Re-Post: Four Tips to Make Editing Better (and More Fun)

NOTE: This post originally appeared on Medium.

In some ways, editing a manuscript can be even more stressful than actually writing it in the first place. It’s no coincidence that a lot of writers I interact with say editing is, by far, their least favorite thing about being an author (particularly the independent variety).

(My least favorite part is marketing, but that’s a completely different essay).

On its face, editing can feel utterly daunting. A massive task that needs to be tackled, yet feels never-ending.

It was one thing to churn out 100,000 words the first time through, but to then traverse through those caverns of literature, over and over again, with little more than a pickax and the vain hope of keeping the demons of self-doubt at bay — even as you wrestle with the imperfections of your first draft…

Still, there are ways editing can be a less cumbersome, less intimidating process. A process that might even be fun.

These are by no means universal tips — after all, one size does not fit all when it comes to writing — but in my experience, these tips have helped me the most.

Tip #1: After you finish, walk away.
As soon as you type “The End,” save your work, back it up (preferably in multiple locations), and close the document. Leave it to sit for at least two weeks.

No, really. Don’t even read it.

I understand it can be tempting to dive right into the editing process, to simply get it out of the way. But consider a two-week break your vacation after having put the effort into writing the first draft. Writing a book is an exhausting, time-consuming task, and you need the time off once you’ve hit Save for the last time.

The time away will also let you return to your work with fresher eyes. Some writers will wait months at a time, but two weeks is my sweet spot.

It gives me the distance I need to return to my manuscript with fresher eyes (reader’s eyes, one might call them), but I’m not so far away that I forgot what I was writing in the first place.

In fact, I use the two-week break between every step in the process. That time away is key for a number of reasons (not the least of which is avoiding creative burnout).

Tip #2: Break it all down into parts.
The editing process can seem daunting because of how multi-faceted it is; you’re not only on the lookout for spelling and grammar errors, you’re also checking for plot holes, character inconsistencies, story issues, so on and so forth and the list seems never-ending.

Trying to tackle all those things at once would be enough to turn any writer bald.

Break it all up into sections. By which I mean: make your first pass-through about nothing but spelling and grammar. The first time you turn your editor’s eye on your own work, make that your sole focus. Then take your two-week break and when you return, make your second pass-through about plot holes.

Do this as many times as you see fit. Each pass-through should have a specific focus. That way, when you’re editing, you’re not overwhelming yourself with all the things you have to fix (and if one of your pass-throughs ends up being a re-write, you’re at least prepared for that). Every time you finish a pass, you feel like you actually accomplished something and made some progress.

This sounds like a pain, and in terms of time spent, that many passes through your manuscript can take longer than tackling it all in one go. But editing is not something to be rushed, and focusing each pass-through on a specific task will make your work better in the long run — with the added benefit of not stressing you out to the point where you want to quit.

(A note here: if you find yourself becoming bored with reading your own work over and over and over again, take heart in knowing you’re not alone in that. All authors face that because we’re seeing words we’ve already read several times over. Rest assured that anyone reading your work for the first time will never be as bored with it as you are.)

Tip #3: Know when enough is enough.
Give each pass-through focus one pass (except for maybe the spelling and grammar — that one you might need to do twice). Plot holes get one pass-through. Continuity errors (especially if you’re writing a series or a trilogy) get one pass-through.

The last thing you want to do is analyze your work so much, you freeze.

Once you’ve finished every pass-through, now is the time to find another editor. Yes, you need an editor other than yourself (yes, even if you are an editor yourself). Another pair of eyes is invaluable, and if cost is an issue, there are options at your disposal.

While my editor has my manuscript, I use that time to tackle other things that need to be done before my book’s ready to be published. I secure my cover artist, I write my back blurb, and I begin working on formatting — because while the content itself might not be ready, I find turning my manuscript into something resembling an actual book at this point will help push me through the rest of the process.

