How Do You Edit It?

What am I doing right now?  I’m immersed in self-editing AA2.  It’s an intense process and, while I’ve touched on it in bits and pieces in the past, I had a series of questions from one of the newer readers of these Wanderings that made me think this would be a good time to take a different look at the process.

Sonata for Red Pencil and Paper

Sonata for Red Pencil and Paper

So here are the Questions.

“I know you don’t outline.  But do you edit at all as you write?  Do you do an entire draft and go back through it?  How many times do you go through the book before it goes to an agent or editor?  How far along is it before Jim reads it?  How much does his feedback factor in?  What other first readers do you count on?

Answer 1: I don’t outline.  Really.  Before I start a novel, I have a general feeling about it, but I really don’t know where it’s going until shortly before I get there.  However, I do organize, pretty stringently.  I call this process “Reverse Outlining.”  Since I wrote about that process back in July (WW 7-24-13), I won’t go into details here.

Do I edit as I write?  Yes.  However, this tends to be minimal (altering a word or two).  I’ve known writers who begin their writing day by re-reading what they wrote the day before and carefully grooming it.  Then they move onto the next day’s writing.  I do that occasionally, but usually only when I need to jog my memory as to where I was last session.  Otherwise, I pick up where I stopped and go on from there.

Answer 2: Yes.  I pretty much write an entire draft of a novel (or short story) before I go back through it.  There are two exceptions.  One is if I have a major interruption in the writing process, such as a long trip or a several weeks’ break because another writing obligation comes up.  Then I need to go back and find out what I’ve actually written, in contrast to what I’d thought about writing.  If my reverse outline is up to date, sometimes I just consult that.

Answer 3: How many times do I go through a manuscript before I send it off to my agent or editor?  At least twice, often three times.  The first review is on the computer.   In this reading, my primary goal is to fill in details I left out.  I’ve never been a writer who slows down the flow of a good yarn because I can’t remember the color of a secondary character’s hair or the day of the week or suchlike.  When I come to such a point, I slam in square brackets, sometimes with a note to myself inside them like [color?] and keep going with the story.

This is also where I check continuity and tighten prose, removing duplicate descriptions and other elements that creep in when (for the writer) weeks have passed, when for the reader only a chapter or so has gone by.

I do my second read-through on a hard copy of the manuscript.  This is a step I never, ever, ever skip.  I seat myself squarely at the table with no fewer than two red pencils at hand and a red pen in case I want to write an additional paragraph.  (I write faster in ink than in pencil.)  I am as ruthless as possible in this reading: cutting, augmenting, rephrasing, whatever it takes.

Back when I was first getting started, I’d often read the manuscript aloud.  There’s no better way to catch clunky sentences or omissions.  I still do this with short stories.  An added bonus is that reading a manuscript is great training for giving public readings.

Another reading of sorts occurs when I am incorporating my changes into the manuscript.  This forces me to take another close look.

Answer 4: How far along is the manuscript when Jim reads it?  How much does his feedback factor in?  Jim doesn’t see the manuscript until I’m done with these first two or three readings and have made all the corrections.  Basically, he doesn’t see the story until it’s as good as I can possibly make it.

Occasionally, if I like a particular line or something, I might read it to him.  He’s very patient about hearing parts of novels with no context.  However, I don’t look for feedback as I write.

Jim’s feedback is very important.  Although it might surprise those who think of archeologists as mere grubbers in the dirt, a lot of the work involves writing.  Since Jim’s a project director, he also does a considerable amount of editing.  So I’m really lucky in that my first reader is both a writer and a professional editor.

If I disagree with one of Jim’s comments, I make a note of it.  If I hear the same comment from another reader, then I take it as a given that I have failed in some way to communicate my intent.  Then I will do my best fix the error.

Answer 5: What other first readers do I count on?  This varies from book to book, based on who has time and who I can trust to be ruthless with me, if such is called for.  Much as I love hearing that I’m someone’s favorite author or that I write wonderful books, such praise isn’t helpful when a book is still in the evolving stages.  Heck, even questions about a book that’s published can be useful.  Sometimes, if I’ve left something out, I can put it in later in the series (assuming there is a series).  Reader comments aren’t always useful because some readers want to dictate a direction for the series that I never intended, but I’d rather have them than not.

Another important thing I look for in a first reader is a familiarity with science fiction and fantasy as a genre.  Readers who don’t know the conventions of the genre may praise where praise isn’t really due.  (I remember a long-ago colleague who was fascinated by my use of the term “credits,” rather than money in Smoke and Mirrors.)  Or they may get flummoxed by some standard genre element and want more explanation than is due.

Answer Six: Wait!  There was no Question Six.

Time for me to haul out the red pencils and get back to work.

