5 Essential Steps for Editing a Manuscript or Article

 In Editing, Writing

Many writers feel that writing is fun and creative while editing a manuscript is boring and non-creative. Wrong!

If you are honest with yourself, you know that writing can be boring. It can be difficult. And, you know that it can be completely non-creative on those days when you have to force the words onto the page.

As for editing? Okay, I accept that for many writers, editing can be boring. Fortunately, I love it. Well, I love it if I’m editing other people’s work. Anyways, I accept that editing can be boring. However, I do not accept that it has to be boring and I do not accept that it is a non-creative process.

So, I thought I would show you how you can think about your revisions as a creative step so that they may be a little bit less painful for you. As a bonus, if you follow these steps, you will notice a big improvement in your writing.

Give your brain a break.

Even on days when the words flow easily, writing is mentally draining. It is also generally a right-brained activity. Editing, on the other hand, is primarily accomplished with the left side of the brain. So, after you finish your first draft, you need to allow your work to percolate so that your brain can shift between the two jobs. You also need to give yourself time to forget what you have written so you can approach it with fresh eyes.

How much time? That depends on a few things. First, if you put off writing until very near your deadline, you haven’t left yourself many options. Gauge the rest period by outside criteria such as deadlines. Second, how long is your piece? Is it a blog post? Is it a time-sensitive newspaper article? If so, please don’t wait too long to go on to steps two and three!

However, if you’re editing a manuscript or feature article, take as much time as you can. For a book, three to four weeks is ideal. The goal is to read your first draft as a new reader would.

What to do in the meantime? Why, work on something else, of course! Preferably something fun. You just finished writing a manuscript. Don’t you think you deserve a treat? I told you that editing wasn’t all boring.

Print yourself a fresh copy, grab a cup of coffee, park yourself on a comfy chair, and begin reading.

I just got through telling you that editing could be fun and creative. Did you really expect me to tell you to sit at your desk, get your style guides out, and prepare to be bored to tears? That sounds like a recipe for disaster.

The goal of this step is to READ, not edit. You need to see the big picture. This is pretty simple for short pieces and shouldn’t take much time, although it can take several sessions for a full manuscript. Try to finish this read-through in as few sessions as possible.

Don’t look for punctuation or grammar or sentence structure. This is only the first of several drafts. At this stage, you’re looking for plot and character development or the development of your argument if you’ve written a non-fiction piece.

This is also where you get brutal and figure out what needs to be cut. That story about grandma roller-blading to work is cute as heck but doesn’t really add to your argument about crop rotation. Please take it out and save it for your memoir.

A good rule of thumb is to cut 10% of your first draft. Yes, I said 10%. Yes, I understand how much you love everything that you have written and can’t bear the thought of killing any of this brilliant content off. However, as an editor, I also understand what readers want. Please trust me on this one. If your first draft is 100,000 words then you need to cut about 10,000 of them. I promise that you and your readers will thank me in the end. Laura Carlson wrote a great piece on how and why to cut those extras that just take up space.

Remember that your pen isn’t doing a lot in stage 2. You’re simply taking quick notes and marking passages that you need to come back to.

Go back to your desk.

Come on, unless you can finish your revisions in that comfy chair, you’re going to need to move to your desk at some point. But don’t despair. This stage is very creative.

Now you get to go back to your notes and see how to incorporate the changes into your manuscript. If you decide to think of this as editing, you just might get bored, so I wouldn’t advise that route. Besides, you aren’t editing, you are revising and rewriting.

In your initial read-through, you will have found some things that make you wonder what you were smoking when you wrote them. Congratulations! That means you didn’t edit your first draft as you wrote. If you manage to separate writing and editing you’re doing better than many writers (yours truly included).

Now you get to prove how good a writer you really are. This is the stage where you move beyond your comfort zone. Remember, this is not the time for details. This is strictly big-picture work.

Don’t rush the process. You really need to push yourself to be thorough. One of the biggest challenges here is forcing your creative and logical brains to work together rather than forcing one to take a back seat. Give yourself time to work through the changes you noted in step 2 carefully. I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised with the outcome.

Give yourself a pat on the back.

Seriously. You just finished a structural edit. That is a major accomplishment. And, you know what? You also finished your second draft! I told you editing could be creative work. You were so focused on “fixing” that you didn’t even think about the fact that you were “writing.”

So, here’s what you need to know about draft #2. First, if this is a short piece, all you should need to do now is a quick proofread and then hit submit. Second, if this is a longer article or manuscript, you have just begun the revision process. But, you have done the most difficult part, and hopefully had fun while doing it.

Get some outside input.

This is the point where a writing group or a few trusted Beta testers can make a huge difference. You need feedback. If you don’t believe me, check out this post by Jeff Goins.

The vast majority of writers are still not ready for proofreading after draft two. As a matter of fact, if you take the traditional route to publishing, you will likely go through four or five drafts. If you self-publish, you should be even more diligent as you will have no one watching your back.

Editing a manuscript is a big job, isn’t it? But, keep in mind that editing doesn’t have to get in the way of your creativity. Think about the job as an extension of the writing process and do your best to make it enjoyable. If you think of editing as a dreaded chore, you’ll choke your creativity and your final work will suffer for it.

What steps do you take to get through the major edit of your first drafts? Please share so we can all benefit.

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