Editing and Revising: Even Diamonds Have To Be Polished

Congratulations! You finished the first draft of your novel or memoir.

Everyone has a different writing process. Some authors forge ahead as they write their first draft, never looking back, putting notes aside about plot points that will need to be cleaned up later. I’ve heard there are others (cough) who obsessively read the work in progress, so Chapter One winds up being revised 450 times before the final chapter is written.

Either way, at some point you get to the end and save the file and sit back. What happens next?

For at least a moment luxuriate in the belief that the first draft represents the best that you’re capable of. It won’t last but it’s a great feeling.

Then reality seeps in: the first draft needs work, frequently a lot of it, before it becomes a masterpiece. Nothing to do with you, it’s true for everyone.

Let’s talk about that process – just an overview with some notes about how new technology has extended the options for authors.

The Difference Between Revising and Editing

While used interchangeably, revising and editing serve distinct purposes:

Revision re-examines the heart of your story – the overall shape of your perfect jewel of a story. This includes plot, character development, pacing, voice, point of view, and the impact of your narrative. You might be rearranging scenes, rewriting chapters, dropping characters, or even rethinking entire storylines.

We’ve experienced this. Jim had written alternating chapters in the first draft of The Avatar Murders, providing an emotional backstory for hardboiled detective Kurt Hardash. Developmental editor Kerry Savage suggested that the material would work better if the same incidents were sprinkled through the main plot like parsley instead of as separate chapters. It’s a significant rewrite but it’s improving the story, and the “parsley” metaphor is irresistible.

Editing focuses on the technical aspects of writing – polishing the surface of the jewel. It targets grammar, punctuation, spelling, word choice, sentence structure, clarity, and consistency.

There’s no single right way to tackle editing and revisions. The advice we saw most frequently is also the hardest to follow: take a time-out. After finishing your first draft, step away from it for a while – weeks or even months if possible. Returning with fresh eyes makes it easier to spot issues big and small.

In theory it makes sense to focus on big Issues first: Tackle major problems like plot holes, pacing issues, or weak characters before fine-tuning individual sentences. Then focus on line-by-line edits and proofreading in later rounds.

Outside Help: The Value of Different Perspectives

Feedback from real people who read your work in progress is the best way to learn what works in your story and what can be improved. Beta readers can provide feedback on your manuscript’s overall readability, engagement, and emotional impact.

It’s difficult to find beta readers in today’s distracted world! Friends and family are invaluable but there are obvious reasons they will be kind and not dig in as hard as outsiders.

There are online communities where beta reading is traded – you read someone else’s manuscript, they read yours. Random examples: Reddit r/BetaReaders, Absolute Write, and Scribophile. Each one has its own rules and culture and expectations. You can pay money for curated beta readers – Spun Yarn is an example. Local writers’ groups might connect you with readers. Do some googling and you’ll find this is a deep rabbit hole.

But it’s shallow compared to the world of paid professionals. A giant industry exists to provide paid assistance for writers.

Developmental Editors analyze the “big picture” of your work: plot structure, character arcs, consistency, and the effectiveness of your narrative choices.

Copy Editors work at the microscopic level: grammar, punctuation, spelling, and making sure your manuscript adheres to a chosen style guide.

There are other names for overlapping roles – line readers, proofreaders. There are different levels of engagement at different price points. There are websites like Author Accelerator and Editorial Freelancers Association to connect you with the right editor. There are sites that aggregate services for writers, including editors, like Writers Digest and Reedsy.  

It can easily cost thousands of dollars to hire a developmental editor. You probably won’t recover that money from your royalties for all the usual reasons.

Instead the investment will be repaid in something that’s difficult to obtain any other way: an assessment from a professional who has taken your work seriously. You’ll get lengthy feedback about plot holes, characters who don’t work, writing tics that you’ve never recognized about yourself, your ability to show rather than tell story elements, marketability, in-line comments about specific paragraphs, overall effectiveness, and so much more.

Developmental editors can be invaluable for first-time authors. Choose carefully. It’s like picking a contractor for a remodel: some will be a better fit than others.

Did I mention the part about thousands of dollars? Yeah, I know.

Software and AI tools

Software-based writing tools have been around for years but AI is transforming the landscape. Make no mistake: your story will stand or fall on your creativity and your editorial expertise. But automated tools can now pinpoint choices more effectively than ever before.

AI-powered tools like Grammarly, ProWritingAid, and AutoCrit are improving every day during this year of exploding AI capabilities. The process is similar to so many of today’s online resources: pick one, give it some money, upload your manuscript, and spend some time figuring out its peculiar interface (because everything complex in 2024 has a peculiar interface).

The latest versions of these tools can give you feedback that is better than you expect in a number of areas.

Grammar and Style Checkers on Steroids:  These tools go beyond basic proofreading, analyzing your writing style for clarity, conciseness, and word choice. They can offer suggestions to improve sentence structure and enhance overall readability.

Pinpointing Overused Words and Cliches:  AI software can flag overused words, phrases, and tired clichés. An Autocrit routine flagged the hundreds of times I used the same word more than once in the same paragraph in Veilpiercer – essential cleanup but difficult to do manually.

Identifying Narrative Inconsistencies:  The developers of editing software claim it can analyze your entire manuscript for plot holes, character inconsistencies, and timeline discrepancies. AI can’t really do that very well yet, but you might at least get ideas from its analysis – and it’s already better than you expect and improving quickly.

Pacing and Readability Analysis:  Want to know if your chapters drag or if your opening is truly captivating? AI tools can analyze pacing and readability. They might highlight sections that are too dense or identify dialogue that feels stilted.

Tailored for Genre and Style: Emerging tools are becoming more sophisticated, allowing you to tailor analysis to your specific genre or writing style. For instance, software designed for analyzing literary fiction might focus on elements like symbolism and thematic consistency, while a mystery-focused tool might track red herrings and plot twist effectiveness. According to our AI-based analyses, The Avatar Murders is a mystery masterpiece and Veilpiercer is a sure-fire SF bestseller. This has, of course, made us believe AI editing tools are insightful and 100% accurate.

Even the generic AI assistants can be used judiciously to improve your work. Leaning gently on them is permissible. Using them to write for you is cheating and you’ll feel dirty. Don’t do that. But there is a lot to be gained if you stay on the right side of the line while you use ChatGPT or Microsoft CoPilot or Google Gemini to get ideas for a word or a phrase. Pricing and features are changing literally every day and there will be an explosion of new AI-driven services in 2024, but don’t wait – now is the time to start exploring.

Editing and revising a manuscript can be as time-consuming and difficult as writing the first draft. Don’t rush. Be prepared to be ruthless. Sometimes the best edits mean cutting beloved passages if they don’t serve the story. Embrace the process.

The day will come when you will be holding a sparkling diamond, as polished as you are capable of making it. You thought the process was arduous to this point? Buckle in. Next we’ll talk about publishing and, surprise!, it’s also a laborious slog. Ah, the glamorous life of the writer!