If you’re interested in other bits I’ve written about revising, editing, and taking criticism, you might enjoy the Wanderings for 2-08-12 (“When It’s There…  But It Isn’t”) and 2-15-12 (“Two Heads or Too Many Cooks?”).

This doesn’t mean I don’t invite other questions.  By all means, bring ‘em on!


20 Responses to “How Do You Edit It?”

  1. Nicholas Wells Says:

    I’ll have to think about that reverse out-line thing. Like you, I’ve given up on out-lines. I think my current record is two chapters before the one I wrote was scraped.

    I’d do the printed thing too, but I can’t afford that much paper. Still, reading aloud and the reasons for it (all of them) are worth working on.

    • Peter Says:

      Paper is definitely worth it, especially when proofreading carefully to make sure you didn’t any words out. On-screen editing is wonderful for, for example, moving blocks of text around (I remember when cutting and pasting involved scissors and glue), but nothing replaces paper for the final edit.

      • Julie Hagan Bloch Says:

        Scissors and glue, or sometimes tape, yeah, I remember that! And writing teeny little letters so you can fit in an additional sentence or even paragraph.

  2. fruus Says:

    Great read! You should post this on

  3. Julie Hagan Bloch Says:

    This is only marginally (no pun intended 🙂 connected with the topic, but it’s something that has bugged me for quite a while. I’ve often come across malapropisms (not in your books!) that have me shaking my head. (I blame spell check.) An author puts in a word that I *almost* the correct one [pause here for a nod to the department of redundancy department]. I keep wishing that the authors had access to better proofreaders/editors. The one that has stuck in my mind for a while now is “centurion”; clearly, judging from the rest of the description, the author meant “centenarian.” That one gave me an amusing image, but distracted greatly from the flow of the story. What is sad and disturbing is that some of the misused words are quite common. What kind of education are kids getting any more? I won’t even go into the poor grammar and punctuation. Mine isn’t perfect, but then I’m not claiming to be a professional writer. It’s like letting it slide with your neighbor says “noo-kyul-er” instead of “nuclear”, but when a professional speaker, radio or television reporter says it, that’s just a shame. It’s their JOB, for cryin’ out loud!
    Sorry for the rant. It’s still B.C. (before coffee) for me.

    • Louis Robinson Says:

      As much as I sympathise, having repeatedly had to grit my teeth in much the same circumstances, I am forced to point out that there’s a reason we’re not writing this in Old English, nevermind proto-Indo-European.

      Living languages evolve, constantly and continuously. [Actually, a look at Church Latin shows that even dead languages evolve, if rather slowly] Only in retrospect can Old English be distinguished from Middle English from Modern English – there wasn’t a day in 1584 when everybody south of the Tweed and east of Offa’s Dyke switched over to the new vocabulary, grammar and pronunciation. The notion that speech can be carved in stone – or, for that matter, that there’s only one right way to do it – is one of several conceits inherited from the Sun King. Unlike the ballet, it’s not all that terribly good an idea 😉

    • Peter Says:

      Aye biome spill chuckers fore id.

  4. Julie Hagan Bloch Says:

    Okay, Louis, I get your point: you are right, language does evolve over time. That said, when I read a text in which many words are misused, I am almost certain to avoid reading more from that author. If the text in question is not intended to be fictional, then I have serious questions about its credibility; if something so easy to check as the meaning of a word is incorrect, how much more so would be things that are not so easy to verify. Thus, I suppose, the easy recognition of a phishing e-mail.
    In any case, I must say that an author who is lazy about word usage is generally not one whose work I hold in much regard.

  5. janelindskold Says:

    Louis, I think there’s a big difference between not knowing the difference between “centurion” and “centenarian,” and the evolution of languages.

    I assume your comment was regarding pronuciation. Perhaps be a bit more clear?

    Word processing programs with automatic spell checking add to this problem because sometimes they change the word into one the author did not intend. Writers who proof relying on a little red highlight to tell them a word isn’t “right” can get screwed.

    Computer grammar checkers are worse, because they oversimplify and have no sense for style.

    I realize that ink for printing and paper for same can cost, but they are a lot less expensive than computers and I haven’t yet met a writer who doesn’t think that’s a worthwhile investment.

    • Heteromeles Says:

      Oh do I agree on the problems of spell-checking. Still, Julie has a point. Crappy word choice is one of those things that reveals the writer’s ignorance faster than just about anything else.

      My current whipping-boy comes from a document I was asked to comment on. Sample sentence: “Restoration should focus on habitat patches that retain spacing which allows for a flow of genetics for multiple biomes.” It parses as English, all the words are correctly spelled, and it is even grammatical, but the word choice reveals an ignorance that, well, concerns me. I’m not looking forward trying to tell the writers that they need to totally rewrite it, and just possibly that they need to consult a few experts in the field before they do. They’ve already demonstrated a propensity for taking it badly, and I’m not very diplomatic.