By the time I’m ready to apply my editor’s notes and suggestions, my manuscript resembles an actual book. That visual shift helps motivate me — because sometimes, this part can drag the most (and sometimes, editor’s notes aren’t fun to deal with — even if the editor is nice and, more importantly, right).

At this point, the finish line is visible. Like Olympic sprinters leaning into the proverbial tape at the end of a race, this is where you push through as hard as you can and lead with your chest as you cross that line.

Tip #4: Always take advantage of proof copies.
Whichever service you use to publish your work — whether it be Amazon’s KDP or Draft2Digital or something else — likely offers a chance for you to proof your work in actual book format before you hit Publish. Whether it’s an actual hard copy or an ePub/Mobi file, always take advantage of this.

This way, you get to see your work the same way your readers will see it. You get to see whatever formatting errors there might be, whatever issues might crop up if you’re offering print copies.

Yes, you should again check spelling and grammar (because those are pesky little buggers who will find a way to sneak through repeated edits), but seeing your work in the format buyers will also see it in is just too valuable to pass up.

Never pass up the chance to grab a proof copy. It’s better to find any issues that might arise before you hit Publish and not after someone’s spent their hard-earned money on it.

In conclusion:
The last thing I want is for a writer to put all their time and effort into crafting a manuscript, only to abandon it out of frustration because the editing process overwhelms them to the point of quitting.

Even if you can’t learn to embrace the editing process (which I get), hopefully, the above tips can at least help you understand and accept the role editing can play in making your writing shine.

Think of editing less as a way to fix what’s wrong and more a way of bringing what’s good to the forefront. It’s like mining for gold: you know it’s in there, you just have to chip away everything around it to find it.

Editing your manuscript is the same way.

I understand these steps might not work for everyone; as I said, writing is not a one-size-fits-all exercise, and what works for me might not work for you. But I have found the above steps (especially breaking down each part into one specific focus) make the editing process far less burdensome.

I might even occasionally call it fun.

About J.D. Cunegan
J.D. Cunegan is known for his unique writing style, a mixture of murder mystery and superhero epic that introduces the reader to his comic book-inspired storytelling and fast-paced prose. A 2006 graduate of Old Dominion University, Cunegan has an extensive background in journalism, a lengthy career in media relations, and a lifelong love for writing. Cunegan lives in Hampton, Virginia, and next to books and art, his big passion in life in auto racing. When not hunched in front of a keyboard or with his nose stuck in a book, Cunegan can probably be found at a race track or watching a race on TV.

Follow J.D. on FacebookTwitter, and Goodreads.

A Peek Into My Editing Process

One of the questions I hear most frequently from other authors has to do with the editing process. Not what I do when I edit someone else’s manuscript (let’s be honest, that’s pretty straightforward), but rather how I handle my own. Truth of the matter is, no two writers are the same in this regard, because — just as in writing itself — different tactics work for different people.

But what I can do is give you a peek behind the proverbial curtain and take you, step by step, through the process I use for editing my own work. It’s an exhaustive process, but it’s actually far less daunting than it might appear.

Step 1: Finish the First Draft… Then Walk Away.

After I finish writing the first draft, I put the thing away for two weeks. I don’t even look at it for 14 whole days. Part of it is just the desire for a break; writing a full draft can be an arduous task, so taking some time upon its completion makes sense. It also works in this regard: those two weeks give me enough distance from the story so that it appears fresher upon my return, yet I still remember the details and other particulars.

Step 2: First Round of Edits… Spelling, Grammar, Etc.

My first pass-through has a simple goal: find and eradicate the inevitable spelling errors, grammar mistakes, and typos. Every first draft will have them, and my first mission is to hunt down as many of these blights as possible.

Step 3: Walk Away Again… No, Really.

See what I wrote about Step 1. These two-week breaks are paramount for me.

Step 4: It’s the Story, Stupid… Plot Holes, Continuity Errors, Etc.

