmental editor will search out the overall structure of your story, making sure the premise, plot, and subplots are sound and make sense. This type editor will also ensure you left no dangling part, i.e., those areas where you’ve mentioned something will take place but it’s never mentioned again.
(2) A line editor will check for grammar mistakes and typos.
(3) A copy editor will pay attention to your sentence structure, word usage, and the overall theme of your story.
These different types of editing often overlap, but the idea is to look for the specific issues you want addressed with each draft of your manuscript.
For each of my books, I start the editing process immediately after I type the words “The End.” The first thing I do is run a quick spell check on the full manuscript. This takes a minute because my stories tend to contain lots of dialogue, and dialogue is almost always flagged for spelling. Then I print out the manuscript on 3-hole punched paper, put it in a loose-leaf notebook, and put it on a shelf for at least one month, sometimes two. I’ve found that putting time and distance between my first draft and my first edit helps me view the story from a different perspective. While that manuscript is “resting,” I work on another project that’s had its own waiting time on my project shelf.
Whenever I perform the first edit, I check the manuscript for grammar mistakes, evaluate sentence structure and length, and write a short paragraph about each scene. The paragraph simply notes which characters are in the scene and what they’re doing. Taking the time to write out this information really helps when creating your chapter summary and synopsis.
After making any corrections needed from the first edit, I print out the manuscript again and perform a second edit. Printing the manuscript—rather than reading it on a computer screen—ensures you’ll see what your reader will see. In this step, I check the overall story structure, subplots, and the beginning and ending of the story. When finished with this edit, I give my manuscript to beta readers. You only need two or three readers who like reading in the genre you write. If there are any weak points or dangling scenes in your story, beta readers will find them and honestly tell you what they think.
After my beta readers have given me their input on the story, I will incorporate the suggestions I agree with and ignore the ones I don’t. Then, I’m ready to email a copy of the manuscript to my editor. It’s vital that you find a professional editor whose opinion you trust, one who enjoys reading your genre, and one whose services are within your budget.
When your editor returns your manuscript, you’ll have to decide whether or not to incorporate the editor’s suggestions. Everyone, including paid editors, has an idea of how the story should go, but you’re the writer and the ultimate decision is yours.
The last thing I do is have someone read the manuscript for typos one final time before I send it off to my conversion vendor to format the eBook and print version. After that, I’m off to my next writing project!
The process I use for turning my first drafts into publishable books involves these simple steps, which may seem too simple to some writers—like my friend who asked the original question. But, I don’t believe in writing and re-writing the same story over multiple years. Just like parents have to let their children grow up and leave home, a writer needs to let the story grow (by editing it) and go out to potential readers.