When I was in college, I worked on the school’s student newspaper as a copy editor. This role had me editing and proofreading articles written by my peers ahead of publication online and in print. Even though journalism is a different form of writing than fiction, both involve telling stories in the best way possible.
I would be lying if I said I knew how to write from the start. In fact, there is a lot I don’t know about storytelling and am in the process of learning. The same goes for editing. My time on the student newspaper was one of the experiences that really helped me identify where my own writing needed improvement. I tend to learn more about my stories not as I’m outlining or writing the first draft, but as I’m editing them.
There are several angles I take when editing, and this week’s post sets out to break down the way I edit my own fiction.
My editing process consists of four different phases.
Breaking the process up into smaller chunks makes it all a little more manageable.
The first thing I do when editing a work of fiction is to print it out. I find it easier to catch mistakes in my own writing on a physical copy than on a screen.
This stage of my editing process is where the big stuff happens. As I’m reading through the chapter, I make marginal notes about things I need to fix. These include plot points I need to update, where I need to add more information or remove an irrelevant line, inconsistencies, areas where I want to check my research again to make sure what I have is correct, and any other thoughts I have.
In the journalism classes I took and in the student newsroom, any editing we did was done in the traditional red pen. One of my professors also taught fiction classes and made her critiques with a green pen because it seemed less daunting.
For my own editing, I employ a set of fine felt-tip markers in an array of colors. Between the size of my handwriting and how many marks I typically make on a page, I find it easier to distinguish what I mean rather than risk things getting muddled as a result of every mark being the same color.
On occasion, I have assigned specific colors for different things. Violet is a note relevant to one protagonist whereas Red is saved for another, or blue is for dialogue while orange is for scene descriptions. My use of this color-coding system varies, though I do know it works for some people.
As with writing, clarity is king in editing.
In the Paper Edits stage, I use a combination of symbols and marks that are commonly used in journalism (as seen below) out of habit.
I also use several abbreviations and codes in addition to the standard copyeditor marks, developed over the years based on the frequent issues I have to fix.
DT | Dialogue Tag
DT most often means I need to specify who is speaking or where I need to insert a pause in a large chunk of dialogue.
TOV | Tone of Voice
Even though I limit my use of dialogue tags (Said, Told, Explained, etc.) I still want to indicate how something is being said. TOV notes are added to remind myself to convey this for a particular line of dialogue.
DESC | Description
As I’ve mentioned a few times on the blog, my rough drafts are pretty skeletal, meaning they lack detail. DESC is a code I’ll write in where I feel I need to add more description, be it to a setting or a character’s appearance, etc.
EXP | Expand
Similarly to DESC, EXP is an abbreviation I’ll jot down where I need to expand on something more specific, say a character’s facial expression or interaction with another character.
SYN | Synonym
SYN comes into play when I find myself overusing one of my crutch words and means I need to find an alternative word to replace it.
ADJ | Adjective
ADJ means I need to use an adjective to better explain an object, place, or character’s expression.
RES | Research
As a historical fiction writer, making sure I have my facts right is important. RES is a notation I’ll add to my printout when I need to double-check my information.
ETYM | Etymology
Etymology is the study of how languages originate and evolve over time. Sounds like an odd thing to worry about while editing fiction, doesn’t it?
As a historical fiction writer, I am constantly making sure the stories I am writing are accurate. This includes language. Beyond the use of slang and cant from the time period, I like to make sure the words I am including would have been used then.
If I am writing a story set in 1815, I will not include any word added to the English language from 1816 and after.
ETYM is the abbreviation I’ll jot down when I’m not sure a word is fair game, and I’ll pop it into Entymonline.com to make sure it can be used.
I don’t focus too heavily on etymology in the earlier stages of editing, but I am planning to run my entire manuscript through a word frequency counter to generate a list of every single word used in my novel and take the time to input each of them in the Entymonline search bar to make completely certain they would have been used in 1815.
Is it extreme? Absolutely.
Do I think it’s worth it? Absolutely.
Rewrites are the first phase of my editing process that takes place digitally. Once I have gone through the chapter on paper, it’s time to transfer my notes to the electronic copy of my manuscript.
I do this in the Scrivener program because of its split-screen function. On the left, I display the soon-to-be-old version of the chapter. Opposite that, I rewrite it word for word while adding in whatever changes I’ve noted on the printed version. Scrivener also has a feature that lets you set a target word count for the document you are working on. Even though I don’t prioritize word counts, setting small goals is one of the ways I make sure I’m adding more details to my narration. For Guises to Keep, I’m currently aiming to add 1,500 words to the remaining chapters of this draft.
Once I’ve completed the rewriting portion of edits, the next step is to switch over to Microsoft Word for the Highlights.
The Highlighting phase in my editing process is where I go through the chapter and highlight each line of narration.
One of the things I typically I struggle with in writing, especially in earlier works like Guises to Keep, is the balance between narration and dialogue. Highlighting the narration in yellow allows me to see how much of each is present on the page.
Additionally, I’ll highlight certain areas of the narration in red if they need a little more attention, such as placeholder dialogue tags or shorter lines I want to expand on. These are the ones I work on first.
I usually aim for a 60/40 or 70/30 balance between narration and dialogue, though there are exceptions. Highlighting in this fashion makes sure I don’t slow the pace of the story with too much narration or have so much dialogue that the reader gets lost trying to follow it.
While I use this method specifically for dialogue and narration, it can be adapted to fit your story’s needs. Some characters are chattier than others, or the worldbuilding you’re doing requires more paragraphs of narration to help create the image in the reader’s mind.
Once I’ve gone through to make sure I’ve made all of the changes indicated on the printed version of the chapter and have created a better balance between the narration and dialogue, the last step is to take on the crutch words.
Crutch words are the words or phrases writers tend to rely on a little too much and overuse.
While I have gotten better at noticing when I use crutch words over the years, they still pop up now and then.
Frequently, you could say.
That’s why, when I’m nearly done editing a chapter, I run the whole thing through a Word Frequency counter.
This generates a list of every word used and how often it appears.
Granted, there are words that have a limited number of synonyms like The, And, etc but there are plenty that can be replaced.
I mostly focus on the repetition in narration when it comes to crutch words because dialogue can be a little more forgiving.
Once I’ve dealt with my crutch words, the chapter is ready to send off to my critique partner, and I move onto the next section while I wait her feedback.
Even though my editing process may be more time-consuming than others’, it’s what I have found to work best for me. I might change the order of my own methods once I start editing Bound to the Heart and go one step at a time for the whole project rather than doing all four steps for one chapter at a time.
As with many things with writing, editing is something you figure out as you go and your process will develop over time.
What is your editing style like? What tips do you have?
Let me know in the comments below!