Editing: Part 5 – What steps should I follow when I edit?

You’ll find a wide range of opinions on the steps you should follow and the order you should follow them in editing your manuscript. I’ll explain what I do and include links to other opinions. Read different ideas, experiment, and develop your own system.

Which and how many of the steps you follow will vary with different work. A long book may require all the steps, some repeated several times. A short blog post or article may require only a few.

  • Set the work aside and allow some time between writing and editing. I prefer several days or longer if possible, but if you have a deadline to meet, you may not have the luxury of that much time.
  • Read through the work and make notes.
    • Don’t edit at this point. Your goal is to get a new perspective on your writing and to determine what works and what doesn’t.
    • You’ll find some excellent questions to ask yourself in Revising Your Novel: Read What You’ve Written by John Hewitt at Writer’s Resource Center.
    • Mark any areas that don’t make sense or that don’t flow smoothly. Note gaps in the plot or problems with character development. Highlight any paragraphs or chapters that need to be moved. Write down any questions you need to research.
    • Many people prefer to read a print copy. I like to transfer the work to my e-book reader to read. I can make notes directly in the reader. Read the way that is most comfortable for you.
  • Do the first round of editing – a content edit or revisions.
    • Save your original file and give the edited document a new filename. I like to include the title and current date in the filename, but use whatever naming convention makes sense to you. You want to be able to return to an earlier version if you make a royal mess of revisions.
    • Some people recommend doing a light edit first, but I prefer to spend my time making major revisions at this point.
    • Determine if your book starts in the right place. Novelists are often advised to delete the first four chapters of their story because most of us tend to put too much backstory into the manuscript at the beginning. Readers don’t need to know everything about the characters’ history from the beginning. If the information is important, weave it into the story as it’s needed.
    • Create a new file for deleted material, especially if you eliminate a lot of backstory. You can draw from that file to add details as needed later in the book.
    • Delete points or scenes that are repetitious or unneeded. Every scene in a novel should move the story forward or develop character. Every point in nonfiction should provide valuable and necessary information or illustrate a point.
    • Evaluate the structure and order. Does the book make sense or is something missing? Should paragraphs or chapters be moved for better flow?
    • The amount of revision you need to do depends on how well you structured the first draft, but this first step can involve major rewriting if you find serious flaws in your manuscript.
  • Set the book aside again.
  • Do the next round of editing – a copyedit on the screen.
    • Read the entire manuscript and edit line-by-line.
    • Refer to your selected style guide and the information guide you created earlier (and that you update as needed) to ensure consistency.
    • Correct spelling, grammar, punctuation, and usage errors.
    • Look for your own common errors, passive voice, and other items that we’ll discuss in the next installment of the series.
    • Read the document on your computer and make the corrections as you read for the greatest efficiency, but print the manuscript and work on paper if you aren’t effective editing on screen.
  • Set the book aside again.
  • Do the next round of editing – a copyedit on paper.
    • Print out the manuscript to edit.
    • Read the entire manuscript and edit line-by-line as you did on the screen.
    • You will find errors in print that you miss on the screen.
  • Set the book aside again.
  • Do the next round of editing – a read-aloud edit.
    • Read the manuscript aloud and notice where you stumble over the words or where the phrasing is awkward.
    • You’ll find errors that you missed in previous edits.
    • Mark the manuscript to indicate where you need to make changes or edit as you read, if you prefer.
    • Listening to someone else read your work aloud can be even more effective. Not only will you hear where she stumbles, but you will hear what you actually wrote. Even reading aloud, we tend to read what we meant, rather than what we wrote, though we do it less reading aloud than reading silently. Another reader may also catch spelling or punctuation errors that you have missed.
  • Set the book aside again.
  • Continue to repeat the above steps (or some combination of them) until you are confident that your book is finished, then allow some time before the final step.
  • Proofread your manuscript.
    • Read the manuscript line-by-line to check from errors and to confirm that all previous edits have been made correctly.
    • Ensure that the manuscript conforms to the appropriate style guide.
  • Get other opinions. We’ll discuss this in the final installment of the series.

Those are the steps I follow. How do you edit?

For different opinions on editing, read the following articles:
The Online Writing Lab (OWL) at Purdue – Proofreading Your Writing
Self-Editing Success by Carole Moore
Steps to Self-Editing Your Work by Maria Zain
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill – Editing and Proofreading

Next, we’ll talk about specific things to look for when you edit.

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