      I bring this up primarily as a warning to SFF writers: Sentences like the one above are a dead giveaway that the writer doesn’t understand what he or she is talking about. For grumpy readers like myself, sentences like the above are cues to drop out of pleasurable reading mode and start looking to see what else is wrong with the manuscript. Not that I was reading that thing for pleasure, but mistakes like this are like cockroaches. Once one has scurried out into the light, a bit of searching usually reveals many more.

    • Louis Robinson Says:

      I can’t argue with you on the sense of the cents. Nor do I argue that misuse of words is irritating, and leads to doubts about the competence of the author. The problem with that is that I have not infrequently gotten my dander up, only to discover that the writer in question knew rather more about the word than I did. Not only pronunciation, but sense and usage change, sometimes drastically. Two examples:

      Do you argue that the modern sense and use of ‘decimate’ is utterly wrong, simply because few if any people now use it exactly the way a centurion would have? I wouldn’t, despite the fact that it gives me a feeling of mild superiority over others to be aware of the original, precise, sense. The current usage, to indicate appalling losses, isn’t wrong, because losing 10% of a military force in one engagement _is_ appalling: it’s enough to break just about any unit, from the IX Legion to the 82nd Airborne.

      Now try location – I just pulled this up in the OED, and found, much to my surprise [see 1st paragraph], that the original sense, which it would have carried when adopted from French, is _not_ obsolete, although I suspect it’s now very rarely used. This is the meaning it also has in French: to rent or place for rental. The second sense, “The action of placing; the fact or condition of being placed; settlement in a place.”, surprised me just as much, although in fact it’s not all that rare. If I thought about it, I would have tagged it as ‘misuse’, when they should have used ‘to locate’. In fact it’s as old a usage as any of them, but I have always assumed that the true and correct sense in English was “local position, situation”, which is actually #3 on the OED’s list. How or when the meaning of locate and location shifted I can’t say, since the OED’s citations only go back to the 16th century, but I think you’ll agree that the logical trail from renting to position is tenuous at best. Nonetheless, that’s the route these words have followed. [BTW, the French does follow the original Latin almost exactly]

      I guess my point is that, however irritating it is to see words used in ways we wouldn’t, or to hear them pronounced strangely – both of which I do find extremely irritating – that doesn’t always make _us_ right. More importantly, even if we would have been right a decade ago, there’s no way to know today if the other guy is ahead of the curve, or we’re behind it.

  6. Julie Hagan Bloch Says:

    Heteromeles, I totally agree! As a fellow “grumpy reader”, I have taken to highlighting misused words as I find them in a text, in the admittedly unlikely event that I wish to share some helpful suggestions with an author. Even if I don’t share (and the only time I did share about word misusage was the centurion/centenarian one), I have done something to ease my own disgruntlement.

  7. Julie Hagan Bloch Says:

    Louis, I almost always double check before I assume I’m right, even for words I think I know. (Curiously enough, I did know that originally “decimate” had a different meaning originally.) And again, yes, word meanings and pronounciations do change over time. But the fact remains that sometimes words are truly misused and the author should know better. Do you think English teachers, editors, and proofreaders should gloss over any misuse of words just because the language is evolving? Or should they rather endeavor to foster the correct use of the language as it is now? (Just to be clear, by “correct” I mean a meaning that can be found in an up to date, unabridged dictionary or even a somewhat out of date unabridged dictionary. And yes, I do know that even the most up to date dictionary still isn’t current to the minute.) For a professional author to indulge in poor word usage, language evolution notwithstanding, is just sloppy. And please forgive my saying so, but to make excuses for it seems to be to be just a bit enabling. As a side note, the tomes in question have (so far, in my reading experience) also shown evidence of a lack of research into other areas.

    • Louis Robinson Says:

      Sorry. Been watching Olympics instead of typing 🙂

      It looks like you want an Academie Americaine to dictate what linguistic change is permissible – or none at all? – since currently the only way to get things into your accepted sources is for people to use them, and if you won’t let them be used until they’re in, they can’t _get_ in. I can’t see that going over particularly well, since it already doesn’t work for the folks who invented the idea: Les Immortels are honored far more in the breach than the observance these days.

      In short[ish], no, they should rather endeavour to foster an understanding of language, it’s purpose and function – which would lead naturally to why certain infelicities are a bad idea.

      BTW, there is here a usage up with which i clearly haven’t kept: last time i used it, to enable was pretty much binary – something is enabled or it isn’t. Rather like pregnancy, AAMOF. It’s hard to imagine being somewhere on a range of enablement. Even worse, it was completely value-neutral, not the perjorative you have asked forgiveness for [freely given, of course] How did all that happen?

      • janelindskold Says:

        Louis —

        I don’t see any evidence of Julie Hagen Bloch saying that…

        And her use of “enabling” is correct in a modern sense — those who make it possible for other people to do something (with the implication that such behavior is not completely positive).

