January 16, 2012

There’s More Than One Way to Edit a Cat

Filed under: The Writing Life — jenny @ 2:33 pm

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.


  1. For me, the most challenging part of writing is the revision process. When I start a rough draft, I take my time writing fewer words-per-hour, but more definitive sentences. Revisions for me are always an exercise in frustration. A lot of effort goes into each and every scene. If I’m going to delete it during revision, I better have a good enough reason. I compare writing to having money. I work very hard for every dollar, so I am careful when I spend it. Great post! :)

    Comment by Lili Tufel — January 16, 2012 @ 3:06 pm

  2. So true, Jenny! I am on both ends of this stick at this moment! The experience of being edited ‘in depth’improves my ability to more fully edit another’s ms.

    But, having my current ms edited properly is cathartic.

    It was the first book I ever wrote, and every rookie mistake you can imagine went into it. It had a rough beginning, starting its life in 2008 as a walk-through for a computer game, and it read that way! I worked on changing it to third person (!) and making it into a book during the year my mother lived with us, and was dying from lung-cancer. All I did that year was care for my mother, and write.

    This true, in-depth editing of my book is helping me to lay to rest more than the rookie mistakes. It is helping me to let go of a terribly difficult time in my life.

    Comment by Connie J Jasperson — January 16, 2012 @ 3:07 pm

  3. You are far from stupid! I’ve been in that basement!
    Well said. It always feels absolutely endless all this editing but
    your book and readers will love you for it!

    Comment by Marlene Adelstein — January 16, 2012 @ 3:08 pm

  4. Amen, sister for speaking the truth here. It’s too bad that sooo many indie authors will ignore the advice, or think they’re too good to have others check their work, and they’ll publish anyway…and then wonder why there are no sales, or get offended if people criticize their work. But the good/great authors will recognize that it takes time to hone their craft, and they will do just as you say.
    Renee Pawlish, author of the bestselling Nephilim Genesis of Evil

    Comment by Renee Pawlish — January 16, 2012 @ 3:10 pm

  5. Am I the only writer in the world who actually enjoys this type of editing? When I was going through The Time Weaver, knowing that I was making drastic improvements to the story, it felt really good to know that in the end, it was all worth it.

    The first two types of editing that you describe I do in a hybrid way, intermixed together to make a great story. The third step… well… I’m bad at it. So I leave it up to my editor, and she’s *REALLY* good at it.

    I will keep my first five drafts forever, knowing that there was a process to this journey. In the second, and subsequent books, I hope to get better at this.

    Comment by Thomas A. Knight — January 16, 2012 @ 3:11 pm

  6. Oh Jenny, you are not alone. I spend probably ten times more time editing my son’s books than he spends writing them. I’m sick of a book by the time I finish editing and it comes as a complete surprise to me when someone else actually likes it!

    Comment by mountainmama — January 16, 2012 @ 3:28 pm

  7. Eighteen times! And I thought I was the only one that was crazy.

    My Best,

    Comment by Arthur Levine — January 16, 2012 @ 3:33 pm

  8. Jenny,

    Having been through the editing process twice in the past year, I heartily agree with you. A writer can get so close to their work that they can’t see the gigantic plot hole in chapter five. Their beta readers might spot some less than stellar phrasing. After that, you can polish your MS until the cows come home and think it’s perfect.

    Then your editor will come back with a request for another thousand words emotional development in chapter three, and by the way, you have to change the ending. Ahhh

    Your heart might sink into your boots at the thought of revisiting your work. You’ve grown to hate your characters. You might even want to throw your laptop at the wall, but you suck it up and do as you’re told.

    Because, when you get that fan letter telling you that they left work early to finish your book, and that the ending made them cry, you know that the whole process was worth it.

    Comment by Caroline — January 16, 2012 @ 3:48 pm

  9. What a great piece. Too many people think that writing is all about just typing the words and thoughts on the page. That’s sometimes the easier task. But real editing(line,copy and structural)and the many drafts that follow are where the real work and headaches begin. What a good feeling when you’re finally done!

