On editing or “It’s how organised you are that scares me.”

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Let’s talk about the process of editing… 

 

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Some people love it. Some people loathe it. 

I’ll certainly not profess to be an expert, but after two decades of committed creative writing and subsequent editing, I think I can finally say, with confidence, I have found my flow !

I thought I’d share some tips on what works for me, some are of my own making, some I learned from being a Project Manager by trade (organising work and simplifying it is my other passion), and some I picked up along the way. Where I can, I will cite references or people from whom I have learned.

1) Plan your objectives

  • Depending where you are in your writing journey you will have different goals. Let’s say you’ve just finished your first (few) draft(s), well I would suggest your main goal is to find out what the real story is that you are telling. Two quotes I always remember,
“Let your first draft be S***" 
The esteemable Hemmingway* (I’d add, even if you think it isn’t, assume it is and make it better.)
"The first draft is you telling yourself the story." 
Terry Pratchett.
  • Let’s say you’re past the first (few) draft(s) and you know what story you are telling, your goal may be to find out what story your characters want to tell, or to make sure you’re not repeating yourself, or that the pace is perfect for the genre in which you are writing. 
  • Whatever it may be, if you plan you goals for your draft you will keep on track, neither get blinded by the confidence demon nor the ego angel.
  • So… when I edit I have a plan, I have  goals, I work out where my edit is in the journey and (critically)  how long it will take me to deliver to my plan. It helps me stay on track when life and emotions and exhaustion get in the way.
  • How?
  • Well this is where I get super nerdy. At one point I used Microsoft project plan, but these days I generally set myself a word/chapter target based on a personally set deadline, and how much/day edit I think it will take to reach that goal. For example
  • In my recent Micro Edit (more on that later) I 
    • set myself a 6 chapter a day annotation target
    • set a 2 week manuscript ‘update’ target (because I have found I get more analytical if i step away from my machine and add notes in later)
    • This means I aim to do a full edit ( not redraft, that’s different) in a month.
    • with 61 chapters I aimed to be finished annotating in 10 days
    • with 14 day window to work through my notes on my MS.

And yes, by some miracle…I’m on target despite a full time job, and a day off. Making a plan meant I could make time, track progress and stay on track. I worked out it took me 1 hour to annotate. Meaning I needed 6 hours annotation time a day. So once I knew how long it would take I knuckled down. I got up early, did 2 chapters before work, one during my work day (commute, lunch, tea-breaks) and 3 in the evening. I no longer use MPP or Gantt Charts for my book work - but I do have a fab schedule in my bullet diary. Easy? No. Worth it? Hell yes. 

Key: The colours are the number of chapters I did a day, as you can see my efficiency improved near the end, whether due to the pace of the book/length of chapters, or because I became a bit like a #boss… I’ll let you decide when you read the book. I originally planned to do this by Word Count (as per the right bar, but found I was working through faster if I focussed on it chapter by chapter - left bar).

Now, admittedly, I’m behind on the 'update’ part of the plan which is where my third quote comes in - one I use daily at work,

“No battle plan survives contact with the enemy,”
said by the incredibly named  Helmuth von Moltke the Elder

This means that when you throw reality at a plan, no plan will remain the same. I have adapted. I have given myself a week 'slip’ to handle the fact that life got in the way, and I have put extra time into catching up to make the difference.

At each stage I check

  • If I am on plan, not only to time, but also against my goals.
  • Has the objective of my edit changed yes/no ?
  • If so, is that okay? Am I getting out of the plan what I expected yes/no (in Project Management speak we call this 'Benefits Realisation’)?
  • If not, have I the right goals or should I change them? More about goal setting and definition/assessment perhaps in a later post - if you’re interested put it in the comments below.

2) Get off the machine

I'd say this is the biggest lesson I have learned. In the 21st Century it is so hard to step away from the machines that occupy our space. As I write this there are 3 in my vicinity: my laptop, phone and TV. Focus and concentration is critical, especially for a creative mind. Printing is an expensive business but worth it. I print my manuscript:

  • hardcopy
  • A5 size
  • 10pt bottom margin,
  • double spaced,
  • single sided.

On each page I have a key around the edge. I then go through each page hard copy with a lamy pen, a selection of highlighters, and coloured pencils. It allows me to see things in my writing I had never seen before. 

 

3) Macro Edit - Foolscap/Book-Map/Story Grid

I love a good spreadsheet. Seriously, it’s an addiction. My book has over 5 XLS docs alone. But I did a great 4 day ‘macro’ edit in my notebook. Macro because I am interested in the arching themes, plot, characters, pace and style. 

My last Macro edit I focused on the ‘global story’ or ‘foolscap’ method from Shaun Coyne purely because I left my computer cable behind. 

It was eyeopening, and helped me fix a persistent problem with my story by using the External and Internal value measures, and McKee, to work out (after my first draft I have to add) what are the values at stake and do they change enough and effectively in each act. 

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4) Micro Edit

For me a micro edit isn’t the same as a line edit. A line edit is part of a micro edit. A micro edit is about each page. It is about checking word by word, line by line, to make sure you are reading your work and applying a critical mind to every sentence. 

I check on whatever my editor has pointed out is lacking. And generally I focus on

  • Gesture (is there enough, not just face, body, character through gesture and body language)
  • Line (grammar, structure, spelling, structure, voice, style)
  • Action (is there ‘something happening’ on every page, plot moving forward and in the direction necessary, not just talking wallpaper!)
  • Dialogue (is it realistic, showing character, motive, conflict and action)
  • Motivation (is the motive, real or misguided, clear for each character)
  • Senses (see below)
  • Place (is it clear where we are, and which direction the reader should be ‘looking’)
  • World (is the world and the way it works clear, and how am I showing it, how is info passed into the plot)

(see the letters on the grid above as a key)

I note alongside with checks and any comments or thoughts, against each letter on each page. The letters act as a prompt to remind myself to analyse, and I use colours on the page to show where I am using each. Along the bottom I list the senses:

  • See
  • Hear
  • Touch
  • Taste
  • Smell

Again I note if I have used them, what words chosen, are they the right words, do they also convey character, action, place etc. Am I missing the senses altogether, or perhaps one critical one, or even, am I over using.

5) Don’t tell yourself it’s the last edit

It won’t be, not until it’s on a shelf, or in someone’s hand. Even then, you won’t think it’s done. Creative works are never finished, they are always abandoned. Prepare and expect and anticipate the joy of editing, sharpen your pencils! 

“Let me not think of my work only as a stepping stone to something else, and if it is, let me become fascinated by the shape of the stone.”
Ze Frank

All of this is what led my work colleague to say, “It’s just how organised you are that scares me.” And my father to add, “I didn’t realise how much work went into a book!”

And on that note, I have work to do, and a plan milestone to meet. Clearly I am procrastinating by writing this blog. Stop distracting me…. shoo. 

 

EDIT - 2 years later

6) The leave it alone and write something else edit

After going through the above process at least twice more I eventually couldn't edit anymore. I put my MS in a drawer for over a year and wrote something else.

When I came back to the MS - having been longlisted (and eventually becoming a finalist) for the SCBWI Undiscovered Voices 2018 - needing to edit it I applied the same process as above, but this time the book seemed completely new.

It seemed like the 'S***y first draft' and editing was the easiest thing in the world!

 

*Hemmingway quote is apocryphal: https://quoteinvestigator.com/2015/09/20/draft