For one full year, plus a few days, I have been editing my first novel, Elementalists: Burning Desire. What a process! Fortunately, it was long ago when I read step #7 on an article called 25 Steps to Being a Traditionally Published Author, which helped mentally prepare me well in advance for the editing process. The advice was simple and brutal:
"REVISIONS ARE NOT COPY EDITS; THEY ARE MAJOR SURGERY AND THEY SUCK"
It would still be months until I was fully able to comprehend what this meant. Right around December 31, 2013, I finished writing my novel at 131,000 words. On January 5, 2015 I finished my editing. All of 2014 was spent editing - almost every single day. In that time I went through four complete drafts of my book. In other words, I started on page one and edited all the way through to the last word, and I did this four times from cover to cover. The word count peaked at 179,000 but settled closer to 155,000 in the end.
There are A LOT of things I learned during this time and my ability to write proficiently grew phenomenally during the process. Below are my biggest learning points, and hopefully, points that will help serve you as your ultimate guide for editing your novel.
1. Pick some good music and bloody enjoy your editing.
Not what you were expecting for point #1? Tough. This is the most important item on this list.
You're going to be spending A LOT of time editing, so you'd better damn well enjoy the process. Find some music that you like, preferably something without lyrics so you won't be distracted. Amp up the volume and then get to work. By the way, music improves your productivity, so there you go, science and stuff. Don't work in dead silence, because it sucks.
Need suggestions of what to listen to or where to listen while you edit? Here are a few:
Artists to listen to while you edit:
- Lindsey Stirling (Techno/violin)
- God is an Astronaut (Post rock)
- Mogwai (Post rock)
- This Will Destroy You (Post rock)
- Explosions in the Sky (Post rock)
- Hans Zimmer (Epic movie music and more)
- Two Steps From Hell (Epic music in general)
- Playlist of the music that I found the most inspiring while writing my novel
Have more suggestions? Leave a comment on this post.
Where to go to listen to music while you work
- Youtube (but ads are annoying)
- Pandora - Pay $4.99 or whatever the cost is for a monthly subscription. If you live outside of the US like me and can't access it, install Zenmate, and BOOM, problem solved.
- Spotify - I don't use it myself but I hear it's awesome.
- Never Ending Playlist - It uses YouTube to generate endless playlists of an artist you want to listen to. Free.
2. Use a text to voice program.
Try Ivona. Someone linked this on Reddit's /r/writing subreddit at some point. I tried it and fell in love with it immediately. Editing without Ivona's minireader app is like trying to master figure skating while wearing shoes.
Here's the thing, when you read your draft in your head you miss stuff. Your brain simply isn't programmed to read every single word on the page. We see words as groups and as wholes. When I started using Ivona and listening to what I wrote, read out loud, I was absolutely blown away by the number of duplicate and missing words in my story. Not only that, but there were countless sentences that sounded fine in my head but had something wrong with them that only became apparent after being read out loud by an external voice.
Here was my method for using Ivona.
First, I would edit either a sentence, a paragraph, or a page; whatever felt right at the time. Then, I would have Ivona read it back to me. What often sounded fine in my head had a completely different vibe when verbalized, The software spoke the truth and put my lazy mind to shame. It was almost like it was chastising me, saying, "Really? Are you sure that you're satisfied with that pile of rubbish?"
Once I finished several chapters, I would load up Diablo 3 on one monitor (awesome game) and set my draft and Ivona to the other. Ivona would read my entire chapter out loud while I played and listened. If anything sounded off, I would pause the game, minimize and make the changes. Rinse and repeat.
Yes, Diablo 3 was part of my editing strategy. And you know what, it bloody worked. Don't judge me, or do. I don't care.
3) Suck it up and make big changes.
Rip your draft apart like you're a starving wolf ravaging its lifesaving meal.
This means cutting entire scenes; entire chapters even. This means tons of rewriting. This means moving sections around and making things flow better.
EDITING IS NOT ABOUT MAKING GRAMMAR AND SPELLING EDITS.
I mean, it's a part of it, but a very small part.
Your first draft is going to suck. That's not an 'if' or a 'maybe.' It's a guarantee, especially if it's your first novel. That's okay though, it's normal. What's important is that you can shove your ego aside, recognize that your draft sucks and then edit the crap out of it so it doesn't suck anymore.
I completely rewrote my first two chapters on my first run through of edits because they were so cringe-inducingly terrible that I wanted to stick toothpicks in my eyes after reading even a single sentence. Don't believe me? Check this out:
“Have a good day!” she told him when he was almost ready to leave the house, providing him with a motherly kiss on the cheek.
(I'm so sorry you had to see that.)
My entire first two chapters were like this, and the writing only became slightly better as the book progressed. After a year of editing however, I am happy to say that I am quite pleased to show off anything from any chapter now.
