Part 1: Got my edits back. Now what?!
I've worked with dozens upon dozens of writers through the years, and I walk each of them through the best way to go about incorporating my comments and edits into their manuscripts (MS). It can be overwhelming and sometimes even devastating for a writer to receive a manuscript back that looks like the editor dumped a can of red paint on it. I know. I've been on the receiving end for my own novel, Artemis Rising many times. Here are the steps, in order, of how to go about receiving and revising your manuscript edit from an agent, editor, critique group, or kind friend with time on his or her hands.
Give yourself some peace and quiet.
Carve out a quiet block of time—several hours' worth—to read through your MS. Try to clear your mind of distractions, upcoming appointments, the fight you had with your significant other. If you don't have time to browse through slowly, then hold off until you do. The reason? If you're rushed, you won't be able to take anything in or think critically about it. The more you can retain in this first pass-through the better. In fact, it's imperative.
I've initially zoomed through edits from critique groups and failed to catch important points and suggestions. And worse, I've misread comments as snarky or unkind, when in truth, they were just specific and honest. When I cooled off and read back through, I would have to adjust my incorrect assumptions, which wasted my time and energy.
In general, a critiquer or editor's goal is to aid you in achieving your dream of publication. They wish to make your manuscript better, albeit through their own subjective viewpoint. But we’re all human, and sometimes editors/critiquers aren’t as tactful as we could be. This is something the writer must anticipate and eventually overlook. Why? Because you might miss the valuable advice buried under the snarkiness.
Don’t scan or skip.
Don't skip ahead and scan through a document looking for how much the editor's pen has bled onto the page. This is a self-defeating exercise from the beginning. Why? Because many of those comments might be praise. I often litter manuscripts with praise and encouragement. I do this because I know how important it is for writers to know when they are hitting the mark on their language, characterization, or plot.
Sit on the manuscript.
Yes, you heard me. Sit on your MS, like a chicken incubating an egg. That’s quite literally—okay, metaphorically—what you are doing. Incubating, concocting, inventing, spawning . . . That last one sounds wrong, doesn’t it? Anyhoo, let that sucker fester for a LONG time. I mean it. Don't touch it after you've read all the edits and comments. I recommend two weeks at least. Perhaps a month. Here's why: a writer’s natural response to criticism—either positive or negative—is to be defensive. That doesn't make the writer childish or foolish. It is just a natural response, and waiting to dive into revisions cools off that natural tendency. If you wait for a long time before jumping in, you'll be shocked at how different your response is to the edits than the first time around. I'm always surprised at the difference, and I've been at this for years.
Mull over your options.
During your “vacation” from the MS, start thinking about some of the major issues the editor mentioned. Allow yourself to come up with ideas for how to fix that character's inconsistent personality or that plot hole in chapter nine. Maybe write some notes down to remember for later or freewrite possible avenues to explore. But again, don't touch the MS. You'll thank yourself later, when you've had time to let your anger or confusion cool and you begin to see the edits for the first time with clear, objective eyes.
Make a copy.
Whether you’re working with hard copy or electronic edits, you’ll want to start revising in a COPY of the manuscript the editor worked on. You want to preserve those original comments/edits for future reference as well as keep your original draft intact in case you need to go back to it for any reason. So copy and rename that master file with the current day’s date. And every day you work on your edits, save the previous day’s draft, and start a new file with the current days’ date. This way, you’ll have a log of all edits you’ve ever done and when. Works brilliantly. I learned that trick from the president of a publishing house actually.
And don’t worry about drafts filling up your hard drive. Your manuscript file is probably not even a megabyte, which is nothing compared to one music or photo file. Oh, yes . . . one more thing: BACK UP YOUR NOVEL FILES frequently. All of them. Most of us have lost drafts to laziness, stupidity, or busyness. Learn from those previous mistakes. Back up, even if you are just emailing the file to yourself. ‘Nuff said.
Turn your Track Changes ON!
After your “vacation,” give yourself a long block of time to begin looking at your MS. Have a notepad by your computer or an open blank document up to write notes. Critical at this stage: turn your Track Changes on (in Microsoft Word). Yes, you heard me right. Any changes you make need to be tracked from here on out. Why? Because you are more likely to introduce errors into your manuscript at this stage than at any other. Yup. This is because despite your best efforts, you’ll start rushing through accepting edits, and you won’t pay attention to the fact that an extra space just slipped into that sentence or the first letter wasn’t capitalized, etc. This happens ALL the time. Trust me. I know.
Choose your direction.
This depends on the type of edit/critique you’ve received, but usually you can separate your edit into the “easy stuff”and the “hard stuff.” The easy stuff is straight copyediting issues: grammar, punctuation, etc. These are relatively quick fixes. I have to say that I heartily recommend this route. It will:
- ease you into the revision process.
- eliminate a lot of the editing marks that are riddling your document.
- ensure that most of your grammatical problems are fixed before you press on to more difficult edits.
Conversely, you could go straight to the more time-consuming developmental or substantive edits. Bear in mind that this will save you some time if you end up cutting a lot of scenes from your manuscript. But again, I don’t recommend this route for the reasons I listed above.
Don’t just make changes. Learn!
