Editing: A Pictoral Essay

Sort of.  Really more like some rambling with photos included.  Here's the thing: I’ve been wanting to talk about editing since I’m in the middle of it for two manuscripts, but have completely blanked on finding a workable analogy other than sculpting which I'm sure has been used a gazillion times (first draft = lump of clay, yadda, yadda) and also which I know nothing about.

What I do know about are fashion faux pas (illustrated by the following embarrassing pictures...that apparently don't embarass me enough), which work pretty well to cover the stages of a manuscript and its edits. 

Stay with me on this one...

The First Draft:  It’s messy, kind of ugly, but hey, it’s there.  Out of bed.  And happy about it too!  It’s utilitarian, but isn’t something you’d take out in public.  Ever. 

My mantra for drafting - and apparently Easter - is just get it done, give yourself something to work with.  Even if there's a lot of work to do. 

My manuscript for Book Three looks like this right now and, I don’t want to hurt its feelings or anything, but honestly?  I’m a little scared to even look at it. 


First pass:  If you can, step away from the First Draft for a while before this stage.  Give it a chance to get some coffee, take out the rollers or whatever.   Distance makes it easier to see that, even though you're clean and fully dressed, brown boat shoes don't really work with a dress.  Or knee socks.  And you're too old to be carrying a Star Wars lunch box (because you are clearly not retro). 

At this stage of editing you're trying to focus your story, balance themes and characters, ensure consistency in voice and logistics.  Get rid of unnessary stuff (like the lunch box) and fix glaringly bad scenes or dialogue (the brown shoes).  Make sure your story and characters (and your outfit) are cohesive and centered on the right goals and conflicts.  


Second pass:   This is actually the stage where I think it's most important to put some distance between yourself and your now-smoothed-over manuscript.  If you haven’t, you'll leave the house wearing brown knee socks with a hole in the toe.  With sandals.  And shorts. 

It couldn't be more obvious that this is just wrong, but yet...here I am, out in public.  Same with editing.  You need distance so you don’t skim over that terrible dialogue or unnessecary scene because you've read it so many times it's become invisible.  Two weeks of not looking at it is usually enough for me and when I re-read, the bad stuff jumps out like...holey brown socks.  Put on some new socks or decide if your manuscript might be better without them altogether, then send your draft to...


Beta Readers:  These are the good friends who’ll tell you that yes, actually, you do look fat in those jeans or it's time for a new haircut/winter coat/glasses.  Or that it really doesn't matter what you wear them with, knee socks aren't cool.

If you don’t have friends like that, join a writing group – people who couldn't care less if you never talk to them after they tell you the truth.  If you can't find a writing group, try critiquecircle.com, an online version. 


Third Pass:  Go get that haircut or join a gym.  Take the Beta Reader advice that you know in your heart to be true (and think hard about the stuff you're sure they're wrong about, because maybe they aren't.  Maybe knee socks really aren't cool...).   

With the distance waiting for reader feedback has given you, now's a good time to take a critical and more detailed look at your writing, too.  Have you used the same word too much? (hurt and pointedly are offenders in my current ms)  Get out a thesaurus and fix it.  Are there passages and dialogue that catch you – and not in a good way – every time you read?  Work on them.  Make sure scenes and descriptions have a purpose.  If you could take them out with no measurable difference to the manuscript, do it (tho' I always save them in case I change my mind). 


Submit:  To agents, editors, wherever you are in the game or route you choose.  To me, this is the stage where it makes sense to get a professional involved.


Wash, rinse, repeat:  Yup, it's a pain and sometimes you think: not again!  But just because you've done it before, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t apply deodorant or brush your teeth every morning. 

Once you have an agent and/or editor, you're back to the Beta Reader stage.  They will see things in the story that aren't working.  You will fix them.  The manuscript will get better and better as you go through a Fourth Pass.  And probably Fifth.  And maybe more. 


The Final Adjustments:  The last stages of editing – where I am with The Vision now – are the time for hardcore wordsmithing and intense scrutiny.   Your manuscript's in the best shape yet, looking pretty good if you say so yourself, but that doesn't mean it's perfect.  Just because a description or bit of dialogue is good, doesn't mean it actually adds to the story.  Just because a sentence makes sense, doesn’t mean it couldn’t be better.  Don’t be lazy is my mantra at this stage.  Think hard about each paragraph, each word because once you start down that aisle, there's no turning back.  Not without a lot of trauma and expense, at least. 

This is the most painstaking, but also best part of the process, imo, because there's a real sense of satisfaction when something comes out just right.  A writer's ultimate good hair day.