Essential writing skills: editing ain’t simple

Every so often I see something on social media that makes me blink a bit. Someone’s just ‘finished’ a novel – they’ve hit a word target – leaving just a spot of editing to do, and it’ll be out on Kindle in a couple of weeks.

Wright_Typewriter2I kind of go ‘auuuugh’ when I read something like that. Not least because long-experienced authors don’t usually measure results in terms of word count. Nor do they suffer under any illusions about the amount of work to be done on a manuscript after the first draft is done.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. Word count is a tool. It’s a device for identifying the scale of a book – for getting its structure right. It’s a way editors commission work. And authors do need to provide work to the commissioned scale. But it isn’t an end-point. Or even much of a way point.

What’s more, editing is a huge process. HUGE. Not least because there are at least three different types. It’s important not to mix them up. First off is author editing, which is the stuff the author does to get their draft manuscript to the point where the publishing process can start. This includes:

  1. Working over that draft for general content, potentially re-writing slabs of it (see what I mean about the word count being meaningless, other than as a guide to scale).
  2. Working over that draft, possibly several times, for proofing – grammatical sense, literal typos and so forth.
  3. Only then is the MS ‘finished’ to the point where it can be sent to the publisher. Or, if the author’s self-pubbing, put through the publishing process.

After that comes the publisher editorial process, which divides into two blocks – proof editing and line editing:

  1. That process begins with proof editing. This involves an independent proof-editor reading the MS for general content – consistencies, structure and so forth. Yes, the author’s done this too; but familiarity breeds contempt, and an expert oversight from someone else is essential.
  2. The MS also goes through a separate ‘line editing’ proofing process – line by line, word by word – for grammatical content, for literal typographical errors and so forth, all micro-scale stuff. Usually this is done before it’s typeset, and then again afterwards – sometimes twice afterwards. Again, the independent ‘fresh eyes’ principle counts.
  3. Only then is it ready for publishing.

All this takes time and – because it ideally needs to involve independent oversight – money. It’s not easy or simple. But it is important to the publishing process, whether a book’s being produced by a mainstream publisher or self-pubbed.

Why? It’s a competitive world out there: quality assurance counts.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015


30 thoughts on “Essential writing skills: editing ain’t simple

  1. THANK YOU! So many potentially-great stories must get wasted this way. I’ve seen this kind of thing from time to time – on WordPress, no less – and it annoys me every time.

    That said: for first drafts/new scenes I actually think that word count is a fairly good way to measure progress, simply because the primary aim there is to just get it on the page. This isn’t the case when editing, of course 😉

    1. Word count is definitely a useful tool when used right – when drafting, one trick is to use it as a monitor against structure. Is any given section of the work getting too long relative to the others? That’s true for total length of the work too.

  2. The dividing line between revision and editing is sometimes hard to perceive. On the two books I’ve published, I constantly revised. Generally, this has involved trying to make every word pull its weight: eliminating passive voice (which always seems to involve empty words), avoiding repetition of words within a short space of text, getting rid of empty cliches. This sort of work can be done by a talented editor—the sort known as a “content editor—but the bulk of the work needs to be done by the author. Then we get into the fine tuning. Some of this is simply making the text grammatically correct. This should be a matter of applying rules of grammar, about which little argument is possible. (This is more in the category of proofreading.) There is a slightly more complex, decision-oriented editing that involves improving the logic of the sentence. (This is copyediting.) I worked as an editor for some years, and I found that my schooling in philosophy helped me out. It has to do with a dedication to analytical thinking. General knowledge helps, too. I remember when an author placed the Crimean War in the Mediterranean rather than the Black Sea. That’s the kind of thing no spell-check function can fix.

    1. Fact-checking is definitely another aspect of the quality assurance job done by publishers. I’ve done that myself, professionally. And also had others, hired by my publishers, check my work. Sometimes it produces hilarity – queries such as ‘is this right?’ regarding some very obscure or arcane aspect of the content. Often it picks out the inconsistencies.

