The Professional Edit

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Writing is not a solitary task but a collaborative effort. The first draft (and several after) may be crafted with the door to your office firmly closed, but eventually, you will need to let others in. The feedback, critiques and advice from other writers, readers and professionals can help us to see the flaws in our work, such as excessive use of filter words, repetitive phrases, redundant sentences, plot holes, inconsistencies, and incomplete character/story arcs.  Novels contain multiple moving parts, so it’s easy for a writer to make a mistake. This is why editors exist: to help writers turn good stories into great stories.

If you are fortunate enough to get a deal with a traditional publishing house, then your manuscript will go through multiple rounds of editing. If you are interested in self-publishing, then I urge you to have your manuscript edited. Readers are savvy. They don’t want to pay $2.99 for a novel that is actually a first draft. Readers want good stories and if you are a self-published author, it’s your responsibility to make sure you are putting forward the best, most professional content that you can. That means you need to get your work to an editor.

However, before you go sending your manuscript off to the first person you find online, it’s important that you understand the different types of editing available. And by the way, if you are serious about being a writer then you should hire a professional editor for the following three processes: structural/developmental edit, copyedit and proofread. You may have to hire different editors for all three stages, or you may find an editor who offers all three.

A word of advice, if you hire an editor to do the structural/developmental edit and copyedit, it may be wise to hire a different editor to do the final proofread. Why? If an editor has performed both the structural and copy edit on your manuscript, they may miss errors/typos during the proofreading stage because they have become overly familiar with the work.

Structural/Developmental Editing

Structural editing focuses intensely on the novels core drive: character and plot. Typically, a structural editor will read your entire manuscript while taking careful note of how each element of the story is working. They will analyse your work for consistency, believability and effectiveness with a particular focus on big-picture elements such as:

  • Voice/style
  • Plot
  • Pacing
  • Timeline
  • Characterisation
  • Story Arc
  • Character Arc.

Some structural editors may also provide feedback regarding the manuscripts potential target audience and its overall marketability.

Structural editors will provide a report that analyses the quality of your manuscript. This may take the form of a letter that discusses the manuscript as a whole, or they may provide a chapter-by-chapter breakdown. Either way, this report should identify:

  • Plot holes
  • Inconsistencies
  • Lack of tension
  • Pacing issues
  • Irrelevant characters, scenes or plot development
  • Believability of characters
  • Whether the work is engaging
  • Areas of confusion, particularly in SciFi and Fantasy.

Structural edits do not focus on the manuscript on a line level (sentence-by-sentence). Instead, it is looking at the bigger picture and how the novel hangs together. For this reason, the structural edit should be the first round of editing your manuscript goes through.

Copyediting

Copyediting, or what some call line level editing, focuses on the manuscript on a sentence-by-sentence level. Here, editors are looking for problems regarding:

  • Grammar
  • Style
  • Repetition
  • Word usage
  • Jargon
  • Filter words
  • Dialogue
  • Unclear character motivations.

The copyediting phase should not occur until after the structural edit has been completed. There is no point in fixing an entire scene, sentence-by-sentence, only to have that scene deleted because it isn’t furthering the plot. These types of edits typically occur as in-document critiques using track changes. 

Proofreading

Once all the large structural issues with your manuscript have been fixed and you’ve carefully examined every sentence for clarity and quality, you can then move on to the final round of editing: the proofread. Like I said earlier, if you used the same editor for the structural edit and copyedit, it may be wise to hire a different editor (someone unfamiliar with your work) to do the proofread. It never hurts to have a fresh set of eyes—especially when it comes to editing! Proofreading is the lightest form of editing as it focuses on minor errors such as:

  • Grammar and style (e.g., tense, measuring units, consistency with numerals and words such as “5” or “five”)
  • Capitalisation and punctuation (e.g., correct usage of commas, semicolons, colons, periods, dashes and apostrophes)
  • Spelling and word usage (e.g., to/too, affect/effect).

You may be tempted to skip the proofreading stage, but please don’t. You’ve already put so much work into polishing and editing your manuscript, the last thing you want is to receive an email from a reader highlighting all the typos and errors that were missed during the copyediting phase.

Critiques

Critiques are not a part of the editing process, but they can be tremendously useful. You can pay a professional to critique your manuscript (I offer such services), or you can approach other readers or writers who may be willing to critique your work for free. Critiques focus on the major issues in your manuscript and a good critique should focus on big-picture elements such as:

  • Voice/style
  • Plot
  • Pacing
  • Timeline
  • Characterisation
  • Story Arc
  • Character Arc.

You can have a critique partner provide feedback of your manuscript as a whole, or you can ask them to provide chapter-by-chapter reports that focus on elements such as:

  • Plot holes
  • Inconsistencies
  • Point of View Issue
  • Dialogue
  • Description (too much or too little)
  • Areas of confusions, particularly in SciFi and Fantasy
  • Sensitive/ethical issues or anything else that may harm your chances of publication.