If you’ve hired a professional editor to work on your manuscript, you’ve invested in that editor’s expertise and knowledge. To get the most from your investment, don’t just go through and blindly make changes. Understand why the editor has made these edits and suggestions. If you notice an editor has repeatedly added in paragraph breaks around blocks of dialogue, find out why. What is the general rule/guideline? What is the goal? If you notice the editor has re-done your comma usage in a particular type of sentence construction, find out what you are doing wrong. Memorize that grammar rule. Look it up in the Chicago Manual of Style (the fiction writer’s style manual). Learn the rule and vow never to make that error again. This will aid you not only as you rewrite your current MS but in subsequent manuscripts as well.
Incorporate only what you feel will serve your story.
Remember that you don’t have to incorporate all suggestions. I personally break my edits into two categories:
- Comment is optional/recommended.
- Ignore at your own risk.
My optional comments usually involve issues of language, style, voice, clarity, or sentence structure. I’ll suggest
a change in these instances sometimes, but there are always other ways to smooth out structure, rhythm, or language in your own author’s voice. Often, I’ll set off these types of comments with a “consider this” or question mark to make its optional nature clear. For example, I might say: Delete this phrase to tighten the sentence structure here? Or: Consider expanding on your description of the MC to better illustrate her tendency toward self-deprecation. Other editors/critiquers might use different methods, so ask them if you are unsure.
The key is to use both your head and your gut when making these decisions. If you feel a suggestion may compromise the overall plot or the characterization or the theme, etc., then put that comment on the back burner. You can always come back to it later or ignore it completely if you feel it doesn’t serve your story well.
WARNING: There is a big difference between deciding that a change isn’t right for your story and being too lazy to make the change. Confession: This is a problem for me personally as a writer. I’ll often see the merit in a critiquer’s suggestion, but due to lack of time or energy, I’ll put it aside and “conveniently” forget to go back to it. *blushes with shame* This is a bad practice for writers, considering that our ultimate goal is to better our books. And don’t forget that the critiquer took his or her valuable time to make the suggestion in the first place. So, don’t be lazy or use busyness as an excuse. Do the hard work—you won’t regret it.
Overhauling? Then get out of your MS.
If your editor has recommended doing major revisions to whole scenes or chapters, I highly recommend copying and pasting those scenes into a new document. Playing with ideas or major fixes outside of your master MS file accomplishes two things:
- You eliminate the possibility of losing any valuable original material.
- You allow yourself the freedom of exploring ideas and possibilities in a “throwaway” document.
Once you’ve rewritten a scene to your satisfaction, you’ll want to re-paste it into your master file and save the file again.
Take another vacation.
Once you’ve made (and tracked) all the edits you can bear to make without keeling over from exhaustion, then take another “vacation.” Yes, you’ve earned it! But only a couple of days’ worth, because you’ve still got work to do on this draft. Once you’re back at it, go through the MS again and accept your tracked changes one by one. Make sure that you double check those edits before you accept them, to ensure that you aren’t introducing more errors. You’ve spent countless hours on spit-polishing your masterpiece; you don’t want to screw anything up at this point, eh?
Get to work!
All right, now that you know all my secrets for a proper revision, you’ve no more excuses. Get to work and get that manuscript out there already!
Part 2: Global to local: A better way to edit
Focus your revisions efforts by editing type, and you will avoid redundant work and end up shortening your revision time considerably. Start with global issues and work your way down to the paragraph, sentence, word, and punctuation levels.
Below I'll cover the general areas of editing you'll want to delve into and explore.
- Do your chapter beginnings have powerful first sentences and paragraphs?
- Do your scenes have powerful endings, such as cliffhangers, story twists, shocking revelations, or illustrations of theme?
- Are your chapters like mini-novels, with an inciting incident, rising action to climax, and (optional) denouement?
- Be sure to use a style sheet to write down key details you want to remember and to avoid / check for plot holes.
- Are you missing any major elements of storytelling?
- Look out for too much telling.
- Watch out for too little or too much description.
- Ensure that your character descriptions don't fall into cliches.
- Check that you’ve added enough sensual details: smell, taste, touch, etc.
- Do you have too much white space on the page (paragraphs too long)? Or perhaps not enough?
- Do you consistently make a specific kind of grammatical error? Go through the MS looking only for that issue.
- Stagger your sentence rhythms.
- Remember to use visual power:
- One word paragraphs
- Short paragraphs
- Limit action beats or ID tags at certain times to great effect.
- Use Find / Replace to “search and destroy” any words you overuse. Some examples: just, smiled, eyes, walked.
- Consider trying out Editorium.com‘s various editing macros for Microsoft Word. I use Editorium's File Cleaner all the time!
- In Word, remember to change all double spaces to one AND keep hitting Find All until you get to zero. Just trust me on this one. =)
- Use Find / Replace whenever possible. But NEVER use Replace All unless it’s for spacing. Otherwise you can introduce serious errors into your manuscript.
- Periods and commas are some of the most consistent mistakes I see. Read slowly, even backwards from the end to the beginning of your manuscript to ensure that your eyes don't skip over typos and errors.
- Never edit fast. Go slow and be methodical and focused.