  3. I agree completely. I figured this out the hard way, and the first MS after that ‘aha’ moment looked like my pen exploded on every page.

    1. Pen-and-ink revisions that make the MS look like it’s just been very messily murdered are the best kind! Means the author’s thinking and the work’s moving forward!

  4. Totally agree, Matthew. As an indie-author who self-publishes I have to be certain the product is as good as I can make it. I use beta-readers, proof-readers and editors to make sure the book is grammatically correct, without any unnecessary adjectives and adverbs and as error free as possible. That doesn’t mean to say everyone is going to like my style of writing or the story line, but at least I know they can’t complain and the quality. Word count isn’t relevant. My biographical narrative ‘Daniel’ was ‘finished’ at 90,000 words, it was published with around 78000. ‘The Art of Secrets’ needed less than 70000 to be complete.

    1. Yes, the length of the first draft and the length of the final are often two different things. Word count is useful for monitoring those – but it’s not an end in itself! What counts is content. I’ve heard stories about non-fiction, written by enthusiasts, which publishers have taken up – and taken to with scissors, ditching vast slabs that the author thinks is part of the story and which to the editor looks like a demonstration of how many numbers the author’s been able to copy from archival lists, which only the author is likely to find gripping (I am put in mind of ‘The Testing of Eric Olthwaite’).

  5. I agree, there is way too much emphasis on wordcount. I’d prefer to read an edited, polished 30,000 word novel than a 80,000 word book that is probably 30,000 words of filler.

    1. Absolutely! The key to good writing is structure and content; word count is the way we measure whether the structure’s properly in place – and a commissioning tool for editors. But that’s about it…

  6. I, too, am always amazed when word count seems to dictate whether or not a MS is finished. As you and others have noted, an original manuscript and a solid first draft vary in so many ways and among them word count. Yes, it is a tool in writing, and it is one of the more finite, meaning a more definite measurement. And there is something to be said for having written so many words. I do remember that feeling, a bit of a reward.

    As for editing, there is so much a writer gains from a professional editor. In a recent publication of an article of mine, I was pleased to see a nudge here and there and that we both agreed on the one major change. Granted, it was a short article but her edits made me see some “habits” of mine. Thus, my overall writing gains as well, and that’s huge.

    Great post, Matthew!

    1. You’re quite right – a pro editor can often make constructive additions to a work that the author (however experienced) hasn’t thought of or seen. As Hemingway tells us, all writers are apprentices, sooner or later; and a ‘fresh pair of eyes’ can make all the difference. Editing is as much a learned and practised skill as writing. Actually, it worries me a bit that there is a concept out there in self-pubbing land that ‘editing’ is something anybody who’s written a bit can do. Actually, they can’t. Sigh…

  7. Great post! I, and several of my writing buddies like using NaNoWriMo events to write first drafts, or at least a good-sized chunk of one. I do see a few novices who think that getting x number of words written mean they’ve finished a book, though I hope they’re in the minority.

    For me, the first draft is the easy, purely enjoyable part, and then then the real work begins. I like using word count to keep myself accountable, set daily goals and make sure my pacing stays on target. In my limited experience, it takes twice as long for my part of the editing/revising as it does to write a first draft. Even though I do a lot of rewriting and adding/cutting during that part of the process, I don’t bother counting those words. And that’s before it goes to beta readers and editors.

    I think a lot of aspiring writers have trouble getting started, or even getting past the first few chapters. That’s where the word count goals are helpful. Just getting the words on the page is a huge accomplishment, but it’s also just an early step in a lengthy process.

    1. I agree – word count is a way for beginning writers to make initial progress. It’s a long haul to learn how to write well. To me, author editing is part of the writing process – and it always takes a good deal longer than the initial drafting. That varies between authors – it comes from the way writing happens. Some authors spend hours working up the first draft, polishing every sentence before moving to the next. They might take less time to then work the draft up to a final version than an author who ‘splurges’ the first draft and then goes back and re-works it. It’s whatever makes the writer more comfortable, though the ‘splurge’ author is usually ahead on the time-factor if the work has to be dramatically re-written.

