Friday, 11 September 2015

The Joy of Editing

By Gillian Hamer

Editing is very much a marmite topic. Some writers love it. Others loathe it with a passion. Me, typically I am in the middle. The first round of editing, when I’m still on a buzz from finishing the first draft, is always a thrill. But by the time I’ve worked my way through feedback from a handful of beta readers and an over-zealous proofreader, I’m no longer quite so enthralled by the whole process!

But as I’m always interested how other writers tackle the whole nuts-and-bolts process of writing a novel, I thought it might be interesting to pass on how I handle the editing process. After five published novels, and a sixth on its way, I’ve learned quite a lot about quality control.

1. Story Sweep

This is what I call my first initial read through upon completion. Lots of things can change throughout the novel. Characters that started the book with red hair may end up blonde. A twist that happened in Chapter 20, may affect a declaration made in your opening paragraph. So, I like to sit down and with the ending now forefront in my mind, read through the novel carefully – watching out for any bloopers that would spoil the whole integrity of your work.

2. Chapter Listings
Once I’m sure I have the story in the right order, the beginning, middle and the end sorted, I make a list of individual chapters. I list the main protagonist for each, against content summary and word count. Doing this is also handy if I need to make changes as I’m editing, - it’s a quick reference guide to where I need to go back to.

3. Rooting Out the Fillers

I have a set list of words I use the Find/Replace feature on Word to thin out to a bare minimum. On my list are just, had, that, felt, but … and and. Not all can be removed of course, but I’d put odds on a good 90% of them being redundant.

4. Repetition

As well as fillers I also do a Find/Replace for words I have an awful habit of repeating. On this list I have shuddered, swallowed, gazed, nodded. Again, I would say at least half can go or be replaced with something less tiresome and more original!

5. Adverbs & Adjectives

Not something you can rely on any grammar check to find, but I always take time to search and destroy as many unneeded adverbs as I can. My pet hates are those used after dialogue tags - eg. he said loudly (so he shouted, right?) I use the rule - if you need an adverb, there's a chance you chose the wrong verb. Adjectives too, whilst great if used to a bare minimum, can clog up descriptions and prose. Be ruthless and take your shears to both.

6. Continuity

This can be a killer, in any genre I imagine, but particularly in crime fiction. Even more so if you’ve made lots of changes in the book.
If Betty was sixty four and grey-haired in chapter one, make sure she’s not 46 and auburn in chapter twelve. If Billy is a vegan to begin with, make sure he doesn’t order lamb bhuna later. I think if you have a niggling feeling about anything in terms of continuity, it’s always worth a full investigation. There’s no easier way as an author to lose credibility than if the reader can pick holes in your writing. And talking of holes …

7. Plot Holes

This is another minefield, again crime fiction is a killer. Make yourself a list of questions that you used early on in the work to hook the reader, and content yourself that by the ending of the book all have been satisfactorily answered. Make sure Red Herrings work and aren’t too obvious. Ensure the ‘believability factor’ isn’t stretched past breaking point in any of your twists and reveals. Tie up loose ends and fill in gaping holes, and use this editorial process to ensure your story is tight.

8. Cliché Check

My own rule of thumb is that it’s okay for the character to use them if it’s needed to show character. But it’s not okay for the author to rely on them. So, do a run through and ensure originality.

9. Spell Check

Quite obvious, but something that takes a fair amount of time and patience, especially when local dialect or dialogue play a large part of the book. Take your time, make sure you don’t miss anything obvious.

10. Typos

There are some things you can’t rely on technology to sort out – typos are one of them. My biggest faux-pas is our/out. No one other than your own eagle eyes (or someone else’s) is going to sort this editing nightmare. So read each word, don’t skim, and see what should actually be there.

11. Read Aloud

This is crucial for me, especially in areas of dialogue, so I have a real feel for the interaction and rhythm. My rule of thumb when reading aloud is that if I stumble over a particular line more than twice, it has to go. Any line that creates a frown needs work. Perfect lines just flow in time with the beat of your writing, so try and make every line perfect.

12. Word Count

At this stage, I go over each chapter again and do a second word count, hopefully you’ll be amazed how many words you’ve shaved off your work. I try to keep my chapter lengths quite constant, within 1000 words of each other, so at this stage if chapter four is 3000 and chapter five is 8000 words, you may have some rejigging to do.

13. Chapter Headings

It’s always worth at this stage, having a final run through of chapter numbers and headings. With all the changes, it’s quite common for me to find I have two chapter twenty sevens, and no twenty eight.

14. Final Read & Polish

I think it’s always a good idea to reread the story again at this stage. Clear your head of all of the hours of agony that have come before, and read this time as a reader, not a writer. Hopefully, you will actually forget you’ve written it and enjoy the story, or find yourself smiling with pride at your talent.

And now you’re ready to set your baby free, send it out into the big, wide world, so new eyes can read it for the very first time. At this stage, don’t be tempted to fiddle or faff – walk away and leave it alone. If you use beta readers or proofreaders, you know they are going to find you more work, and that’s when your job is to give the book one final super-polish, so it enters the world of publication as perfect and polished as a diamond.

One you can be very proud of indeed.

For more helpful tips and advice, check out The Triskele Trail.


  1. Great round-up. It's always a good idea to have your own style sheet to work to so that you can root out those inconsistencies - ise or ise, your system for expressing numbers and time, how and when to hyphenate. You will need to give this to your copy-editor/proofreader so best to get it nailed early.