The Three Stages of Editing (and Nine Handy Do-it-Yourself Tips)

SHARE THIS POST:

Note: This post was originally published in 2014, and was updated in March 2018.

Whether you love editing or hate it, if you’re a writer, there’s no way to avoid it.

You may well have support – from beta readers, your spouse, your writers’ circle, or a professional editor – but a fair amount of editing needs to be done alone.

I find that “editing” encompasses three distinct stages. If you’re writing a blog post, each of these might take minutes; for a novel, they might take months … but however long or short your work, they’re all important.

The three stages are:

  1. Rewriting – adding and cutting whole chunks (scenes, chapters, paragraphs), and moving and reworking material.
  2. Editing – this is what I think of as “true” editing: reworking individual paragraphs and sentences, adding or cutting smaller sections.
  3. Proofreading – checking that what you think you wrote is what you actually wrote, and fixing typos and spelling mistakes.

Each stage requires a different approach, and here’s how I suggest you tackle them.

Stage #1: Rewriting

This stage is sometimes called “revising” – which means “re-seeing” your work with fresh eyes. When I’m working on fiction, this normally means starting from scratch with a blank document and with draft one on my Kindle beside me. You may not need to go quite that far, but do be prepared to make big changes at this stage.

Three Rewriting Tips

#1: Get Some Distance From Your Work

Take a few days (or a few weeks) away from your project – the longer it is, the longer you’ll need. This makes it much easier to go back and “re-see” it: you’ll have a clearer idea of what’s working really well, plus what needs changing.

#2: Don’t Be Afraid to Cut Large Chunks

I’ve cut whole chapters – even whole characters – out of novel drafts. I took out a large chunk of one chapter of Publishing E-Books For Dummies when it was clear it wasn’t working.

It’s always painful to delete a big chunk of your work, whether it’s two paragraphs of a blog post or two chapters of a book. But if the work as a whole is stronger for it, then it needs to be done. Don’t think about wasted words or wasted time – you needed those words and that time in order to get to a finished draft.

#3: Try Moving Chapters or Sections Around

Even if you had a clear plan before you started work, you’ll probably still find that some elements will work better in a different order.

In fiction, simply moving an argument or revelation to an earlier or later point can make a huge difference to the shape and pacing of the whole story. With a blog post, reordering a couple of sections may make for a much better flow.

Stage #2: Editing

“Editing” is, for me, normally the stage from Draft Two onwards. It may overlap a little with the rewriting stage, but it’s a different set of skills and involves lots of little changes rather than a few major ones. This stage can be very satisfying – it’s the point where a handful of little tweaks can make a clear difference to the quality of your work.

Three Editing Tips

#1: Make Your Words Pull Their Weight

If you have a tendency to be a little wordy (I know I do!) then the editing stage is where you make sure every word pulls its weight. Cut out sentences or phrases that add nothing, or that are unnecessarily repetitive. Look for strong verbs and precise words that say exactly what you mean.

Adjectives and adverbs are definitely allowed, whatever some writers might tell you … but do be careful that you’re not over-using them.

#2: Watch Out for Repeated Words

If you have the same word twice (or more) in fairly quick succession, it can look a little clumsy. Watch out for any words that you’ve repeated like this, and look for a synonym. Don’t worry about extremely common words like “the” or, in dialogue, “said” – those won’t stand out.

#3: Get in Late, Get Out Early

My wonderful editor Lorna Fergusson taught me this. Start a scene once the action has begun, and get out straight after the climax: don’t begin with scene-setting and end with a trailing-off. With non-fiction, you do need introductions and conclusions to your blog posts / book chapters / etc – but keep them focused and to-the-point.

Stage #3: Proofreading

All writers need to proofread, especially if they’re self-publishing. It’s definitely not my favourite stage of editing: proofreading means being patient and going slowly – two things I’m not great at! (With my novels, I now pay someone else to proofread.)

Three Proofreading Tips

#1: Work in Short Bursts

If you find proofreading a bit tedious, work on it for 20 – 40 minutes at a time. If you try to stick at it for hours, you’ll find yourself missing mistakes. (This tip works for any slightly tedious yet focus-demanding task…)

#2: Read Out Loud

While I cringe at the thought of this one, I know that reading out loud is a brilliant way to make mistakes leap out from the page. You might do this during the editing phase, too. If it seems like a colossal waste of time, you could always record yourself reading and create an audio version of your project.

#3: Read On Paper

If you really don’t want to read aloud, reading on paper (or these days, on your Kindle) can work very well. There’s something about getting away from the screen that makes it easier to spot typos – maybe because it gets you firmly out of composition mode and into reading/editing mode.

 

So that’s it – the three stages of editing, and my nine tips. I hope they help you to turn your first draft into a finished masterpiece!


Are You Missing Out on the Aliventures Newsletter?

