When should you start editing your work? This can be a tricky decision. Do you wait until you’ve reached a certain amount of words? Or when there’s an ‘r’ in the month or a full moon? Perhaps you’ve got into the habit of editing as you go along?
Editing while you write
I used to edit while I wrote until I realized that most of my writing time was taken up by editing. I ended up spending more time reading old words than producing new ones. Of course, for some authors, this works out perfectly, but for me, it meant that one novel took 2 years to write, as opposed to the 6-12 months that my books take now.
So I changed my writing strategy and decided to read a maximum of 300 words of the previous text before I began adding more words. Using Scrivener software was a revolution to me in this aspect. This piece of software makes it so much easier to see where you are in your manuscript, what the plot is, who your characters are and how it all fits together. You even have all your research on a folder easily accessible on your navigation panel. (If you’d like to purchase this software, I am an affiliate so if you’d like to support my blogging efforts, click on the logo to buy.)
So when is a good time to start the first edit?
When your manuscript has reached the desired word count
One way to decide when to start editing is when your manuscript has reached a certain milestone. You could use the traditional word counts. Roughly these are (definitions vary depending on genre and subject matter):
- Short story 1,000 – 8,000 words
- Novella 20,000 – 40,000 words
- Novel 50,000 – 100,000 words
- Nonfiction anything from 10,000 words upwards
Or you could use your own word count, half-way down the manuscript, or whatever. You also don’t have to follow the word counts above – in this age of indie authorship, anything goes! One of the wonderful aspects of being an author/entrepreneur is that you can decide how long your book is going to be according to what feels right, or more importantly, what your readers want.
When the plot has reached a certain point
Often when a manuscript has reached a pinnacle, or the story seems stuck, it’s a good idea to step away from the writing and edit what you’ve done so far. You might wish to see if it all makes sense and if the plot and characters are how you imaged them.
Personally, I try very hard to resist the urge to go back and read the whole manuscript when I’m stuck in the middle of it. I do research or just go for a walk instead. Now on my seventh title, I am quite disciplined in how I deal with the lack of inspiration.
Having said all of that, there is no reason why you shouldn’t take a day or two out to see where you are with the text if nothing else works. Just a word of warning: don’t use this tactic as an excuse not to carry on writing. Mid-project editing can become a habit which soon takes over and you end up editing more than writing.
You’ve spent time away from the manuscript
Yeah, I know, life happens! Children are born, cats die, you start a new job, husbands have mid-life crises … I cannot tell you how many times I’ve left a manuscript for so long I can hardly remember what the story was about. In this situation, the best way, for me at least, is to print the whole thing out and read it through. While you’re at it, you might as well get the first edit out of the way, right? More times than not, I’ve been positively surprised by the work I’d done so far and have been spurred on to finish the novel. I do still have 2 or 3 half-finished manuscripts in my virtual desk drawer, so it doesn’t aways work. 😉
When you think the manuscript is finished
What a lovely moment this is! You’ve written a sentence, and looking at it, and at the word count, you think, ‘This is it, I’m done!’ At this point you should do a little dance, pop open a bottle of something bubbly, or go and hug the closest person to you, or just smile to yourself, giving yourself an invisible pat on the back. You’ve done it, you’ve finished your manuscript!
Until … you have to go back and work on it again.
The Englishman (my husband) always tells anyone who wants to listen that the most work I do for a novel is after I’ve finished the first draft. But, as is sometimes the case, he isn’t quite right in this. (Shock, horror). The editing part, the stage during which I cry, swear and generally become an unpleasant person, is the part of the process that he sees: all the thinking, planning, plotting and obsessing about the story happens when he is not involved (AND I’m generally quite a nice person during the writing phase). Because the Englishman is my first reader, he thinks the editing phase is much more involved and work-heavy than the writing one. Sometimes, this can be the case, but not always. If I have plotted the novel scrupulously, have the characters all set out and vivid in my mind, the first edit is a doddle – OK, it’s never easy, but it is easier.
When, for example, I was writing my latest novel, The Good Officer, I had it planned out so beautifully, that the first edits were really only a matter of getting the military terminology and facts right (although I did take some artistic license on this; apologies to my naval expert).
Of course, sometimes, when I think the writing is done, I find during the first edit this isn’t the case. So I go back to the novel and add some more scenes, or correct a character’s behavior.
I hope this post has been helpful to you. Now I need to get on and start my first edit on the next (and sadly last) book in The Englishman series. Yet unnamed, it is turning out to be quite an emotional writing journey.
If you’ve missed any of my series of Advice for New Writers, you can find posts 1-8 here.
Over to you!
What’s your editing process is? Do you edit while you write or use another trigger for the first edit? Comment below and start the conversation going!
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