As I crawled out of my editing cave a while ago–literally: I completed my second round of edits for my new editor in the dim recesses of my childhood basement–and finally got to reconnect with friends on the internet, students, and writers who’d emailed me, I became aware of a confusion.
Not just me, muddle-headed, and blinky-eyed from the stuporous effects of intense editing. But something that may be confusing to many of us as we go about this process of perfecting our writing.
I got emails from writers talking about the need to upload clean copy, ridding their manuscripts of the kinds of typos and grammatical mistakes that can plague even the most experienced author’s early drafts, depending upon how feverishly that draft emerges. Some of them asked me how much time should be spent on this process.
Correcting copy is a necessary step. These mistakes can jump out at the reader. If the book is traditionally published, readers tend to be aghast that any errors slip in. And if the book is independently-published, then the standard might be even higher, since people will be looking for red flags suggesting that the book belongs in what’s come to be called the ghetto of prematurely slapped together volumes.
It’s a necessary step of the process, yes. But it’s also the last step.
You know how there’s more than one way to skin a cat? It applies to your novel as well.
This how the trajectory works for me personally. Perhaps it will change as I get more experience–in some ways I hope so. (Oh, please save me from drafts that number twenty-one, save me from that basement again). But I suspect that all three of the below apply to all serious writers always.
- Developmental editing: You turn your baby over to trusty readers who find issues, which no matter how good a self-editor you are, inevitably slip in. You might be heck at structure and logic, story-tagging every one of your sixty scenes, but your dialog reads a little woodenly, or your characters are stock. You might write exquisite prose–sometimes too exquisite. It’s objective eyes that will tell you when a description of a violet sunrise becomes just…purple. Or that you really can’t start off with thirty people dying in an explosion, unless you want to fulfill the demand of rising stakes by killing 30,000 at the climax. In whichever case, this is the stage when the meat of your story comes under examination. In some way, shape, or form you will have to go back and spend weeks if not months reshaping and revising. Then you hand it out to completely new readers–and get to do this step all over again. They will find stuff. People will always find stuff. Knowing when to stop is the subject of another blog post.
- Line editing: Here is where those clunky or awkward sentences get smoothed out. Maybe you can spot them, but I’d still recommend a good pair (or two or three) of objective eyes on your work. The book works in terms of the major craft areas: plot, structure, character, dialog, scene, arc. But there’s still stylistic work to be done to make sure you’ve mined every area for its greatest impact, to make sure the story reads well. After all, that’s what’s coming before too long. Real readers reading.
- Polishing: Only here do you finally address typos and the kinds of slips you can read a hundred times before someone points out that you spelled “the woman” with an e: “the women”. The missed words, the clauses that dangle, the me’s for an I or vice versa. This is painstaking work, but it is relatively easy, and if you’ve completed stages one and two with rigor, then it won’t take very long. Before you know it, you will have a thoroughly edited, submission- or publication-ready book.
Here the two roads, traditionally and independently published, divide. On the traditional one, what I found at least–what drove me to that dastardly basement (kidding, I love the basement)–was that even though I was sure all three stages had been completed and completed again, my editor had a vision. And she was right. There was more to do in step 1, and if I could do it successfully, I would have a better book than I had written the first eighteen times. Professional, industry eyes on your work in addition to your trusty or beta readers is something I think all novels benefit from. It’s not always possible to get that, and when it’s not, the solution might be an even higher number of trustys so that you get a truly wide range of responses.
It’s a lot of work. It’s a crazy amount of work. Work we can only do in the bottom of a basement, figurative or physical. We have to descend to great depths to claw that one, shining thing out of us that ultimately becomes our best book.
And if we do it right, what happens? Then we get to do it again, with our next book, and our next.
Time to open up the basement door and go in.