By R.J. Harlick
We're asked a lot about how we write, but less about how we edit. How do you know what to change and when to stop?
I love editing. It’s when I get to transform my rough first draft into a real book.
Because I don’t outline, I use the first draft to get the story down, without giving thought to writing niceties. Once a chapter is finished, I never go back but keep plunging forward until I type the last sentence of the story. Well, not quite the last sentence, rather I stop when the major plot line has reached its conclusion, usually when the murderer is finally caught. I often don’t write the final tying-up-the-ends chapter(s) until I’ve had a chance to digest all the storylines through successive revisions.
I use the first revision to flesh out the storylines, resolve inconsistencies and add depth and colour to the prose. My first draft is often quite spare, because I am more interested in writing the story down than adding meat to it. I fine-tune my characters to make them more alive and distinctive. I flesh out the settings, adding description that works on all the senses, so my readers can image themselves in the middle of it. I hone my characters’ dialogues to ensure they are distinctive and unique to them. While I do some word streamlining, I don’t worry about it with this revision. Needless to say the first revision often has a greater word-count than the first draft.
At this point I send my manuscript off to various critical eyes to get their input for the second revision.
Further fine tuning takes place with the second revision. By now I really know my story and my characters, so can more easily see the ‘forest for the trees’ so to speak and identify the improvements that need to be made to make it flow smoothly. Plus I have the feedback from my critical eyes to help hone it into what I hope will be a winning story. Even at this stage substantial changes have been known to happen. This is also when the major polishing of my prose takes place. Sometimes I will read sections out loud, though I don’t usually do it for the entire book. I find this helps to find the clunky prose and the dialogue that doesn’t work.
I do one final pass through before I send the manuscript to my publisher. I look for inconsistencies I’ve missed and other anomalies. But usually at this stage it is minor tweaking. With this revision, my major task is to further tighten the prose and rid it of any remaining useless words and to get it to down to the word count my publisher has stipulated, if it’s not already there.
One of the most valuable edits I ever did was when my editor told me I had to reduce my manuscript by another 10,000 words. I almost croaked, until she suggested it was a simple matter of deleting a hundred and fifty words or so from each chapter, which sounded much easier. And easy it was. By the time I’d finished I knew I had a much better book. I now make this final edit a practice.
But of course this isn’t the end of the edits. It’s my editor’s turn to go through the manuscript and identify changes. We usually do a bit of horse trading, with me readily agreeing to some, compromising on others and outright rejecting the rest. But at this point the edits are usually minor.
The last and final pass through is on the proofs. I always feel a thrill when I see my words finally in book format. My only task is to catch any real bloopers that haven’t already been caught, like names that weren’t changed and the like.
And once I send it off, that’s it. That’s the last I will read these words, for I never read the book after it is published.
P.S. I don't think I'm this bad, but sometimes it feels like it.