4) Avoid writing's biggest pitfalls.
Let's start with deus ex machina.
If you don't know what this is (it's okay, I didn't when I started), it essentially means you're getting the protagonist out of trouble by saving them with the power of coincidence. In short, bad storytelling.
As one clever Redditor once said (I'm sorry, I don't remember who you were), "It's okay to get your hero into trouble because of coincidence, but it's not okay to get them out of trouble with it."
BAD: Your hero is being held up at gunpoint. He is saved when a meteorite smashes into the gunman and kills him.
GOOD: Your hero is being held up at gunpoint. He saves himself by putting his extensive years of martial arts training to use.
I was fortunate to not have a lot of deus ex machina to fix, but I did have some. Story time!
In one chapter of my book, one of my protagonist's artifacts used a mysterious power that neither the reader nor my character had any knowledge of at the time, which saved him. In my head it made sense because I knew the artifact could do this, but this power basically came completely out of the blue for both the reader and the hero.
I fixed this issue by having the protagonist learn about his artifact's power, as well as how to use it in a previous chapter. Then, when my hero was in trouble he was able to use its power to save himself. No more deus ex machina, instead it was replaced by foreshadowing. Much better.
Now let's talk about overusing your thesaurus.
You might have noticed that I don't use a lot of big fancy words in this article. My book reads a lot like this too.
From what I've seen by participating in Reddit's /r/writing subreddit, especially with new writers, they commonly feel the need to prove something by using a lot of big words. It's almost like an itch or a desire, which entices them to want to show off their vastly superior intellect.
Making the reader have to constantly refer to their dictionary doesn't make you come across as smart though, it makes you come across as pretentious. That's probably not what you want.
Prove your talent by doing these things instead:
- Create interesting stories.
- Create interesting characters.
- Create interesting dialogue.
- Make the reader curious and want to flip the page (or scroll down).
- Make good use of foreshadowing.
Avoid using the passive voice.
Honestly, I still have a bit of trouble understanding exactly what the passive voice is, but I do understand that it's generally a bad thing.
I'm not going to go into detail on this matter, there are already plenty of resources on the passive voice. So here is a summary instead:
BAD: The store was where he went. (Passive voice)
GOOD: He went to the store. (Active voice)
BAD: His attitude was not something which she was impressed by. (Passive voice)
GOOD: She was not impressed by his attitude. (Active voice)
Eventually you start to recognize when the passive voice is being used just by seeing it written. It sort of stands out after a while. Personally I find the best way to find it is by looking for a sentence that seems... overly complicated. Again, go for simplicity.
5) Learn keyboard shortcuts.
This might sound basic, but learning keyboard shortcuts can be a huge time saver. Here are some of my favourites:
- Holding CTRL and then moving left or right with the arrow keys lets you move the cursor by entire words, instead of just letters.
- Holding CTRL+SHIFT lets you highlight entire words at a time.
- Holding CTRL+SHIFT then pressing up or down lets you highlight entire paragraphs.
- CTRL+Z lets you undo the last change you made.
- CTRL+C copies whatever you have highlighted.
- CTRL+X cuts whatever you have highlighted.
- CTRL+V pastes whatever you have highlighted.
- CTRL+S lets you quicksave. Hit this ALL THE TIME. Also, work within Dropbox or another cloud program for extra caution.
- WINDOWS+D lets you minimize everything and go straight to the desktop.
Have other favourite keyboard shortcuts for writing that I didn't include? Leave a comment.
6) Understand confusing grammar issues ahead of time.
I thought I knew grammar quite well, and to a point I did. When I started editing however, I quickly discovered there were a lot of extremely specific grammar points that were confusing.
Start with the Oatmeal. Their comics are fun, well-written and educational:
- The full grammar guide
- Who versus whom
- Flesh out versus flush out
- What it means when you say 'literally'
- When to use i.e.
- How to use a semicolon
- How to use an apostrophe
Below are some of the more intricate and annoying grammar points that I struggled with, as well as how to handle them:
When to use commas:
Use commas in two situations:
1) When writing a list of three or more items.
2) When linking together two independent clauses.
There is also something called the “Oxford Comma,” which is the last comma at the end of a list. This comma is generally avoided, although there are some good arguments for its use.
Using a comma before 'as' was something that I found to be potentially the single most confusing and debatable time of whether or not it should be used. As best as I've been able to tell (although this doesn't seem to be concrete), if an action follows ‘as’ then use a comma, if a description follows then do not. I went through Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince to find some examples.
‘said Harry as quietly as possible.’
‘said Slughorn, as Ron collapsed.’
Generally you do not use a comma. Exceptions may be made when using 'because' after it follows a verb that has been used in the negative. This is done to avoid confusion.
Example: He wasn't happy, because of the temperature.
