An Editing Process

I've been working on refining my editing process for some time now, and as I put another chapter to bed, I thought I'd lay it out for myself and for interested readers. This is a long-form process, but I've used an abbreviated version of it for short fiction. I think it strikes a balance between drafting huge chunks of prose before editing, which I simply cannot do, and micromanaging my fiction, which I have done.

On a good day, I draft between 1000 and 1250 words. It's a modest, but achievable word count that ostensibly produces a book-length manuscript in under a year. The following day, I edit the previous day's work and draft another 1000 to 1250 words. At the completion of a chapter, I pass through the whole thing three times; once to take notes, once to make corrections and once with a text-to-speech program that reads the work aloud. They key to this part of the process is to draft only what I can edit the next day and still make my word-count goal. Any more, and I get sloppy. Any less, and I'm not working hard enough. Another important thing to remember is that once a chapter is 'done', any new notes should be saved for section edits. Otherwise, this already recursive process becomes something of an infinite loop.

My first novel was divided into three acts, or sections. When I finished the first section, I re-read each chapter once for the sake of internal continuity, plot progression and pacing, deciding on the placement of the aforementioned chapter-level notes I had set aside and taking new notes. Then I read it again to make the changes. When I was done, I read it with the text-to-speech program. This allowed me to correct those ubiquitous problems of novel-length prose having to do with characterization, props and the like and make any necessary changes before drafting the next section. Again, it's important to remember that once a section is 'done', any new notes should be saved for whole-novel edits.

When the novel was completed, I began the first of two whole-novel passes, which is what I'm doing now. In it, each chapter received the same three-pass treatment it received in chapter and section edits; once to check for overall continuity, to indicate the placement of any outstanding notes and to take new ones, once to make the corrections and once with the text-to-speech program. Last, and this will come next for me, I intend to read the whole novel front to back, as a reader might.

By the time I'm done, each chapter will have been read ten times. I know that sounds like a lot, and perhaps I'll be able to streamline this process for future novels, but I can tell you that it's been a real eye-opener for me to work through this whole-novel pass. I've uncovered things I missed in previous passes that I would have been mortified to see in print, and I've been able to improve the flow of ideas tremendously, sometimes with a single word ('individuals' was my latest triumph). I should also mention that the greater the complexity of the work, the more recursive the editing process tends to be for me, and this wee beast of mine has a complexity to it that needs the clarification of several editorial passes. This is also, of course, why I so jealously guard my writing time.

For those of you who like lists, here's my process in a nut shell:

    Chapter-level Edits
  • Day 1: Draft what you can thoroughly edit tomorrow.
  • Day N: Edit yesterday's work, and draft what you can thoroughly edit tomorrow.
  • Upon chapter completion:
    • 1st Pass - Take notes.
    • 2nd Pass - Make corrections.
    • 3rd Pass - Read the chapter aloud.
    Section-level Edits
  • For each chapter:
    • 1st Pass - Check section continuity, place outstanding chapter-level notes and take new ones.
    • 2nd Pass - Make corrections.
    • 2nd Pass - Read each chapter aloud.
    Novel-level Edits
  • For each chapter:
    • 1st Pass - Check overall continuity, place outstanding section-level notes and take new ones.
    • 2nd Pass - Make corrections.
    • 3rd Pass - Read the chapter aloud.
  • Read the final product from start to finish.

I'd be thrilled to read about your editing process, if you'd like to share, and I'd also be grateful for any suggestions you might have. Editing is different for everyone, and I think it would be great to help strengthen one another in this regard. If there's enough response, I'll post a follow-up entry with your thoughts, properly attributed and with links to your web sites or blogs.

That's it for now. Happy recursive editing, recursive editing, editing!