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Editing - The fine tuning. Guest blog part 4

Posted on 30th April 2012

In his final blog, Richard Sheehan talks about the editing stage of writing your book.

Completing a first draft is a tremendous achievement. As you'll have discovered, it's not easy and to achieve it you have to overcome many obstacles. You'll no doubt be buzzing and wanting the whole world to be able to view the genius that is your manuscript. Well, unfortunately, the best thing to do at this stage is to put it to one side and go and do something else; write some short stories, some poetry, begin planning your next novel, anything to create distance between you and your completed draft.

Once you've left it a reasonable amount of time - the general rule is to leave it for a month between each draft or edit - then it's time to begin the stage that you either love or hate: editing.

There are lots of myths and fallacies about editing; that great writers never need to edit, that a quick grammar and spell check is sufficient, that it's the job of editors to sort out your manuscript - all of these and many others are complete nonsense. Great writers are usually the most assiduous when it comes to the writing of drafts. Read interviews on "The Paris Review" website to dispel any illusions on that score. I know of writers who believe that their first drafts are so clean that a single light edit is sufficient to raise their work to a publishable level; needless to say, they are still waiting for agents and publishers to beat a path to their door. As for it being the job of editors at publishing houses; these days your prose needs to be in tip-top condition before it's even submitted to agents.

Anyway, let's say that you've left your manuscript for a month or so and you've returned to it fresh and ready for the editing process. How do you edit? Do you start at the beginning, read straight through, correcting the errors as you do so, and then put it aside for another month, re-doing this as many times as required until you feel it's ready for submission? You might, if you have a great deal of time to spare. Some writers re-write their novels completely, and not just once either. It's very much a personal decision. The key though, is to be merciless in your editing. It's very tempting to just dabble here and there and try to fine-tune what you have rather than face the prospect of removing great chunks of your work or starting again. I'd written 400 pages of my first novel when I attended an Arvon course and decided that I needed to completely re-write and re-plot it for it to work. It was pretty daunting, but the prospect of having a poor first novel was an even worse consideration.

My method begins by creating a synopsis of all the chapters, including all the plot points and all the characters' timelines. Scrivener has the excellent 'Synopsis' section on the desktop that you can use for this. It's the same as using index cards and does, in fact, create virtual index cards that it places in the corkboard area of the program. This enables you to examine your synopsis for any problems with plot, characters, viewpoint, pacing or timelines. (If you've used any of the methods I've mentioned on previous blogs, you may already have timelines or a synopsis that you can check against.)

Once this first stage, together with any re-writing required, has been carried out, it's time to move on to a more precise editing of the chapters and scenes. Go through every chapter checking for consistency in the plot within the chapter, checking that the characters remain true to your vision of them, checking facts and research and generally making sure everything in the chapter retains its integrity within the story. This often involves both re-writing and a lot of cutting, so don't be afraid to wield your editing blade.

Then, put your manuscript aside once more. As before, I leave a month before coming back to it. This is usually the time when I attempt short stories.

The next stage of editing is a micro-edit, sentence by sentence. I check that each sentence makes sense within itself, within the context of the paragraph containing it and the chapter as a whole. Check your use of adverbs and adjectives, cutting and amending where necessary. Check your dialogue and grammar to make sure your writing sounds realistic and makes sense. Reading aloud is useful for getting a feel for the rhythm of the writing. Join a writing group if you haven't already and read in front of others and get a critique from them. If this idea doesn't appeal, then there are plenty of online critiquing groups that can help.

The final stage for me is a proofing stage - checking for typos, punctuation, grammatical errors, etc. It's always difficult to proof your own work. By this time in the process, you will have read your manuscript a number of times, you should know it intimately and, as a result, will find it difficult to find all those little errors that professional proofreaders (such as Kate or myself, had to give us a plug somewhere) are so good at finding.

It's here that I'm going to promote the use of editors and proofreaders to give your novel a final polish. In the age of ebooks and self-publishing, it's even more important that your manuscript should be of a professional standard. The number of reviews I see where readers are critical of the editing of books is quite astonishing, and from comments I read online, you'll be thought of more highly if your work is well edited.

I'd also like to mention here that there are a growing number of professional literary critiquing services available that will look at your work and give you different degrees of advice on it. These can be expensive, but very useful. I'd recommend them, but it's worth shopping around to find one that suits you. A few I have heard good things about are on my resource blog

So, after all this planning, writing and editing, you should have a book that's ready to be submitted to agents and publishers. This is a daunting stage, but if you have a good story and have worked thoroughly and effectively, and maybe even have followed some of the advice I've given in these articles, you should be in a good position to put your work out there into the wild jungle of the publishing world. Good luck.

Written by Kate Haigh.