In the above example, without the comma, the meaning of the sentence would be confusing. Was he happy for some other reason? With the comma it becomes clear that the reason he wasn't happy was because of the temperature. You can find more info here.
Only use a comma before ‘but’ when it is part of an independent clause.
My cockatiels are messy but cute. - Part of the same thought so there is no need for a comma.
My dog is also messy, but at least he's not as bad as the cockatiels. - Two separate thoughts; use a comma.
More info here.
|Cockatiels are awesome.|
A while back I heard the advice – always use a comma before ‘which’ and never use a comma before ‘that.’ While this may be largely true, I later discovered it isn't always true.
The rule is as follows: when whatever follows ‘which’ adds something that is necessary for the reader to know in order to understand the context, use a comma. When whatever follows ‘which’ just adds some extra colour to the scene, a comma is not necessary.
Eg. He went into the room which was painted red. (no comma)
Eg. He went into the room, which little did he know was exactly where the murder had been committed. (uses a comma).
When to capitalize.
Mom, Dad, Son, Daughter, Sister, Brother:
When specifically referring to the person, as if your character is calling them by name, capitalize. Otherwise, don't.
"I'm back, Mom! Is dad home yet?"
^- Mom is capitalized because she is being referred to directly. 'Dad' is simply being asked about. He is not capitalized.
Sir, Mam, and other titles.
Only the normal rules apply. Capitalize if they are at the start of a sentence.
Directions: North, East, South, West
Capitalize them when they specifically indicate a region or are necessary in order to understand the full name. They do not get capitalized when they are being used to only indicate a general direction.
They walked to the city's South Temple. (yes)
They walked south. (no)
7) Show, don't tell.
It can take a while to understand this one, but the basic premise is that you want to avoid writing descriptive adjectives and adverbs, and visually create an image in the reader's mind instead.
BAD: He was extremely angry about the results of the hockey game and went on a rampage afterwords.
Why is this bad? Because it's boring. It's bland. It's not even vanilla ice cream, it's just milk. It doesn't create an image inside of the readers mind. 'Extremely angry,' what does that even mean? 'Went on a rampage?' C'mon...
GOOD: His pulse was racing and his veins were throbbing after the hockey game ended. His rage was bubbling dangerously close to the surface. It was almost like he was about to have a seizure because of the convulsions. The rampage started when he picked up the remote and threw it into the television set, smashing the screen into countless shards. He roared and threw the coffee table over, causing its glass to shatter everywhere. By the time morning came, the house looked like it had been burglarized by some particularly ruthless vandals. Whoever said that Canadians weren't violent?
There is no fast and easy solution to figuring out how to show instead of tell. In fact, for your first draft you probably shouldn't even worry about it that much. Only when you start your editing do you concern yourself with making the transition from telling to showing.
Try to start by recognizing words like 'angry, sad, happy,' etc., and thinking about how you can make the reader visualize your character's emotions. Physically describe what the character is doing instead. Here is the article that first helped me understand this concept. I was fortunate enough to discover it early on.
Stuck on telling instead of showing? Here is a useful resource:
Body language cheat sheet.
8) When are you finished editing?
Perhaps this is the biggest question of all. Is it enough to go through your draft from start to finish only once? Should you do it twice? More?
The only question you need to ask yourself is: are you satisfied with what you've accomplished?
Because I'm a nerd, I look at editing like leveling up in a video-game. When you begin your first draft you're a level 1 writer, and when you finish that draft you're a level 10 writer. That means that the writing at the end of your draft is going to be much better than the writing at the beginning.
So you start your editing on page 1, now as a level 10 writer. By the time you get to the end you are now a level 20 writer, which means your beginning isn't quite up to par with what you are capable of now.
Back to page 1 again.
Keep doing this until you feel reasonably satisfied that your proficiency in writing and editing roughly matches up from page 1 until the last page of your book. Like any video-game, it's easy to level up in the beginning but it takes more time to reach the higher levels. Eventually your writing and editing start to even out.
In my case, I went from start to finish four times. I also had one round of what I call 'super-edits' for each of these drafts. This is where I loaded up Diablo 3, activated Ivona, and let it read my entire chapter to me while I carefully listened for anything that felt off.
Editing is an incredibly grueling, tedious and mind-numbing process. But it's also one of the most rewarding experiences you will ever have.
Last night I met with one of my beta readers to receive the first-ever feedback for my novel. She is a huge reader and absolutely loved my book. She initially said that she would read it over two weeks, but it ended up taking her only four days. That's a great feeling, and certainly not something that would have ever happened without proper editing first.
Writing a novel is like building a house, and turning your word-vomit draft into a masterpiece that you are proud of showing off is worth every single second of the effort that you put into it.
When it comes time to pitch your novel to agents, they will thank you too.