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.
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.