If you’d like more tips about writing, make sure you’re signed up to get the Aliventures newsletter by email: you’ll receive my free mini-ebook Time to Write: How to Fit More Writing Into Your Life, Right Now, plus a short weekly newsletter (every Thursday).

You can find out all about the newsletter, and Time to Write, here. 

Thanks for commenting! I read all comments, and reply to as many as I can. Please keep the discussion constructive and friendly. Thank you!

32 thoughts on “The Three Stages of Editing (and Nine Handy Do-it-Yourself Tips)

  1. When I got to the proofreading stage of my fiction manuscript, I saved a copy in a landscape, two-column view, printed it out & had it bound at Staples. This made reading it as close to how I’d read an actual book as I could get it. It was nice to get away from my laptop while I worked on it & made the process more fun for me.

    • Great tip, Sharyn! I used to do this with Lulu and print out each successive draft — though now I just transfer the whole manuscript onto my Kindle.

  2. Good stuff, Ali,

    Re Stage #1, when stuck, like when you’ve written yourself into a corner or don’t know what needs to be included or added at a certain point, brainstorm.

    You can do mind map type work on paper. Or, download The Brain the free version. It is easy to learn and use, and the freebie is quite powerful. Or try Scapple (http://literatureandlatte.com/scapple.php) 14.95 USD, which is more freeform, or other mindmapping/brainstrom software. Or, just amke a list in Word.

    Get crazy, hve fun, eliminate the totally crazies later.
    Bill Polm’s last blog post ..Don’t miss Joanna Penn’s inteview with best-selling author Zoe Sharp

    • Thanks Bill! I love brainstorming for both fiction and non-fiction projects — it’s a great way to get ideas flowing and make new connections.

  3. Great post!!
    This line touched my heart as it’s often really painful to delete something you’ve written (which is why I keep original copies! Oh my poor hard drive!)
    “Don’t think about wasted words or wasted time – you needed those words and that time in order to get to a finished draft.” But you are so right…those words were needed at the time to get that first draft finished. Beautifully said. Thank you 🙂
    While I’m still working on the first draft (almost done!) of my own first book, I am also a freelance Editor (writetone.com or eLance) and I ADORE editing other people’s work! Struggle with my own words…love, love, (almost embarrassingly love) editing other people’s! It’s exciting being a part of the creative process with someone and helping them mould and shape their words into their vision, and then watch it be published. I guess it would be the feeling of a doula or mid-wife who has been with the mother through the entire pregnancy. It’s such a good feeling to see it come to life!
    Even when editing someone else’s work, I like to take time away from the manuscript between edits because our minds (especially creative ones) are CLEVER! We read what we want to read and it does take practice to focus on each word or each sentence to capture those little bits ‘n’ pieces that shouldn’t be in the final manuscript!
    No matter what I’m editing, either my own work or someone else’s, I always try to read out loud as my final step. Occasionally it’s not possible due to location, (don’t want to be taken away in a straight jacket!), but I find this is essential to catch the last of the punctuation errors that my eyes (especially after an hour or so) may miss.
    Loved this post! Thanks for sharing it 🙂
    Ali
    Ali Jayne’s last blog post ..Adoption – Courses – Attachment part two

    • Thanks Ali (another Ali!) 🙂

      I enjoy editing other people’s writing too — though it’s something I only do occasionally these days (usually for friends, rather than as part of my paid work). As you say, it’s really wonderful to be part of someone else’s creative process.

      And I agree, aren’t our minds just great at saving time by filling in the details they THINK are there? I’m sure it’s a useful feature 99% of the time!

  4. I came across this post at the right time, and I’ll be bookmarking for reference!

    As I’m writing, I’m noticing how much work goes into the polish of a post and it has made me respect the craft much more.

    Point #1 in proofreading feels like a little more ‘my style’. I’ve noticed that putting a deadline, or waiting till the last second (I know) to write motivates me and helps me accomplish the task.

    Thanks Ali!

  5. Hi Ali,

    You already know I was looking out for this exact post! I forgot to check your blog and haven’t been here since almost ages. Thank you for this post and for these nine tips. Quite helpful.

    I find I do all three of the above – rewriting, editing and proof-reading. Something that happens automatically. I go through my posts 3-4 times, and surely not on the same day I write the draft. Should we instead keep only one goal in our mind and read our draft, then have another goal, read the post again and move on to the third goal?

    For example, reading once for typos, reading again for short paragraphs, reading again for sentence structure, reading again for understanding, etc.

    I used to think, “How does Ali cut out extra words”? But, when I started reading and editing, looking for extra words and needless sentences, I was easily able to cut even some paragraphs.

    Talking about introduction and conclusion, I write these two after I’ve written/typed and completed the draft. Sometimes, even after I’ve edited the draft. Is this the correct way? I just find it’s easier to do this way.