        For someone who is apparently in favor of evolving language, I think you’re playing head games.

      • Julie Hagan Bloch Says:

        Gosh, Louis, where to begin? I’ll start with the word “enabling”, which (as it happens) I did look up just to be sure I was using it correctly. (Did you? 🙂 One dictionary definition given for enabling is: to make able; give power, means, competence, or ability to; authorize, and the part of that which Jane mentioned is but an extension of that; it’s the term used in a psychological sense. Here’s a definition for that sense of enabler: : one that enables another to achieve an end; especially: one who enables another to persist in self-destructive behavior (as substance abuse) by providing excuses or by making it possible to avoid the consequences of such behavior
        That sense has been in somewhat common usage in this country for several decades, as far as I can recall. Here’s a Wikipedia entry about it:
        I agree that it would be lovely if educators were to foster an understanding of language, its purpose and function, and it would be lovely if by doing so, a deep understanding of words and their evolution would thus transfer to personal usage in all respects. But surely you are not implying that doing so therefore allows one to randomly use words that more or less sound okay, or that you maybe heard once used in a certain way, or that you think might be nice? Are you suggesting that any use of words at all is acceptable? If so, why, then, would it occur that “certain infelicities are a bad idea”?
        Please understand, the evolution of language is a fascinating topic, and I love learning how language evolves, changes, morphs, and wiggles its way into new forms and usages. And I love it when it’s done skillfully. It is all totally cool. But still, the fact remains that sometimes words are misused. And when I am deeply involved in a story, that misuse is jarring to me (most of the time, I *do* check to be sure I’m not mistaken, because I am fully aware that I still have much to learn!) And I reiterate that it is the author’s job to learn her craft. True, that learning is not accomplished overnight, nor is it even possible to craft a work of any length whilst also double checking every single meaning. But it behooves an author to have at least one knowledgeable proofreader go over the text before publishing. And evidence suggests that that has not been the case in several novels I’ve read. I am curious to learn what might be your opinion of a text in which the author has used several words whose meanings may not be found in *any* dictionary? ( I’m not referring to authors, such as Lewis Carroll, who intentionally make up new words or who deliberately misuse words for comic effect. As Paul said, “Gotta know the language and grammar rules before you can break ‘em.”)
        Louis, I really don’t disagree with much of what you have said. I really don’t. I just think it’s a really good idea if authors understand the meanings of the words they use, and when making up a new word, to do so thoughtfully and not out of ignorance.

        [Oh, by the way, in re-reading my previous postings, I noticed a few spelling errors. My apologies! I should have proofread more carefully. I really do need to enlarge the font so I can see it better.]
        [And another aside: here’s an interesting article on ending sentences with prepositions: ]

        and another for third person singular neutral gender pronoun:

  8. Paul Says:

    Gotta know the language and grammar rules before you can break ’em.

  9. Heteromeles Says:

    I’d also pitch in that the purpose of language is communication, not evolution.

    Since I’m a fan of the radio show “A Way With Words,” I’ve learned that language tends to evolve something like organisms do. A variation appears, sometimes in a family (the show gets calls occasionally that ask “does anyone else say this, or is it unique to my family?), and then it spreads (the hosts answer no, that it’s a new term that’s spreading among some population or other), then multiple versions coexist along side one another (regionalisms, like soda vs. pop, or bubbler vs. drinking fountain), and eventually forms become limited to particular generations (a term may have been popular in the 1930s, and only people born up until the mid-20s ever use it), and finally the term becomes obsolete and vanishes (Gadzooks! Methought the villein would never end his drivel! or, like, whatever dude)

    There’s a critical difference between multiple usages and crappy usages. The example I quoted above (“Restoration should focus on habitat patches that retain spacing which allows for a flow of genetics for multiple biomes.”) is not an example of allowable alternate usage. Rather, it’s an example of someone writing out of at least partial ignorance of what the words mean. In this particular case, the meanings matter. I’ll also point out that I’m being a little nasty here, in that I’m not telling you what all is wrong with that sentence. If you can’t tell what the issues are, you might want to do a bit of research before writing something similar. We all face that problem when we start talking about things we don’t entirely understand, and we all have to be careful in this regard.

  10. Julie Hagan Bloch Says:

    Yes! I am so grateful for how easy it is to research words, phrases, and information in general nowadays. It can change a “WTF?” to “Oh!, now I get it!” without even having to leave the house. Admittedly, sometimes the information may be incomplete or even suspect, but persistence often clarifies things. And sometimes we learn our errors after having published them. (Oops!) 🙂

  11. janelindskold Says:

    To weigh in again…

    Language is communication. If language fails to communicate, then it isn’t language.

    Part of the job of editing is making sure that the words used communicate the idea or image desired.

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