28th January, 2011

It’s stating the obvious to say that editing is as important as writing. If you are writing with the purpose of entertaining others (as opposed to entertaining yourself, which is a noble pursuit all in itself), there’s no point in creating a stack of manuscripts without actually going back and fixing them. And “fixing” is the right word, because those first drafts are broken, no doubt about it. I’m sure that the more you write, the less broken your first drafts are (and consequently the less editing time needed), but a first draft is a first draft is a first draft.

Editing can also be difficult – in fact, it can make you want to tear your hair out, and it frequently will. A lot of people are frightened of editing, and I don’t blame them. It’s not particularly pleasant to pick up something you wrote a few months ago, which you had put in a drawer and thought wasn’t too bad, not really, and discover that while some of it is pretty good, some of it really is pretty bad too. I can understand why some people don’t like editing, and why some people don’t edit. It’s one of the big obstacles that stop a lot of people from making a proper go at writing.

I used to not enjoy editing – in fact, I still don’t quite enjoy it per se – but I find it satisfying to carve the good stuff out of the mountain of words written. Scott Sigler summed it up when he said “you’ve got to get the clay on the wheel”. That’s the first draft. Write everything down before you forget it. Once that’s done, then you can sculpt the story and fix the writing.

One thing that struck me this week though is that I’m faster editing on screen than I am on paper, which I must admit is a surprise. I’m not sure why I’m surprised, exactly, because I can certainly type faster than I can write by hand, and I can construct prose in my head faster than I can type (which is why I never write in longhand, and have no inclination to try). My usual routine for novel-length fiction is to take the draft from Scrivener, import it into Word, massage it into standard manuscript format (Scrivener has a variety of formatting options for when you compile a manuscript, but it never quite seems to get it right), do a general spellcheck and fix anything really obvious (usually just grammar or punctuation, if I see anything as the spellcheck is running), and then have it printed at Lulu as a trade paperback for editing. I’ve done this for three books now, because Lulu is surprisingly cheap, and when I worked in an office I could throw my paperback in my bag and work on the editing with ease at lunchtime. The end result would be a paperback filled with red pen, and from this I could start amending the electronic manuscript.

I thought this was a good idea because a) it was practical, as having a 500-page manuscript bound into a trade paperback is much more convenient than a very large stack of A4 printed sheets, and b) it meant I could read the manuscript as an actual book, which I think put me in the right mindset for editing. So in this regard, this…

…is easier to manage than this…

This week I finished a new novella, The Wasp in the Lotus, and because the deadline is approaching fast I went straight into editing/rewriting. I tend to do this for short fiction anyway, as there doesn’t seem much point in getting a copy printed. So I’ve started editing directly in Word, using the track-changes function as my red pen.

Editing on screen works. Now, I knew it did, because I’ve edited short fiction on screen before. But the compiled manuscript of Wasp comes in at 75 pages and while it doesn’t have chapters, it has numbered section breaks. It feels like I’m editing a long piece, and after a day I’m already nearly a third of the way through. The manuscript is a mass of red tracked changes, but so far I’m happy with how the second draft is looking.

This month I was supposed to have been editing Seven Wonders, but after four weeks I’ve only made a very small inroad into the 600-page paperback I had printed. Whenever I think I should be working on it, the sheer bulk of the physical book puts me off – there are so many pages to fix, and marking everything up by hand takes a long time.

The thing is, I don’t work in an office any more, I work at home. Which means the convenience factor of a printed editing copy is now irrelevant – I can be editing on my own computer. Secondly, editing Wasp on screen has been much faster than I anticipated – I’m still doing a heck of a lot of rewriting and fixing, but it’s all there, tracked for me. With a paper and pen edit, I then have to rekey everything electronically. That’s another big chunk of time.

Additionally, I’ve been wondering whether I shouldn’t in fact be editing Ludmila, My Love before Seven Wonders – that’s not to say Seven Wonders isn’t good, I think it is, but Ludmila, My Love is a different kind of book and at this stage perhaps one that would be better to have completed and ready for submission first. In the back of my mind I’ve always thought that Empire State and Ludmila, My Love were my two “big” books, whatever that means, so maybe I need to invest the time in Ludmila now. I’ve been toying with this idea for a while, but the thought of getting the manuscript ready for a Lulu printing (another time consuming process) has been putting me off.

