Editing a novel

I think it’s fair to say that most writers enjoy certain phases of the writing process more than others.

I enjoy the creative planning phase of a novel (which is mostly in my head) and writing the first draft. My least favourite part of the writing process (for a novel) is the editing process. I can write a novel in two months, but the editing process is a different matter.

Some people take ten years to write a draft, chugging out a few hundred words a day, here and there, and then it’s good to go.

Lee Child famously wrote one draft, and that was the final draft. Ian Fleming wrote his James Bond novels in two months.

We’re not all that lucky.

For the rest of us, I’m guessing, and hoping, that experience means that the first draft will get better and better, and the editing process will become shorter. Genre writers have the advantage. The simpler sentences and language lends itself to a speedier process.

There’s a lot of advice about writing a first draft. The best advice I’ve had about writing a first draft is... just get the thing done. Don’t worry about writing a masterpiece, just get it finished. Everyone has their own way of doing things, their own technique. Another tip that’s worked for me is, don’t go back and continually tweak the writing. Focus on getting it completed.

Of course other people do it differently. Some people start a writing session by editing the last thing they wrote in the previous session.

It’s surprising how little advice there is about the editing process. Most editing advice is about technical style (style guides), academic writing, plain English, copy editing, marketing blurb, and professional business content. There isn’t much about editing fiction.

The stuff that I usually see is based on absolute rules, like NEVER use an adverb (even though you see them being used in bestsellers).

Editing, for me at least, is more about rhythm and clarity. If you’re writing literary fiction, which I’m not, you are refining the allure of the prose, which is a magical thing in itself.

The truth is that very few people tell you how hard the editing process is. It’s hard work. It’s not just a tweak here and there, and a sprinkling of pixie dust. It’s not just about removing repeated words and correcting typos. It’s a total quality control overhaul — replacing crappy first ideas with shiny second, third and fourth ones.

5 critical points about my editing process

  1. Go into the editing process with a plan. How many words will I be editing per session or day? According to this schedule, when will the editing process be completed?
  2. Don’t beat myself up if I skip an editing session. That’s okay every so often.
  3. Have a clear sense of where I am in the chapter I’m editing. I set my writing app to show numbered paragraphs. In an editing session I know how many paragraphs I’ve edited. How many are remaining. It’s important to feel in control of the process.
  4. I drink a lot of coffee.
  5. Rewarding myself when I’ve attained my goal (beer, junk food, relaxing, watching a film, going for a walk, etc).

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