I'm currently in the editing phase of my dark fantasy novel, Map of Shadows, and it's complicated to rework big picture stuff like story structure and character arcs, alongside the weeds of word choice and grammar.
But it's this polishing work that helps turn our piles of words into books that others might want to read. In today's article, Amira Makansi goes through a suggested editing process.
Many writers are proud and thrilled when they get to type out the words THE END after finishing a manuscript. And well we should be!
Completing the first draft of a book is an enormous accomplishment, and many would-be writers out there have dozens of unfinished drafts in their desk drawers. But, ironically, typing out THE END is not the end of the writing process – not by a long shot.
Before your manuscript sees the light of day, whether in the form of a query to an agent, a pitch at a writer's conference, or digital self-publishing, it's imperative that you critically evaluate your novel and revise as necessary.
How does the revision process work?
Once you've finished your first draft, it's time to decide what works and what doesn't.
There are different levels of precision in the revision process, from broad-strokes plot elements, character development, and world building or “set design” down to the brass tacks such as language choice, grammar, and proofreading.
Before you submit your manuscript to an agency, a publishing house, or to the wide world of self-publishing, be sure to follow these steps to make sure your book is the best it can be.
1) After you've finished your book, let it rest for a month or two before beginning the editing process
In the immediate aftermath of typing those magical words THE END, you're not likely to be in a good place to objectively evaluate your work. You might be fired up and ready to charge ahead, but you're too close to what you've just written.
You're still in love with your fine word flourishes, your lovable but unnecessary characters, your plot device that bogs everything down but just makes you so happy. But in the revision process, it's critical to look at your novel from the perspective of a reader who knows nothing about you, your story, or how hard you've worked to bring your characters to life.
By tucking the manuscript away and returning to it after a few weeks or even a few months, you'll give yourself the time and space to withdraw emotionally from what you've just written. This will make you a more objective reader, and will put you in a better place to critically evaluate your work.
2) Diagnose your manuscript
The first thing to do when you return to your manuscript is to re-read it yourself and look at the big picture.
Think of this period as a diagnostic exam.
You are the doctor, and your manuscript is the patient. Take note of any plot holes that need to be fixed. Evaluate how thoroughly your characters are fleshed out. Think about the world you've created or the scene you've set – does it feel real? How can you make your novel healthier? What are the “illnesses” or weak links?
It's a good idea to take diligent notes during this period so you don't miss anything, and so you're organized and efficient when you sit down to make changes.
Here's a simple checklist of “diagnostic” points to think about as you're evaluating your manuscript:
- What are the plot holes, if any?
- Do I have a plan to fix them?
- Are there pacing issues? I.e., does the book move too quickly or too slowly at parts?
- If there are sections where the plot moves too slowly, can I cut chapters or sections to speed it up?
- If there are places where things are happening too quickly, how can I slow it down and expand moments to make it more accessible?
- Are my characters believable people with goals, motivations, and backstories?
- Will readers be able to relate to my protagonist(s)?
3) Bring your setting to life
In the first draft, it's best to be laser-focused on getting down the bones of your story. This generally includes key plot elements, major characters and their goals, and the rough sketches of a setting.
But now that you're in the revision process, it's time to bring your world to life. As you go through your diagnostic exam, take notes about how to flesh out and explore the setting of your novel.
- If parts of your story take place in an exotic city, think about how that city will look, feel, smell, and sound to your characters.
- If you're writing a science fiction novel, get creative in extrapolating current technology into the distant future.
- If you're writing historical fiction, put your reader on the streets of 17th century Oxford or Rome in the year 200 B.C.
- If you're writing fantasy or building a magical system, write down all the rules of your magic so your characters don't inexplicably break them.
The more you know about the setting of your world, the richer your book will be.
4) Dive into revisions!
I would argue that this is the most important stage in the entire process of writing a novel.
If you've completed the second and third steps effectively, this stage can be a single, intensive pass through your manuscript wherein you have the opportunity to address all the issues you saw and noted, while at the same time using your setting notes to flesh out your world and make it feel real.
You can do this methodically, starting at the beginning and moving forward chapter-by-chapter, or you can do it by starting with the biggest problem areas and working out from there.
This will most likely be a time-consuming and labor-intensive period, so be patient!
Unlike with the first draft, when your goal was simply to get words on the page and give yourself something to work with, this time the goal is to come out with a story that works, well-developed characters who are sympathetic to the reader, and a world that feels comprehensive and immersive.
