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Edit in an Instant? Ain’t Gonna Happen

June 9, 2011 by Fiction Editor Beth Hill
last modified June 10, 2011

A couple of days ago I posted the Editor’s Checklist, an article about items editors should consider as they edit. The list is helpful whether you are a professional editor or a writer who edits your own manuscripts.

It was a long article.

I hope I didn’t discourage you with the length and the number of items on the checklist. But quite honestly, editing takes time. It takes attention to detail. It requires a sensibility that can see and understand and deal with both big-picture and fine-detail elements.

Consider all the books written about fiction writing. All that wonderful information, the breadth and depth of it, can’t be coalesced into one lone blog article.

The same is true for editing. The amount of information is enormous. The types of elements to consider are varied. The intricacies complex.

Every aspect of writing that a writer faces, the editor also faces. Yet, as I’ve said before, the approach may be different because writing and editing require different skills and different outcomes. But both writer and editor consider everything that goes into good story. They look at the technical aspects and at the elements of fiction. They must check on plot and character and style and tone and dialogue and . . .

You know them, those many elements that go into novels. And if you don’t know them, if you’re new to the craft and haven’t studied the elements of fiction and the techniques of writing, then you’ve got some study ahead of you. But the learning is fun. And necessary if you intend to write for more than your own pleasure, if you plan to share your work with others.

Aside—Yes, you can write a novel without knowing much about craft. If you’ve got a plot idea, run with it. I encourage anyone who wants to write a book to try it. Do it. It’s a worthy task to set for yourself.

However, please don’t imagine that a cool plot idea is enough for readers. It probably won’t be enough for you. Not when you’re trying to connect characters and fill in the events of your story to move from some opening to that cool plot event and then to climax and resolution.

A novel is more than an idea. It’s a manipulation of the written word to create characters and places and events that grab the attention of readers, that move them emotionally or mentally or spiritually.

A good plot idea is not enough to see readers through a 400-page novel. A good plot clothed in emotion-inducing words and lived by characters a reader can care about? A good plot with logical and inevitable events plus dialogue that keeps a reader riveted? An ending that satisfies the reader, one that can arise only from the plot threads spelled out in the preceding pages? These things can see the reader through.

These things make good novels and good story.

I wanted to go back to that checklist article, add a note about the complexities of editing and the time involved, but since the article was already long enough, I thought I’d give those notes their own article.

This article is more for writers who edit their own work than for the professional editor who doesn’t also write. I intend it to be encouragement for those times when you read a long checklist such as the one I posted and feel overwhelmed by the tasks yet in front of you, tasks necessary in order to truly finish a novel.


The Time Factor
Edits take time; there’s no way around the truth of that. A 100,000-word manuscript can’t be edited in a day. It’s not gonna happen. Just a glance at that checklist shows not only the number of areas to be worked on but the diversity and complexity of those areas.

You might be able to cover spelling and punctuation in a single edit pass, but what of word choice? What about dialogue and all its particulars? How can you know you’ve given each plot thread the proper amount of time and emphasis and resolution unless you follow each through the story?

What of repetition and redundancies and rhythm? What of dangling modifiers and sentences that make no sense?

What of phrases that can be read multiple ways?

Can you be sure the hook used to end each chapter is still a valid one? Only if you check each out after you’ve made changes to the story. You might have changed a character’s motivation and then find a hook based on the original motivation. If readers find something such as this before the writer or editor, they’re going to be confused and pulled away from the fiction.

Editing takes skill and flair and plain old effort. A good edit takes time. A bad edit takes time.

If editing could be performed by a software program, time wouldn’t be a factor. But if editing could be done by a computer, so could writing.

Yet, with all the advances in computers and software, computer strengths still cannot compare to the skills and artistic qualities that writers and editors, that all artists, bring to their craft.

We already moan and groan about grammar-checking software—can you imagine what editing software would do to a story? Yikes.

There are simply too many variables involved for a computer to be able to do what you can do as you edit a manuscript. You may hear a news report about a man who committed petty theft again and again in order to set a record. This report might be the catalyst that gives you insight into your character’s own quirky motivation, a motivation that you’d written around but couldn’t quite nail. How will a computer program get that instant realization from a news story that it doesn’t know about?

It can’t. Only humans can artistically weave dozens and dozens of story threads and ideas and setting details into novels. Only humans can tighten those threads and remove the ones that don’t add to story.

But you, as a human, have time limitations.

So your edits will take time. There are no instant edits.

