The Three Stages of Editing (and Nine Handy Do-it-Yourself Tips)
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:
- Rewriting – adding and cutting whole chunks (scenes, chapters, paragraphs), and moving and reworking material.
- Editing – this is what I think of as “true” editing: reworking individual paragraphs and sentences, adding or cutting smaller sections.
- 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!
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I’m Ali Luke, and I live in Leeds in the UK with my husband and two children.
Aliventures is where I help you master the art, craft and business of writing.
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