    Comment by Judy Ann Davis — January 16, 2012 @ 3:48 pm

  10. I haven’t known a writer yet who could do this without several sets of eyes, at least one trained. All writers need beta readers and preferably someone who knows a lot about actual editing — developmental and otherwise. :)

    Comment by Judy — January 16, 2012 @ 4:16 pm

  11. One of the first things I do, Jenny, is – when I’ve completed the manuscript – I set it aside. At least a couple of weeks. Sometimes longer. Because then when I go back and re-read, it’s fresh. I’ve forgotten a lot of what I wrote.

    Sometimes the surprises are good. “I wrote that???? Wow!”

    Other times not so much. “I wrote … What?????? OMG!!!!”

    I also have beta readers, editors – and of course my publisher who reads everything I submit with the eyes of a woman who, like me, worked for newspapers for several years.

    To me, that’s part of the necessary process of being – not just a writer, but a professional writer. I know there will be mistakes. I know nothing is ever perfect. But I want the story to be as close to perfect as possible when it becomes a book. I think I owe it to those I hope will become my readers and my fans.

    Comment by P.L. Blair — January 16, 2012 @ 4:31 pm

  12. I write, revise, and revise again, and still editors find errors of one kind or another to correct. It always helps to have another mindset or set of eyes examining your work. None of us are perfect. I taught English for many years at both the high school and university. I still need a good editor for my novels.

    Jacqueline Seewald

    Comment by Jacqueline Seewald — January 16, 2012 @ 6:36 pm

  13. Oh, yes. It’s beyond that basement door where the education begins. The editing process is every bit as daunting as sitting for orals, and it lasts for more than a day, or two at the most. Not only does one have to know the subject, one must, as P. J. Blair says, convey it in a manner “as close to perfect as possible.” We owe it to those who buy our books. Authors cannot hide behind Caveat emptor.

    Comment by Bo Parker — January 16, 2012 @ 6:52 pm

  14. Thank you, all, for making me feel not only less thick-headed, but also less alone.

    New reads for me to look up now–and many I’ve already read–and one thing I feel sure of: they will ALL be deeply and thoroughly edited!

    Comment by jenny — January 16, 2012 @ 7:24 pm

  15. I write exactly what I want to read.
    And I love it every time I read it.
    And I edit it every time I read it.
    I offer it to other readers and writers to comment, as readers.
    Don’t underestimate “readers” as a tough audience.
    They ARE your audience.
    I correct it like the pro typist I have been in the past.
    I take it to bed, and read it, from the start, over and over.
    When I leave it for a while, and go back to it, I see so many errors for which my brain had matrixed in corrections, when I’d been looking at it too closely, too frequently.

    I write literary fiction, and the stakes are even higher, there.
    Journeyman work doesn’t fly in that market; it’s too small a market.

    I edit my little heart out.

    Comment by Rosemarie Benintend — January 16, 2012 @ 7:27 pm

  16. Work is 1% inspiration & 99% perspiration. But we’re glad you’ve emerged into the daylight. I thought you might turn into a vampire down there.

    Comment by Savvy blue — January 16, 2012 @ 7:31 pm

  17. So glad you found your way out of the basement. I bet your manuscript (post-editing) was the bright shining light that led you out ;) Sorry, was that too purple!?

    Anyway, you know how I feel about editing and editing and editing. It’s like mining for gold.

    Comment by Johanna — January 16, 2012 @ 8:56 pm

  18. Right on, Jenny. The problem is that whatever you do, there always seems to be more. Someewhere there comes a point where it’s time to move on. For me, it’s always way past the first time I think that. I set the MS aside and do something else, go back to it in a couple of weeks and find many things to improve. I also double check my historical research, because it’s sooo easy to make a mistake that is bound to tick someone off or indicate sloppy work.
    BTW, I had to edit this little post, since I tend to be a bit dyslexic and transpose letters like “form” for “from.” Spell check won’t find things like that!
    Thanks for another great post. Tweeted and liked.