My second read-through is when things get a little more involved. This time, I focus on the story itself, searching for plot holes, inconsistencies, continuity errors… anything like that. Anything that leaves the narrative weaker than it should be. In this step, I only note the plot issues; I don’t fix them yet. Because…

Step 5: These Boots Were Made for Walking… This Brain Was Made for Thinking

Another two-week break ensues… but this time, I’m using that time to think about the plot notes I made in Step 4. Though I’m a pantser by nature, I have learned the value of jotting down the occasional note or quasi-outline. That’s what I do here, pondering the plot issues I just discovered.

Step 6: Chisel, Hammer, or Bulldozer… or Maybe All of Them

This is where I fully address the plot issues I discovered in Step 4. This involves rearranging chapters, deleting chapters, adding chapters, re-writing chapters… hell, sometimes, I re-write large chunks of the manuscript. This is often the most exhaustive and longest step in the process, yet it’s also perhaps the most important.

Step 7: Formatting… More Important Than You Think

This is the only step for which I don’t take a break first. Immediately after shoring up Step 6, I format my manuscript. I choose my final font, I break up the chapters, I knock out an Acknowledgements page and a dedication. I know other authors leave this for the end, but I’ve found that at this point, having my manuscript look more book-like really helps me push through the ending slog.

Step 8: We’re Off to See the Editor!

I send my manuscript off to my editor (most of the time, it’s the fantastic Becca Bates). Now that I also edit other people’s manuscripts, I try to hand my editor as clean a manuscript as possible… and the time my editor spends with my manuscript is paramount to me. I use this time to address other steps in the book-publishing process. I tackle the blurb that will go on the back cover and the book’s Amazon page. I work on getting a cover (SelfPubBookCovers.com is my go-to). I choose a tentative release date and start reaching out to people about potential promotion and ARCs.

Step 9: Give it to Me Straight, Doc… er, Editor

I study my editor’s notes. While doing this, I correct any spelling or grammar errors I find (because they’re sneaky little bastards). I take note of all the plot suggestions, and I take the time to decide which notes I want to apply to my manuscript and which ones I don’t. This step can also involve re-writing and cutting. As a writer, you don’t have to take every suggestion your editor makes — but I’ve learned that when my editor makes a suggestion or asks a question, it’s in my best interest to actually heed those words.

Step 10: Walk Away… Again

One last two-week break, to give my brain a rest from all that plotting and thinking. Next to Step 6, Step 9 is the hardest to push through. But the finish line is within reach by now, so adrenaline almost always carries me through, even if frustration threatens to have me tossing the whole thing in a dumpster.

Step 11: Read It, Baby, One More Time

Yes, I reached back into the archives for that reference. My last read-through is the same as Step 2. I make one final look for spelling errors, grammar issues, and typos. A note here: Almost every other step at this point has involved reading my manuscript on my computer. I know a lot of authors print out their manuscript, and I totally get why, but I’m not exactly in a position to do that. But, as I work through Step 10, I start the process of having my manuscript turned into a paperback through CreateSpace — and I make sure to order a physical proof copy. That proof copy is key for Step 11. It’s one thing to read a Scrivener or Word document on a screen; it’s another thing entirely to see your work as it would actually look in a book. You’d be surprised how many more issues you’ll find — and fix — with an actual book in your hands.

Step 12: The Finish Line!

Once Step 11 is out of the way, my book is ready to be published!

Again, I understand my method might not work for other authors, just as their methods might not work for me. Just as there are pantsers and plotters and so many variations in between, the same is true in editing. There is also no finite number of edits that can be done before a book is “ready.” Sure, I listed 12 steps above, but some books might need more attention while others require less.

But I will say this… by breaking down the process into steps, and by assigning a goal to each step, I find it makes the entire process a lot less intimidating. If I’m looking at a rough manuscript, thinking about all the work it needs, I’m liable to panic myself right out of doing that work. But if I map it all out like above, and I know that I only have to worry about this one area at a time, suddenly the task seems much more manageable.

So if this step-by-step guide helps you with your work, great! If not, then I at least hope you enjoyed this behind-the-scenes look at how I do what I do.

Now, to finish the three first drafts I have floating around…