Except… I don’t need to print it, do I? I’m managing quite well with Wasp, better in fact than I had expected. I’m not only saving time by editing on screen, I’m probably making a better job of it as I can type faster than I can write, and I can make more detailed on-the-fly changes (and can try several alternatives if needed) with a keyboard than I can with a pen.

Suddenly things just got a whole lot easier. Sure, I can start editing Ludmila whenever I like. And doing it electronically I might be able to play catch up and having something ready for schedule I’ve already arranged with my beta-readers.

Another wordless day, but I’m keeping the tally up as there is no excuse for not being able to add 2000 words to something, even while working on a big edit/rewrite. Let’s see what I can manage today.

Project: <none selected>
Words today: 0
Total words for 2011: 45,701

Half-way through Death’s Disciples and while I’m still enjoying it, I’m still not entirely sure what is going on. I’m hoping some explanations are going to start appearing soon!

Books: some pages of Death’s Disciples by J. Robert King.
Comics: On hold until February.

  • I did at one point edit on paper before I came to approximately the same realization, though it was coupled with a sudden upsurge in moving-around that made editing on a laptop screen a much better idea. Now I’m just used to it, and it’s easier to backup in case of sudden rain.

  • I couldn’t see myself stepping away from paper editing. As a newspaper sub-editor, it’s industry standard that editing on paper is superior to editing on the screen, which is something we do only as a last resort. Admittedly I am about to do a massive amount of on-screen editing, but I call this a “light” or filter edit because I am looking for particular elements rather than a close edit of an entire manuscript. Big wads of paper are bloody daunting, it’s true. And keying in changes is extremely unpleasant and, worse, feels so damned unproductive. But I feel I am more alert, more in the zone, and less likely to glide into just reading my own work less critically if I have it on paper in front of me. As with all editing, it is an effort of will to make sure you slow down enough to just look at one sentence at a time (and how it relates to its siblings) than, again, fall into the rhythm and flow of the existing manuscript and suddenly you’re three pages on from the last red mark and got to ask yourself, is the writing better suddenly or have you just been less attentive?

    I love the idea of printing out your manuscript as a trade copy though. That’s awesome. Not sure it would leave enough white space for the red ink I tend to lay down though!


    Zephyr — a superhero webcomic in prose

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  • That’s a good point, about editing on paper being a different kind of editing. In my day job I used to do a lot of editing and, as with newspapers, it was essential to edit on paper as you would miss so much on screen.

    However with a novel, by doing that first pass on screen, I would hope to get most of the editing done. I would then agree that a paper edit is needed to pick up everything that was missed on screen, but because the bulk of it should have been caught, maybe it wouldn’t be such a huge task.

    For the trade paperback I set it at 12 point Times New Roman, double-spaced, and I’ve found there is enough room for pen edits (although there is a lot of sideways writing in the margins!).

  • I’ve come to a similar conclusion I think- I initially printed out Bird and Tower and went through it with a pen, but I found that once I’d done that, I didn’t particularly want to do it all again with the electronic version- I felt like I’d already done it, if you see what I mean.

    I’m editing Ink for Thieves at the moment, and this time I’ve read through the whole thing on screen correcting any small mistakes I spot as I go, whilst also making a summary of each chapter in a (paper) notebook, alongside any notes on big stuff that needs fixing/re-writing. This sounds more longwinded, but is a much more satisfying way of doing it (for me, anyway).

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  • I can see the benefit of printing out a book to edit, in that you can often catch more mistakes and whatnot. There’s also the benefit of not having to look at a screen for a change of pace. And the feeling of holding a tangible copy of the book is pretty nice too.
    But I recall for a book when I inputted the edits from my physical copy to the computer document–it was SO boring. I think for my next book I’ll probably just do a thorough edit on-screen, and hope alpha readers (if I can get any) will notice any plot holes and such. Though I’d surely do a read-through after I got input from them as well.

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  • Really, with each of my manuscripts I’ve probably gone back over them on screen a number of times before I do what I call my first hard edit. Since I have a few projects on the go (like yourself by the looks Adam) and a few manuscripts that have been finished and cold for a while that still benefit from a review and consideration after rejection remarks (if I get any), then there’s still a role to play in that electronic editing. But I guess I will always do at least one methodical hard copy edit for the reasons above and because I get caught up in my own shit. (A bit of a fault of mine).


    Zephyr — a superhero webcomic in prose

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