    Comment by Alex Lukeman — January 16, 2012 @ 9:11 pm

  19. And, as you can see above, I STILL missed something…proves the point…

    Comment by Alex Lukeman — January 16, 2012 @ 9:12 pm

  20. MOAN. I don’t see any errors in your comment, Alex! This is why I take 21 drafts–

    Arthur, 18 was pre-sale. Now that I have the brilliant eyes of my editor on it, I’ve done 3 subsequent drafts. OY.

    Johanna, I didn’t think it was purple at all. Not even lavender.

    Comment by jenny — January 16, 2012 @ 9:18 pm

  21. Hi Jenny, notice the first word of the third sentence…

    Comment by Alex Lukeman — January 16, 2012 @ 10:47 pm

  22. Jenny, I wouldn’t know a dangling participle if I met it coming down the street and my editor was never able to follow a story line through an Iowa cornfield. Blessed are those who endure our development process.
    I laughed at ‘writing exquisite prose.’ John Jakes told a Dean of the English Dept. friend of mine she wrote such prose. She was never able to finish her novel because no one, even a professional editor, was able to get her to see why it wasn’t working. She was never able to conceptualize the craft of writing.

    Comment by Nash Black — January 17, 2012 @ 8:32 am

  23. Editing is a never-ending process. It takes ten times longer to revise and edit than to write the original story, at least for me. And even after the book is published, I can find a thousand things I wish I’d said differently. But editing is where the story comes to life. It’s the most rewarding part of the process too. Excellent post, Jenny.

    Comment by Ellis Vidler — January 17, 2012 @ 9:05 am

  24. I once read an interview in which British crime writer John Harvey said that before doing a public reading, he often edits PUBLISHED pages. I can imagine doing that. Maybe we need to form a support group: Overeditors Anonymous?

    Jenny, your book is going to gleam. I can’t wait to read it.

    Comment by Anita Page — January 17, 2012 @ 9:59 am

  25. Thanks for the laughs this morning. Couldn’t follow a storyline through an Iowa cornfield. OEA.

    The thing is, I would need an intervention to join OEA. I am more the, Editing, schmediting type. Who needs editing?

    Then all my trustys say, Uh, you do, and I hang my head in red-faced shame. HOW did I not realize that?

    It’s really true–there are things we simply cannot see no matter what all by ourselves.

    Thanks, again, to all the wonderful readers and writers here!

    Comment by jenny — January 17, 2012 @ 10:13 am

  26. I kind of like the first edit, but then I go back and do it again and again, even before sending it off to my editor. Then she finds things I should take care of, and I find more to fix. Sometimes it seems endless. Finally, I give up and cross my fingers, hoping we haven’t missed something.

    Morgan Mandel

    Comment by Morgan Mandel — January 17, 2012 @ 1:57 pm

  27. Great post, Jenny! As a freelance editor, I see a lot of first-time novelists who don’t understand about the developmental, craft-oriented type of editing, and that it needs to be done before the line editing and copyediting/polishing. So it’s great to have writers talk about that.

    One of the definite advantages that traditionally published authors have over self-published authors is the level of developmental editing that they get from the publishing house. Although I do have lower-cost options for manuscript critiques, a full, in-depth developmental edit can cost thousands of dollars. My clients who can afford it say it’s worth it, but many new writers simply don’t have that kind of money, even when they see the need. I often wish there was a more cost-effective way to help them, but the truth is that there are just a whole heck of a lot of hours wrapped up in doing that kind of edit.

    I’m wondering if that will continue to be a stumbling block for writers trying to self-publish quality books, and what solutions writers will eventually find.

    Lauren Sweet

    Comment by Lauren S — January 17, 2012 @ 4:09 pm

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