    I too hate the “Read Out Loud”. Reminds me of Aesop’s Fables I used to purchase in childhood. But, I never read them out loud. 🙂

    Reading on paper: I used to find a lot many typos and mistakes when printing out my resume, many years ago. I think when we’re at the computer, it exerts some kind of bad vibrations/force on us which doesn’t free our mind or doesn’t let our mind work as freely as we do with pen and paper.

    Other than these tips, I love to make the first draft using the traditional pen and paper/notebook. I find, once I’ve hand-written a draft, there are less typos when I type it in because the mind just has to copy into memory and paste/type using the fingers. This also makes me think more clearly than when I’m at the computer.

    Just thinking, could I edit this long comment and cut out some paragraphs? 🙂 …
    Raspal Seni’s last blog post ..6 Common Blog Header Mistakes You Should Avoid

    • Thanks Raspal! I sometimes do exactly what you suggest, by reading through for different things (particularly if I’m doing fairly technical editing, e.g. checking hyperlinks and alt text).

      There’s no “correct” way to do the introduction and conclusion, but I think it’s often a good idea to do exactly what you describe and write them after completing the rest of the draft. Otherwise, it’s often tough to get going on the introduction.

      Drafting by hand is a great idea … I used to many years ago, but have now got used to doing first drafts straight onto the computer. I can type a lot faster than I can write by hand, and I don’t get cramp in my fingers! 🙂

  6. Nice post, Ali! Editing is a long process. It is hard to “re-see” your work, and I can see how getting some distance could help! Don’t try to rush a rewrite. People are always in a hurry, but this could overwhelm you.

  7. Hi Ali.
    Been a long time lurker on your blog. Love your emails. Loved your book. And your blog is me to a tee.

    I’m trying to edit (well, re-write) my novel and am getting help from my wife as she is actually the one doing the ‘proofing’ … call her a beta-reader if you will.

    How much do you think you should consider the comments and suggestions of someone who is ‘supposed’ to be independent of you?

    I know it is good to get someone else’s opinion, but sometimes I feel like the suggestions I’m encouraged to adopt would result in quite a different story and different tone of book … by tone I mean the original writing style. I feel like some of the suggestions no longer ‘sound like me’.

    Opinions? Suggestions?
    Peter’s last blog post ..Hello world!

    • Thanks for sticking around, Peter! And thanks for commenting. 🙂

      This is a tricky issue (and doubly so when the person offering feedback is your partner). Ultimately, you’re the author: if a suggestion isn’t right for your book, then don’t adopt it. Often, there are a whole bunch of ways in which you COULD develop / change / cut / add to a story — some of which might be perfectly valid options, but simply not what fits with your vision for the novel.

      I would suggest that, if you can, you find an extra person or two to read and comment. If they AND your wife are making similar suggestions for changes, then they may well have a point. A fair number of writers I know work on a rule of thumb of changing things if two or more beta readers agree.

      On a tactful / marital harmony note (!) you might find it useful to say something along the lines of, “That’s an interesting idea, I’ll give that some thought,” or “I think I’ll keep it as-is for now, but maybe I’ll revisit that one,” to changes that you’re pretty sure won’t be right for you.

      Best of luck!

  8. Thanks Ali,
    tip on reading script ALOUD was very valuable…trouble was I became so engaged with how I sounded that my editorial function was invalidated…still, I am enjoying the process, unusually!
    All the best, Catherine.

  9. Hi Ali,

    I’m so happy to read this blog post.

    You won’t believe this; I just tried reading a book out loud today, and it helps a lot.

    Secondly, proofreading in chunks could be a huge help. You’re 100% right; chances are, we may miss out some mistakes if we work on it tirelessly. It does happen when you don’t want to edit your content, but you have to do it.

    I’m glad you updated this excellent blog post and shared with us.

    Thank you.
    Hassaan Khan’s last blog post ..The Easiest Guide to Becoming Mentally Strong in Life

  10. Hello Ali,

    Wonderful tips you have shared here. I also use to read the article loud out to find any sort of mistakes that I made. Its also remember me the days when I was in School and I read my books loudly. It was really a fun and good way to grasp everything. I also take the help of some proofreading tools like Grammarly. It works great for me. Thanks again for sharing this informative post.

    Have a Great Day 🙂
    Vishwajeet
    Vishwajeet Kumar’s last blog post ..Why Setting Blogging Income Goals May Be a Disaster?

  11. I recently started the rewrite of my novel using the same tablet and blank page method you suggest, and it’s worked wonders so far. It’s so much easier to not type something than it is to delete it, for some reason, so I’ve been able to be see what really needs to be there and call whatever doesn’t.

      • Really glad you’re finding it a helpful method, Eugene!

        I hadn’t quite thought of it that way — but I see exactly what you mean about it being easier to not type something than to delete it. I suppose we’re always a bit tempted to go with the easiest/default option, whether that’s “words” or “no words”!

Comments are closed.