5) Seek out beta-readers
Phew! Now that you've completed the first pass of revisions, it's time to find out what, if anything, you've missed.
Beta readers can be a great resource for improving your work. A beta reader is a person who agrees to read and “beta test” your manuscript by giving you feedback on what works and what doesn't from her perspective.
The process of finding and effectively using beta readers is an interesting one, and there have been many blog posts dedicated to the topic. I recommend finding 3-5 readers, and a mix of writers and non-writers, to read your manuscript draft and tell you what works for them and what doesn't. Preferably, you'll find people who read in your genre – if you're writing science fiction, someone who only reads literary fiction isn't going to help you too much.
There are a few important things to remember when using beta readers:
- They're just opinions. If one person out of ten hates your protagonist, but everyone else loves him, it's probably okay to ignore what the outlier thought. But if three out of five hated him, maybe it's important to think about why.
- Ask good questions – but do it after they've finished your book. You don't want to “spoil” anything or prejudice your readers in advance. But if you're concerned about an aspect of your story, or how you used a particular literary technique, don't be afraid to ask.
- It's your job to synthesize the feedback you've gotten. You don't have to accept everything every single reader says, but nor should you ignore a persistent emerging theme. Take the advice or concerns each reader has and synthesize it into a revision plan for Step 6.
For more information about beta readers and how to use them, check out this post from the Self-Publishing Advice blog at the Alliance of Independent Authors, or this post from K.M. Weiland on why non-writers are the best beta readers.
[Note from Joanna. You don't need to use beta readers, so this is just a suggestion. I personally prefer to use a professional editor these days.]
6) Synthesize your feedback from beta-readers and edit for language and grammar
This is your third pass.
Now that you've gotten feedback from beta readers, you'll want to synthesize their feedback into a revision plan for your third pass. During this pass, you have the opportunity to get into the nitty-gritty of your language, about which some of your beta-readers may have offered feedback.
- How can your language be clearer, more concise, more impactful, and more elegant?
- Where can you cut modifiers? Can you choose more powerful or precise words in place of those that only kinda-sorta work?
This is called a line edit. This is the stage of the process where, for newer writers, it can be helpful to hire a professional editor to work with you to improve the quality of your writing. Even very experienced authors often hire a line editor to read for clarity and grammar.
7) Read your novel aloud and make changes as you go
When you read your manuscript aloud, you catch little problems with word choice, over-writing, grammar, and rhythm that you wouldn't have noticed otherwise. Not to mention that if you ever want to hear your book read aloud as an audiobook, this step is critical.
I cannot emphasize enough the value of reading every word out loud, and making changes to sentence structure and word choice as you go. You will find yourself deleting a lot of extraneous words that you thought were oh-so-necessary in the written drafts. You can thank me later!
8) Hire a proofreader
If you plan to seek a traditional publisher, you don't necessarily need to do this step – but you do need to read your own work very, very carefully, as agents are more likely to reject your manuscript out of hand if there are loads of typos and grammatical mistakes – even if they love the concept.
If you're planning to self-publish, this step is absolutely critical. Because by this point you should have gone over your manuscript a minimum of four times – writing, big picture revisions, beta-reader synthesis, and reading aloud – you'll be too familiar with your work to catch all the errors.
It's notoriously difficult to proofread your own work, and so, whether traditionally publishing or going indie, it's imperative to ensure your work is clean, error-free, and professional. You can find a list of editors and proofreaders here.
9) Celebrate and be humble
Congratulations! You did it!
If you've made it all the way to the end of these steps, you've successfully taken a book from rough draft to polished, publishable manuscript. Remember to be humble and grateful along the way.
Thank your beta readers, your editor, and your proofreader for all the work they've done on your behalf – even if you're paying them. Be grateful, not angry, for any criticism you receive. Remember, all feedback, whether positive or negative, is just a stepping stone to an improved finished product.
What are your favorite revision practices? Will you add any of these steps to your process? Please leave your thoughts below and join the conversation.
Amira Makansi is a professional editor, a hybrid author, and one-third of the K. Makansi writing trio responsible for the young adult dystopian Seeds trilogy. The first book in that series, THE SOWING, has been optioned for a Hollywood production.
Her forthcoming work is represented by Andrea Somberg of Harvey Klinger literary agency. You can learn more on her website, The Z-Axis. You can follow her on social media via Facebook, Pinterest, and Instagram.