The Burnout Factor
The task may seem daunting, especially if you’re self-editing and you’ve already worked on a couple of drafts. You may think you’re done, that you can’t possibly face another pass through your manuscript. But you can. And you should undertake that next pass, an editing pass.

Don’t get burned out this close to the end. Please don’t.

Readers are clamoring for good stories, for books that entertain and do so with seeming ease. We need your stories. We need entertaining stories that read well.

Good editing is what gives story the polish and integrity of strong narrative, of enthralling fiction. Good editing lets the story take center stage and allows the mechanics to hide from the reader’s notice.

So polish your stories. Edit yourself or hire an editor. But don’t tire out or lose interest when you’re approaching the end of the project.

We need the stories from your heart and your pen. And we need you to push as much as you need to in that last mile or two or three to produce high-quality fiction.

Putting a novel together is no sprint. I hate to use the clichéd comparison between sprints and marathons, but it’s a valid one here. A good novel will not be written in a week. It also won’t be edited overnight.

Don’t rush your edits.

Can you write a novel in a month, as the National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) folks exhort you to try (at least the first 50,000 words)? Yes, you can do that. And why not try? It’s fun. It’s encouraging. It might get you moving and writing in ways you never imagined. I’m all for using anything that keeps writers writing. (I’ve done it myself and will probably try again.)

But don’t imagine that the manuscript you have in hand on day 31 is publication-ready. It isn’t. A first draft is never a final draft. Not for decent and better-than-decent novels.

You have to rewrite and you have to edit; they’re necessary parts of the writing process. Just as a novel must have characters, it must have edits. There’s simply no way around this—it’s one of the basics of writing.

Consider . . .
The first idea you have for a scene is just that, a first idea. When you write the scene for the first time, you may be getting down only the barest hint of what that scene will ultimately contain.

It’s not likely you’ll get the nuances right, the word choices right, the proper sentence lengths for the entire scene. You may not include the sense elements or details of setting on that first pass.

You may even put that scene in one location in your sequence of  scenes when you first think of it, yet move it to another place in the story when rewriting.

Now, if you’re a plotter rather than a pantser, your first draft may be a lot closer to your final draft than a pantser’s first draft would be. Yet, that first draft—and the second and the third—is not your ultimate creation.

We know that every writer experiences those aha moments as they write. Even plotters. So when you add in whatever you got in that aha moment, that changes both what you’ve already written and what you planned to write next.

New characters or new motivations or new scenes influence everything else. So yes, you’re going to have to rework the rest of the manuscript.

You wouldn’t not do it, would you, just to save yourself from having to rewrite? You wouldn’t ignore a great idea that would transform your story (or even only one part of it) just because it didn’t fit in your original vision and would require a rewrite?

What if your editor made a suggestion that would change your so-so novel into a bestseller? What if that suggestion meant touching every scene in the manuscript? Would you ignore such a suggestion?

You wouldn’t if you’re writing to serve the story.

We want to write good stories, good and engaging fiction. So don’t be tempted to rush through your writing and editing to simply reach the end. There’s so much more to come after finishing.

I’m not writing to discourage you. I am hoping to stave off discouragement as you write.

When you realize from the start that edits and rewrites will take just as much time as the original draft and that you will have to edit and rewrite, you may not be disappointed or daunted by the work still ahead of you after you finish the first or second draft. You may not be tempted to skip through rewrites and editing passes or skimp on the necessary work.

You may instead take a break, take a deep breath, and then dive right in, ready for the next phase.

Don’t humor discouragement
The high we get from a new idea or at the start of a new project feels wonderful. It often carries us well into the project.

But when the high wears off, we can get discouraged. We can feel low. We may even think that since the ideas aren’t flowing, we’ve taken a wrong turn and should simply start over with the newest cool idea floating around in our heads, the one keeping us up at night.

Yes, you could start a new project. But don’t abandon the old when the writer’s high fades. If you do, you’ll never finish a manuscript.

Writing is work. And sometimes you’re not going to know what comes next or how to work out a plot thread. You’re not going to know if you chose the correct character to tell the story, not until you really work the story.

You have to write through those moments (sometimes days) when nothing works or fits or sounds like the story you intend to write.

To get through, you actually have to write the thing. The whole thing.

To learn how to fix problem areas, you actually have to fix them.

Abandoning one story for another when the writing gets hard will never make you a good writer. It won’t make you a competent one. It certainly won’t make you a successful one.

It will frustrate you. Because you’ll never overcome the areas that challenge you. If you quit, you can’t celebrate the victory over the writing obstacles that give you fits.