Before you hire a structural editor or look for a professional critique, it would be wise to exhaust all free resources at your disposal, this includes beta readers, critique groups and critique partners. That way, your manuscript is in the best condition is can be before you invest in professional feedback.

Editing a manuscript can be hard work, but if you find an editor you ‘click’ with then this collaborative effort can be deeply rewarding.

If you have a short story, novella or novel that you believe could benefit from a professional critique, you can find my list of services here.

New Project = New Process

I recently started drafting the novel that will become the creative component of my doctorate thesis. Although I’ve previously written one full-length novel, three novellas and numerous short stories, I found myself asking the question: “How the heck do you do this?” 

The truth is, my fiction writing muscles have become a little rusty. In the past six months, most of my focus has been on the craft of academic papers, assignments and my thesis. As part of honours, I was required to submit a novella, but most of the past six months were spent editing that story – not drafting. It’s a lot easier to edit a first draft than to write a first draft.

I have confronted the dreaded blank page many times in the last six months in the writing of the previously mentioned papers, but it is far easier to write non-fiction than it is to write fiction.

Non-fiction has a set structure and a particular voice. There is the introduction, a body that contains a clear argument and a conclusion. Each paragraph should start with a topic sentence and a concluding one that ideally, leads to the next paragraph. It must have a distinct voice, whether it be your natural speaking voice or one that is appropriate to the topic or in-house style guide. Non-fiction must be backed up by fact, whether that it be in the form of research or experience. Through trial and error, most of us established a set process on how best to write non-fiction pieces.

I start with a vague question or area of interest. Then I read. A lot. I make note of useful papers and record exciting or relevant quotes. This stage goes on until I sense that I have read enough material. Usually, that means I’ve started to notice links and connections between the sources and my own ideas or question. Key ideas become heading and each heading is given a particular word count. Then it’s basically paint by numbers. A conclusion is added and then the introduction. That’s my process. And it works. Your non-fiction process is likely different from mine, but I bet it’s pretty much the same every time.

Fiction does not adhere to set processes. Don’t get me wrong, I have a process, but I also enjoy messing with that process and challenging it. Fiction writing is creative after all, right?

I wrote my first novel with no outline and no character profiles. What guided me was an idea I had for a pivotal scene, the kind that happens towards the end of a novel. All I had to do was figure out how my characters got there. Of course, the first draft was a complete mess! By writing an outline, timeline and distinct character profiles, I was able to see all that was wrong with the manuscript and then fix it. Since then, I’ve written three novellas. For these, I used skeleton outlines (paragraph summaries of each chapter) while simultaneously writing character profiles. This worked better, but of course, there were still a few hick-ups. And in case you’re wondering, there will always be hick-ups! For my honours project, I decided to write a really detailed outline which quickly became the first draft, but because I was so intent on figuring out the structure and logic of the story, I spent little time developing the characters. It was only later during the editing phase that I constructed the character profiles that helped transform them from puppets to people.

For my latest project, it felt right to construct a (very) loose outline and a complete set of character profiles before beginning the first draft. I’ve set a word count for each day, and after I hit that word count I spend five-minutes brainstorming what will happen next. These ‘mini’ outlines are roughly one hundred words and are a great launching pad for the next writing session.

Now, for a word on word counts. For this project, I decided to set a fairly low daily word count. When writing the first draft, I usually prefer to get the ‘crappy’ first draft done as quickly as possible so that I can then get onto the next task: fixing it. Sometimes that meant writing 4,000-6,000 words a day. And that is not very enjoyable. This approach also zaps your energy and it usually affects your productivity the following day. So for this project, I’ve decided to end my writing sessions before I become exhausted. This way, I stay hungry and excited about the story.

I’m currently 15,000 words into the first draft. Though I know the general trajectory of the story, I will not hold the story to this outline if it no longer feels right. Stories have a mind of their own. They have their own natural and logical flow. If you show up and do the work, inevitably, the story will tell you how to write it. For instance, I started this draft with the intention of using a rotating, first-person point of view. And it totally didn’t work. So, I changed to third person. And so far, so good. Under the guise of ease, I set the story in a town I once lived in, but by the time I hit 10,000 words I was totally bored. Frankly, writing about a town I once lived in made me a little uncomfortable. It was too close to home and I didn’t enjoy seeing my fictional characters tromping around the stomping grounds of my past.

So, in 15,000 words, I’ve already realised that the setting and POV aren’t working.

You can plan and plot all you like, but sometimes, you don’t know whether or not something is actually going to work until you start writing. That’s ok though. I’ve worked on enough projects to know that I’m presently at the bottom of the hill that is my story. Though I can make an assumption about what the view from the top will look like, chances are that my expectation will differ from reality. The only way to find out though is to climb.