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  • Writer's pictureMatilda Reyes

Editing Won't Kill You, Though It Will Try

There are few things worse in a writer's life than editing that first draft. Why? Because the first draft is garbage. I know I say that a lot, but it's true ninety-nine percent of the time. There are a few talented writers who can publish their first draft without a second look-through, but I haven't met one yet. First drafts are what I like to call word vomit. You need to get the words on the page first before you pull out the mighty red pen (or use track changes).

You can't edit nothing.

So you made it through your first draft via NaNoWriMo or through your own years-long process of perseverance. You've written the words, "THE END". You sit back with satisfaction. Now what?

My advice is to step away from your literary baby for a couple of months. Nothing is better for a newly hatched story than a fresh set of eyes. When you return to it and read through, you might be horrified by the dangling participles, the obscene amount of adverbs, misuse or complete absence of commas, and spelling errors galore. It might break your heart. It always breaks mine because I thought I'd just finished my magnum opus.

Nope. What I have in my hands is a very roughly sculpted piece of clay. Now it's time to break out the tools and chisel the hell out of it.

So where do you start?

First things first - read it from beginning to end. Don't touch a thing. Don't edit a single word. Just read it. Does it make sense? Does the story have a tangible beginning, middle, and ending? Did your word processing software light up the page with errors? You have to identify the problem before you can fix it.

Next, make some notes on what you'd like to fix. Don't fix anything yet, just make your wish list. Finally, choose an editing method and stick to it. Let's start with the different kinds of editing. These are the kinds of edits most professional editors will offer. Their rates vary, so don't ask me if you're getting a good deal. I've got my person who I trust and they set their rates depending on the project and word count.

1. Copy Editing: This is a light form of editing that touches on grammar and mechanical issues in the tet. It's also the cheapest form of editing. 2. Line Editing: The editor examines the text line-by-line. They consider the power of chosen words, syntax, and order.

3. Proofreading: Proofreaders go through and mark any errors.

4. Substantive Editing: Editors clarify and tighten sentences, paragraphs, and chapters.

6. Developmental Editing: This is big-picture editing. It looks at, as the name implies, the development of the story and characters. Developmental editing is the most intensive form.

7. Fact-checking: Exactly what it sounds like. Did you write a historical romance that doesn't have the right castle name or clan plaid? Your readers might notice and call you out on it.

8. Formatting: Generally, editors don't format. You could do it yourself (I do), but it's always nice to get a professional's eyes on it. They will make your manuscript look pretty with chapter headings, proper margins for the size of the book.

But Matilda, I don't want to pay an editor!

If you plan to publish, even self-publish, suck it up and pay for one. You don't need an expensive editor, just a good one. You can only see so much and if your friends, even the English majors, take a look at it, they're not doing so with the eye of someone who does this for a living. Spell-check isn't enough. No editing software can take the place of a professional eye.


You absolutely should self-edit before you pass it on to a professional. You'll waste their time and your money if you don't bother to do the basics. If they have to spend their time inserting periods at the end of every sentence or setting your document up with standard formatting (0.5 margins, a suitable font like Times New Roman or Garamond, 1-inch margins, that sort of thing), then you'll pay out of your nose before they get to the good stuff.

How should you self edit?

1. Read a grammar book. I'm a snob. I believe if you don't have a decent handle on grammar, you need more help than the steps below can give. Writing is an art and to create art you need the proper tools. Grammar is the tool that we use to communicate to a wide audience in a way that everyone understands. Even pros can benefit from a quick review. There are many out there, but Strunk and White's Elements of Style is a great reference tool. It's short, to the point, and covers most of what you need to know. I'm not advocating pulling out your elementary school grammar book. I trust you and know you know your stuff. You have to know the rules before you can break them.

2. Look at your outline. If you listened to me and created any kind of outline, you know where you wanted to go and how you wanted to get there. Print out your work-in-progress (WIP) and your outline. Keep them side-by-side as you go read through your text. Did you cover the plot points you wanted to hit? Did you miss anything? Did you follow the flow you imagined? If you're a pantser, does your story look remotely like what you imagined? Does it have a clear beginning, middle, or end? Did you hit all the traditional plot points of a book (midpoint, climax, etc) that fall between the b/m/e? If you did, congratulations. You're not done, so keep reading.

3. Read it again and go line by line. Look for consistencies, spelling errors, typos, and terrible sentences. Have you spelled your characters' names the same way throughout? Are your rules of magic consistent? Does your city make geographical sense? If you're using the real world, have you looked at a map to make sure you know what you're talking about? Does your reality make sense within the context of your created world? If your spelling is terrible, don't worry, I've got you. Keep reading. Typos are pretty easy to catch if you read slowly, but you're not going to catch them all. Terrible sentences? Well, you'll know them when you see them. If you don't, keep reading. There's a point for you coming up.

4. Break out your editing software. This is where you use your wordprocessor's spelling and grammar check. This will get you sixty-to-seventy percent of the way there. It will catch things that you might not have seen in your last read-through. Go slowly and examine each suggestion it gives you. It may try to change the spelling of your dark elf wizard's name that has three apostrophes and weird letter combinations (by the way, please don't do that. If I can't pronounce it, I, as a reader, will just get irritated and put it down.). When you're done with that, you might want to consider investing in editing tools. ProWritingAid has a free version and it's pretty good. I invested in the paid version because I'm neurotic. I also paid for Grammarly's program because I found they catch different things. Between the three software programs, I get a mostly clean version before I'm ready to turn it over to my beta readers. (Beta readers are a different post.)

5. Read your work out loud. Yes, you can use text-to-speech, but if you can, read it out loud. You'll be able to hear where something doesn't make sense where you used an inappropriate word. Mark each issue down with a red pen for editing back on your computer. (I'm assuming you're not one of those maniacs who hand-writes their drafts. My hands are cramping just thinking about it.) When you're done, your pages might look like it's bleeding red. That's okay! You've found your issues just by reading your work, which you should do anyway. When you manage to do this, you're not done, so keep reading.

6. Reverse outline. Not everyone does a reverse outline, and no single outlining method works for everyone. There are several, so figure out which one works for you. If you decide to pants the whole thing, that's fine, too. Doing a reverse outline will help you establish patterns and structure. A reverse outline is a tool we use AFTER we have finished our first draft. It's a little labor-intensive, but worth the work. You can do this by hand, on a separate word document, or using an excel spreadsheet. Write down your chapter numbers/titles. Beneath that, number each scene and write down a synopsis of the scene in as few words as possible. Then go through each paragraph in the scene and summarize those in as few words as possible. Do this for the entire book. If you're feeling frisky, write down the POV, the characters in the scene, and any major actions that occurred. When you're done with all of this, look back at the outline. Do you have a coherent beginning, middle, and end? Are the parts of the story in the right order? For example, did the queen mourn the king's death in public before he was actually murdered by her lover? Are all of the scenes necessary to get the point across? Are there ancillary paragraphs that you can chuck? What details did you miss? What scenes do you need to write? Characters to eliminate? New characters or actions to fill plot holes? Uniforms of the king's guard to standardize? When you've done that, congratulations, you're almost done.

7. Revise, Rewrite, and Edit. Welcome to the fun part! If you've made it this far, you probably want to murder me. I understand. I feel that way whenever I sit to edit my own work. So you've done all your homework. You've fixed the typos, worked through the grammar and spelling, and you've identified plot holes. NOW is the time to go into your draft. Fix sentences, add details, get rid of superfluous words. Delete sentences, paragraphs, and scenes.

Congratulations. You're on to your second draft. Have fun!

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