You won’t be able to know that you can overcome. Not until you do overcome.

It gets easier. With each manuscript, with study, with experience and your own discoveries and the advice of other writers and editors, you will become a better writer.

And you’ll become a better editor.

You’ll know what to look for. You’ll know your options for fixes. You’ll know how to approach fixes.

You’ll know how to start a manuscript so the types and numbers of fixes will be reduced.


Another long, long article. My apologies. Yet, I hope you find a spark here to keep you writing or an encouragement to dive into a thorough edit.

Polishing your manuscript is worth your time. It’s worth some extra study of not only writing skills but editing skills. It’s worth the extra push when you think you’re at the end since you can see the finish line but still have a couple miles before you.

Don’t be daunted by the number of steps required to produce good fiction. Instead, grow in confidence as you master each step, including those of editing.

Put in the time.

Invest in yourself.

Write well and edit wisely.



Tags: ,     Posted in: A Writer's Life, Craft & Style

14 Responses to “Edit in an Instant? Ain’t Gonna Happen”

  1. Thanks for another craft-filled, information-packed post. : )

    All I can say to all of it is: so true!

    I just finished my R&R and sent it to my agent. It took two and a half months of work — day, night and weekends straight.

    And there will no doubt be more edits once my agent reads it and gets back to me.

    There’s no getting around editing! Best thing to do, is to make the monster your friend! : )

  2. As always, Emily, it’s purely my pleasure.

    I like the idea of making the editing monster a friend. Or, turning yourself into one. That would work too.

    I guess I should have mentioned somewhere that editing is not drudgery, at least not to all. It is time consuming, but for some, for me, it’s pleasurable and satisfying.

    Hoping that you’ll hear a good word from your agent.

  3. Thanks, Beth!

    My betas raved over the changes, and my betas are tough (love my betas! : ) My agent will start reading this coming week. My goal was to wow her, and the R&R editors, too, so, we’ll see!

    True, that many writers dread revisions. I, like you, enjoy them. They feel like a puzzle, where I’m hunting for the perfect pieces. Revisions use a different part of the brain, also, and it’s nice to change things up.

    I think perhaps one reason writers may dread revisions is because it pushes us backwards, in a way, from the finish line. We think we’re done, and then there’s more. But, at this point, I’ve gotten used to the finish line, for most of the process, being a mirage. : )

    I also find revisions to be informative when it comes to weaknesses. For example, I struggle most with the timeline – passage of time — in my novels.

  4. Your blogs are so content rich. Thank you!

  5. Emily, revisions and edits can seem like a step back. But if you know going in that you’ll have to edit and revise, if you know that writing “the end” is not truly the end, then edits and revisions are much easier to face.

    That’s why I try to remind writers that writing a first draft is not the end.

    I bet that as you work through timelines in a handful of novels, portraying the passage of time will become one of your strengths. Those things that we have to pay attention to, we learn really well.

  6. Priscille, thank you. I’m glad you find them rich. I hope, however, they won’t all continue to be so long.

  7. Thank you much for both your articles Beth, I’ve found them incredibly valuable. I’m deep within the revision process now, one that has already taken three times longer than it took to write the first draft of my manuscript! But rather than being discouraged, I’m enjoying myself greatly – it’s so rewarding to look at my current draft and see how it shines when compared to my original (and receive the compliments from my critique partners!). Rather than giving in to the urge to jump into the query pool, I’m taking my time as you suggest, and growing so much as a writer in doing so.

    I’ve bookmarked this post for the days when I do find my revising drags a teensy bit, and I’m going back to your earlier post to see what remains to be done in my revising – I suspect I’ll be referring to it a lot :)



  8. Rach, I’m with you on finding the revision process rewarding. Go rewrites and edits! Those comparisons to earlier drafts really help us see the importance of revisions and editing.

    It does get tough, however, when many of the big-picture items are already complete and you have to work through the deep or the hidden elements. Sometimes the changes in these areas are drastic and noticeable, yet sometimes they aren’t as splashy. Yet we still have to work through them, even if the reward isn’t as obvious.

    I’m glad that both articles were helpful.

  9. patrick says:

    Thank you so much. This has been very enlightening. I learnt the hard way that winning a writing competition on a novel I wrote in three weeks did not mean that it was ready for publication. I’m still working on it and this article has encouraged me to keep at it.

  10. Patrick, I’m glad you’re encouraged and I hope your novel proves to be successful. I also hope you’ll write many more.