One of my friends asked me to write a little bit about the editing process. Since it’s the hardest part of writing, you’d think I have some deep philosophy about it, but you are about to find that no, I don’t.

But I’ll talk about what I know about it all the same.

A lot of people who are just starting in writing believe that the hard part is getting everything down, but write long enough in any genre or medium – fiction, journalism, or even didactic/expository/technical writing (as I do now for work) – and you will quickly discover that editing is actually the hardest and the most important part of the whole process. Or at least, that’s how it is for me.

I’ll talk about the writing process itself some other time, but for me, editing begins after I’ve got the whole piece down and I have let it sit for a day or two. This is actually an important part of the process. There was an article I cannot now locate that fully explained that you will always be bad at editing your own writing. There are a lot of reasons for it, but the ones I personally think apply to me are that:

  • I read things automatically (meaning that I mis-read them), and I am that much more likely to do that when the writing is my own (and my brain therefore thinks it knows what is written there). This can result in embarrassing misprints.
  • I am viewing the story from my own perspective, which means I know everything there is to know about it. Therefore, I think things make sense that to others may not make sense at all.
  • It is entirely possible for you to write through an entire concept without once having realized it is totally fucking stupid. Professional editors will help point that out.

In essence, if you are going to need to self-edit, you need some time to forget what it is that you have written so that you’re approaching it as if it isn’t something you are still in the midst of writing. The writing and the editing processes need to be separate, and the integrity of both actually depend upon being separate, as Wired recently pointed out.

So, once I have laid aside the piece of writing and come back to it, I then begin a structural self-edit. I set time aside for this that I would normally set aside for writing and instead print out the piece, take up a red-colored writing implement if I have one near at hand, and then scribble on the printed piece at the same time I have a notebook near at hand to jot down a sort of to-do list.

During the structural self-edit, we focus on just that: Structure. That is among one of the most important parts of writing, more so than the actual plot or characterization. Often, how a work is structured makes a huge difference in how well it reads. I am currently in the midst of reading the Chaos Walking series by Patrick Ness, and the way in which it is structured is one major feature of how well I like it. In the second book of the trilogy, the viewpoint is opened up to include a second character and the juxtaposition of their two separate struggles is key. So that’s one example.

Here is an example of a to-do list I am currently using on a piece of fiction (though one later in the process, as you’ll see below), with irrelevant stuff blacked out:


Once I’ve marked up the copy and drawn up a to-do list, I make the structural changes. This can take a while, sometimes as many as three or four sessions if it’s a particularly long story or piece.

Now it’s time to do copy editing. This is fairly simple: I sit down, with another printed copy of the latest version, and I mark it up in red to see what has been misspelled or omitted, what sentence needs tigthening, what paragraphs might need sentence structure varied slightly so they don’t sound boring as fuck – (He picked up the apple. The apple was cold. He bit into it. It was bitter… and on and on) – to see if I have used a word somewhere I don’t truly know the meaning of, and other nitpicky English things. During this process I will occasionally read sentences aloud to determine if there are grammatical disagreements. This works much better than simply reading off the page, and you should do it. Speaking pulls more muscles in the brain than reading off a page, and I’ve found it jars your inner grammarian awake.

Once I’ve done that, it is time for me to take the hardest step: Find a friend with no kids who will actually seriously read over my work for me. I even pay them to do so on longer works. It is important to know that you need other eyes on your work, or you will not catch things, as I explained above.

Once I have had this done, it is time for me to start over at structural editing again, where I take the concerns and edits of my friend-editor seriously and honest-to-god draw up another copy of the thing and scribble a to-do list in a notebook. That list above resulted from a friend’s edit.

Another copy-edit later and a final read-through and that’s it: That’s all I do. The entire process, as you can imagine, takes weeks, but each step is necessary. You are taking an unrefined product and making it into something other people might actually want to read, so it takes work.

And writing about it takes 1,000 words, apparently, sheesh.