      1. I learned pretty quickly that if I rework as I go, I make very little progress and end up rewriting most of it anyway.

        That being said, I feel like I learn a lot about writing with each editing pass, and try to remember at least some of it when writing the first draft of the next book. Perhaps it’s a pipe dream, but I keep hoping that I’ll learn to streamline and speed up the process as I gain experience.

        1. Writing is absolutely a learning curve, always! As Hemingway said, we are all apprentices… That said, experience counts for a good deal (as, I am sure, Hemingway very well knew…)

  8. I was thinking about the editing process the other day and compared it to painting a wall. One coat is never going to cover all the blemishes, bumps and scrapes of bare brick.

    And the word count thing is just infantile. I remember at school how impressive it looked to write more than two pages for an essay. Seems that attitude to accomplishment has been carried on into adult life by a lot of writers. Nanomamo or whatever it’s called should be hung out to dry for encouraging this silliness.

  9. You’ve hit on a bit of a nerve here. I was asked to write my first book by my publisher and, at the time, had little idea of the process or what a blurb meant or anything about cover design or anything, so I pretty much left it up to them. Once the book was published I settled in for a period of whooping and cheering and people who knew me from Blogland and others sent in nice reviews or did nice reviews on their Blog so all was well and dandy.

    After a pause other reviewers came online and, to be fair, they always started quite positively but then went on a lengthy rant about how the novel was marred by “shoddy editing.” Remarks of this kind were made by more than one reviewer. Finally a blogger who had commented on my Blog said something similar and I was able to contact them and ask for examples which they kindly supplied, and which I forwarded onto my publisher.

    Now, more experienced, and with my second novel about to be issued, I am much more aware of just how difficult editing is, and how even the best editing can miss the odd misspelling or whatever. Now I’m gritting my teeth and have the steel helmet at the ready, but we will have to wait awhile to discover if any blunders slipped unnoticed past the editors eye on this occasion.

    1. Editors are only human… 🙂 On my experience a good deal depends on the process the publisher uses – and, alas, on the money available to pay for editors. It’s iterative, and woe betide the publisher who thinks they can get away with as few as two proof-reads. A book I wrote for a major publisher last year had multiple editorial passes: it began with a proof-edit, then the MS came back to me to cross-check the proof-editors edits, then it was typeset, then the typeset version was checked for position and content, then back to me to cross-check the same, then it was proof-read for literals twice more – with queries back to me from the proof-reader – before being unleashed. A fairly robust process and very standard across the industry. I still got a letter from a vigilant reader pointing out a word out of place…

        1. Exactly. The guy who pointed out the wrong word actually set up a social media account, specifically for the purpose, then wrote a multi-page letter to the publisher about it. All triggered by one word…

  10. First drafts should really be considered outlines. From there we must cut, redefine, simplify, highlight…well, you get the idea. My editor just caught a flaw I, and other readers, had overlooked. She’s priceless!

  11. Great Post!! I couldn’t agree more!! I am now editing the 1st draft & it is a HUGE feat. Found you through twitter and so happy I did! 🙂

  12. With Hold the Faith, I did it all myself. It took a l o n g time… and even then when I read it back on Kindle, I spotted more, so there was another pass over the book.
    With the second book in the series, Grow in Grace, I had a proof-reader and an editor. (It was funny because she is American and I write i UK English… something I mention among the explanation of some of the words and the way time was reckoned in those days.

    I have given up on reading some books because the mistakes annoy me so much.

    It is hard to proof-read your own work, I know. Our brains are so clever they read what is meant to be, not always what is.

    Thank you for the post

    1. It is incredibly difficult for authors to proof their own work – as you say, we see what we want to. Editors absolutely make a difference. Good luck for your present and future volumes!

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