I used to be dreadfully bad at spelling and grammar. Now I’m just bad. I’m better than I was thanks to spell check, practice and copy editors. Necessary as good punctuation and the correct use of the English language is, though, editing is so much more than this.
You can – you probably should – pay for a copy editor to go through your work before your book wings its way into the world; you should probably also hire a professional editor (more on this another time), but I thought I would share with you my editing procedure. Not that everyone needs this kind of approach – it’s simply what helps me with my rubbish spelling and blindspots when it comes to typos and story structure!
So. I’ve finished the first draft. I drink copious amounts of alcohol, preferably fizzy, and then:
- read the manuscript through on the computer, making tweaks as I go.
- print it out, read it through and make notes on overall structural changes as well as marking small sentence/word/typo alterations on the manuscript. I then change the draft on my computer.
- send my manuscript to my kindle and read it there, making notes as I go – it reads more like a real book and it’s easier to spot flaws. Change the draft again.
- go through it on the computer with specific check lists in mind, some that pertain to all novels and some specific to the one I’m writing: for instance, continuity is terribly important – does everyone’s eyes stay the same colour (only Flaubert can get away with Madam Bovary changing her iris colour halfway through the story); if it’s raining in scene 3, are people wearing wellies and not flipflops unless I’m making a point about them being flipflops-in-the-rain kind of people; do the dates all match up; is everything historically accurate (required even in a contemporary novel), if 31 October is mentioned, are there fireworks?
- have a break – at least 3 weeks if I can.
- read it through again.
- I write down, chapter by chapter, scene by scene, what happens. The book I set out to write and the one I have in my head are both different to what’s actually on the page. I look at the overall structure at this point and check that the acts, climaxes, revelations, exposition, character arcs, and so on, are falling in the right places.
- usually I’ll need to make some alterations and do some rewrites (more on rewriting another time!).
- start again – steps 1-4.
- print it out. This time I do a line by line edit – meaning, I take a forensic look at each sentence. For instance, line edit a) have I used the best words I possibly can? (Didn’t you hate it when your teacher/boss said that to you?) Are there any cliches? Can I improve this sentence?
- line edit b) dialogue – does everyone’s dialogue sound right according to their personality, speech pattern, class, race, space in history, amount of exposition they need to give / hide?
- line edit c) are there any oxymorons and unnecessary adverbs, e.g. she screamed silently, she said sulkily?
- proper spell, punctuation and grammar check to catch anything I haven’t already picked up, including things like numbers – are they written one to ten, in numerals from 11 upwards, have I put the correct accents and umlauts in and so on.
- spacing check – are all the paragraph indents, scene spaces, dialogue indents, chapter headings the same; are the page breaks between chapters present, has the correct font size and type been used, is page numbering on and the copyright sign in, etc., etc.
- double-triple fact check.
- read the whole thing out loud. This really helps, particularly with word repetitions, even those a couple of pages apart – though I’d recommend you do this bit at home. On your own.
- read through. Any format. I don’t care.
- read on the kindle, this time as if it is a book and without making notes every ten seconds.
At this point I’ll send my draft off to my agent. Invariably he’ll come back with ‘suggestions’ – and once I’ve done the rewrites, I’ll go through steps 1-17 again. Send it off. Rinse, repeat. Drink more.
And I try and hang on to my sanity with the thought that some of the best novels around have been crafted in this laborious way – F Scott Fitzgerald famously changing The Great Gatsby even as it was being sent to the printers. Although I’m pretty sure he could spell ‘decide’.