Editing is difficult because it involves change. While self-editing can be relatively painless, integrating external feedback into your edits can be excruciating.
There’s lots of advice out there saying you should get feedback, but less about what to do when you get it. I’m certainly no expert, but here’s my take on the subject. The advice pertains mainly to novel length projects but some of it can be applied to short story writing too.
What is Editing?
This might seem obvious, but it’s important to clarify that when I say “editing” I don’t just mean fixing typos and grammar errors. Editing is about making changes of all sizes. In fact, it can be worth dropping the word “edit” entirely when approaching the early phases, and instead use the term re-write or revise.
Get away from the idea that you are making small changes – make any scale of change needed to make your story the best it can be.
Most editing advice will tell you to start at the macro scale (structure, plot, character arcs) and work down through the chapter level, scene level and paragraph level, down to the micro scale of sentence and word. This is good advice as there is zero point perfecting your sentences when you might cut the whole chapter.
You might also often see advice telling you to avoid editing as you’re writing. This is also good advice. Editing requires a change of perspective, a different mental space, and a different skill set to drafting, so you will achieve more by making it a separate part of your process.
However the spirit of this advice is to avoid micro scale editing, not that you should only write in a straight line. Get the words on the page in whatever way works for you, and certainly don’t fall into the trap of thinking you shouldn’t change your story at all until you have a complete first draft. Making macro scale changes – reordering scenes, re-writing or cutting scenes, changing characters etc – should absolutely be part of your development process. This is the core way many circular (aka Plantzer) writers work, and will be part of the process of most discovery writers (aka Pantzers). Those who use extensive outlines (aka Plotters or Architects) may do less, but all processes are individual.
When to get feedback and from whom?
Feedback can be useful at various stages. There is some standard terminology here that’s worth knowing:
Critique Partner (CP) – A critique partner (or a writing group/critique circle) is a sounding board in the middle of your process. Great for trialling new material, workshopping problem scenes and so on.
Alpha Reader – If you’re lucky enough to have a CP who’ll read more than a chapter every now and then, and is happy to read your early, rough drafts, that’s your alpha reader.
Mentor/Developmental Editor – If you need more experienced, professional feedback in the early stages, you’ll want to find yourself a mentor or pay for a professional developmental edit. A dev edit will help you take you concept and early material, and work out what you want to do with it. This is what you need if you’re struggling to complete a first draft.
Mentor/Structural Editor – You would normally bring in a structural editor after the first draft stage. They would help you identify the macro scale problems in your draft in terms of plot, pacing, character and theme.
Beta Reader – Beta readers do not feedback on your first draft. That’s an alpha reader. A beta reader is a litmus test to make sure your story is working, so you should obtain this only once you are happy your story is complete. This can be before or after a professional line or copy edit, but I prefer before. It’s possible a beta reader might highlight larger changes and you’ll have to get your copy edit done again if they do. I also believe it’s important to get at least 3, preferably more beta readers, so you can weigh the balance of opinions.
Line/Copy editor – Once your story is at the minimum of 3rd draft stage*, you can turn your attention to the micro scale edits. If you have exhausted your ability to self-edit, it’s time to bring in a professional editor. Line editing targets weak prose and improves sentence quality, ensures you are effectively conveying the story and characters etc – whether you need a line edit will depend on where your strengths and experience lie as a writer. Copy editing fixes grammar mistakes, sentence structure, readability, consistency of style, and continuity errors, and is ESSENTIAL.
*If you’re anything like me, your process is too non-linear to accurately count drafts in whole numbers. My counting system usually goes something like 0.1 to 0.5 (aka rough draft) then 1.0, 1.1, 2.0, 2.1, 2.2, 3.0, 3.1, 3.2, 4.0 etc. Some sections will have more sub drafts than others.
But what if you can’t afford an editor?
There’s a number of things you can do if you can’t afford to pay for an editor yourself. First of all you can rely more heavily on your critique partners and beta readers to help you polish, perhaps going through a second round of readers. Grammar software like Grammarly or Pro Writing Aid can help you find more issues.
The more controversial side of my advice however is that if you can’t afford a professional copy edit, you really should consider querying rather than self-publishing. Once you land an agent and a publisher they will do it all for you. If you self-publish it’s my personal opinion that you have an obligation to the readers who will be buying your story to give it the same professional treatment. But the choice is ultimately yours.
Acting on Feedback
Feedback is often critical. Criticism can be hard to take and your gut reaction will often be to reject the suggestions. There are techniques to help with this. Here’s my method:
- Read the feedback, but don’t act on it right away. It’s important to digest it, mull it over and explore what it means. It’s also important to let your initial emotional reaction fade. Take as much time as you need. I find collating or cataloguing the feedback can work well here.
- Weigh the feedback. This is easier when you have multiple people feeding back on the same thing. You don’t have to accept every bit. Some will be a matter of personal opinion (which will be more obvious if you have conflicting feedback from different readers). Be brutal with yourself though – only reject feedback points if you can honestly justify it. In most cases you should act.
- Analyse. As Neil Gaiman astutely pointed out – “When people tell you something’s wrong or doesn’t work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you how to fix it, they are almost always wrong.” Therefore analyse the feedback. Explore the root cause of the issue, not just what is on the surface. Think about whether what you were trying to convey actually made it across, and if it didn’t, where it got stuck.
- Eliminate macro scale problems first. Be honest with yourself – if the root cause is a macro scale, structural flaw, bite the bullet and deal with it. Trying to work around it or cover it up will never be as successful as making the big changes your story actually needs. You may need time to come to terms with this. Take that time.
- Make a plan of what to change. Changes may have knock on effects on other scenes. Make sure you plan to address these ripples.
- Identify the objectives. Make sure you are clear on what you want to achieve with each edit.
- Implement the changes themselves. Work through methodically. Over time I have adopted a pattern of annotating changes before finally actioning them, which gives me a chance to change my mind. As with all aspects of writing, try things until you find a process you like.
If I can leave you with only one piece of advice, it is this: Learn to recognise your emotional response.
You have a huge amount invested in your book, so you’re going to take it personally. I see too many inexperienced writers declaring on Twitter they suddenly hate their work and they’re quitting writing after getting critical feedback or a rejection. Learn to acknowledge your feelings, feel them, let them diminish, then get to work. Take time away from the project for this process – this might mean a few hours, a day, or a month – whichever works for you.
Bear in mind also that positive feedback is often general, while critical feedback is specific. We’ve all heard “I loved your book, but…” followed by a catalogue of issues. This makes it very hard to lose sight of the part where they LOVED it. Sometimes it can be helpful to go back to your reader with some specific questions about what they liked, in order to get a balanced view.
In my next post I’ll pick out some examples from editing Mime and share my thought processes and what I ultimately decided to do.