Squeezing the Stone: the Self-Editing Process

I’d like to talk a little about my self-editing process and how it’s evolved over the years. When I started writing in the 80s, self-editing was something of a mystery. My understanding was that writers were just supposed to write, then fire it off to the editor, who would fix all of the flaws in an otherwise genius manuscript. To be fair, this was somewhat true at the time. It certainly didn’t hurt to edit your writing, but in general, the expectation was that a publisher would have an editor or team of editors at the ready to help shape a novel. As time went on, I saw that task fall first to the agents, and at last to the writers themselves. Well, the writers and, if they can afford it, a good freelance editor.

I don’t lament the death of that old system. It resulted in inflated pricing, self-indulgence (see the best-selling author who gets by with a minimal edit), and inflated egos. I’m just saying that it was a different time, and I had every reason to believe that self-editing was not for me.

As time went on, however, and I learned more about grammar and style via publications like Writer’s Digest, a class from WD, and various self-help books, I saw that self-editing was a way to give yourself a leg up. This revelation opened up to me in relatively short order – probably a year or two, over my latter years of high school. I soon found that more self-editing on a work ended in better results overall – more acknowledgments and more opportunities. I can say without reserve that learning about self-editing got me a shot at a National creative writing prize in high school, one of only two students selected from our school that year.

The problem was that I wasn’t a very sophisticated self-editor. I knew enough to add a layer of polish, but not enough to make the leap to professional. I only really began to shape and evolve an editing process once I had a few failed novels under my belt. Better late than never, right? It was still a bit creaky, but I was getting there. The process accelerated as I began a professional technical writer and editor, with the latter giving me a big boost. Sure, the roles are aimed at a different audience with a different focus, but the principles of the English language are the same. Technical writing can be less dry and more interesting, believe it or not, and the use of active vs. passive sentences is even more critical, as active sentences are vital in defining roles and responsibilities.

So it was that my process evolved. For a long time, it was a three-pass process: finish the first draft, make a second pass on the computer (typed changes only), then print it out and mark it up for the third draft. This was satisfactory, but I wasn’t crazy about the results. This resulted in a fourth pass.

This process became my de facto from roughly 1999 to 2010, right up until I started taking things “seriously” and started working on the novel that would one day become The Corridors of the Dead. That book got a whopping seven passes, which was complete overkill. It drained the life out of the prose.

Figuring that there had to be a middle path, I retooled my approach once again. I scaled back my editing efforts, trying to compact the process. I think I’ve come up with something that works well for me. It looks something like this:

  1. Dictate the First Draft. Always the first step. I think this is the secret to forming natural-sounding language. It has to come out of my mouth first before it goes down on paper.
  2. Make Changes During Transcription. This isn’t so much a second draft as it a super first draft, I suppose. Details don’t come as quickly or as well when I’m speaking out loud, so I add the details and thoughts as I transcribe. I view the first two steps as something akin to sketching. The dictation represents the guidelines that an artist lays down first, and this step is starting to go over those guidelines.
  3. Rework as Warmup. I go back to the text from the previous day when I begin that day’s session. I do a quick run-through and see if something jumps out at me. In some ways, this is the second draft, but this is all compacted into a continuum. I write the initial draft in this manner, repeating the first three steps over and over until I have a completed manuscript.
  4. Wait. Finished draft in hand, I give it two weeks, at minimum. Let it sit and breathe. I’m always too close to the subject matter at this point; I don’t want to read from the perspective of a writer, but that of a reader and editor. Obviously I can’t be 100% objective, so I pass it off to trusted beta readers at this point. The speed of their comments is irrelevant now.
  5. Read. I read the manuscript, marking it up as I go. I either make changes on paper, or my new favorite method, importing a PDF into GoodReader on iPad and marking up the file. I slowly work through the novel, then go back and start adding the changes.
  6. Make a List. As I read, I begin to build a list of overused words and phrases. This would be what I talked about on Monday. As I come up on a critical deadline, I’ll try to get all those overused words and phrases nailed down first, then return to the other edits as necessary.
  7. Incorporate Beta Comments. Much like the drafting process, I’m now balancing three vital steps in one continuum, mixing in edits based on the beta reader comments in order to keep myself interested in the process. At this point, we effectively have six drafts, but the timeline is so compressed, the steps so intertwined, that it doesn’t feel like six drafts – there is no point where I have done six complete readings of the book.
  8. Hand off to the Pro. At this point, it’s ready to go to my editor, the insightful and detail-oriented Shelly Burnett (get ready to hear more of this name over the coming weeks). She performs a sanity check and basic proofread, as I’m fairly happy with the content as this point and don’t want to over think it.
  9. One Last Check. With her edits in hand, I perform one last spot-check, ensure formatting is correct, update the acknowledgments and copyright page, and it’s ready to go.

This process is different when it comes to short stories, obviously, but this seems an effective process for novel-writing, at least for me. It’s not as laborious as the seven draft version, even if it is essentially the same thing.

My goal is simply quality. I believe that readers deserve quality work, and that’s what I’m trying to deliver. I’ve read enough indie books that haven’t had the critical editing and quality passes, and they infuriate me as a reader. I’m glad to see Amazon cracking down on some of that now. The barrier to publication entry can stand to be reduced – hell, it’s inevitable and good for the craft. But I do think we need some sort of barrier before you can consider yourself a full, professional novelist. That barrier should be something as simple as understanding good quality (simple craftsmanship and pride in work) in writing.

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  1. I’ll let a ms sit over a month before I go back. Then my eyes are even fresher. I find the process changes as I go along. My first drafts are faster, almost rough outlines. The revision/polishing phase is tedious. I’ll spend days, a week or more on a chapter, revising again and again. Then it goes to my Crit partners. I revise again. I will spend at least a month in final edits. Maybe more. Depends how long the piece is. It will still go to an editor to catch what I missed and to fix my punctuation. 🙂

    • Sounds like a good process! My revision process was VERY tedious, too, and I figured out that it was killing a lot of my forward momentum and, frankly, boring me to death. I need to stay engaged throughout the process – that’s why I started using this approach. It also helps me to let go of some of my perfectionism, because I really believe there’s such a thing as “too much” when it comes to editing. I definitely found it with the original version of the book.

  2. Valuable check list! I’ve developed a similar process, except I don’t dictate. Instead I read out loud what I’ve written and make changes if it doesn’t sound natural.

  3. Sounds Like a very sensible process, Johnathan. I’m especially glad you included the “breathe” step where you back away for a couple of weeks minimum to give yourself some perspective. In this rush-rush world we live in today people sometimes forget to step away from it and instead rush through the editing. Good job!

  4. Thom Linehan
    I have been editing on and off since the spring and have had to let it rest. Before I send it off to an editor I’m going to give it one more go around, reading it out loud. I’m looking at Michael Garrett to do my editing. I’ve looked online and after so much reading I’m starting to feel I need someone with that kind of talent. any other suggestions?

    • Hi Thom!
      Unfortunately I don’t have a recommendation at the moment. My editor is new to editing books, though I’ve known her on a professional level for many years (she edits much of my technical writing) and trust her incredible eye for detail. Maybe once she’s a little more comfortable with the process I can start giving recommendations for her.

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