Editing is a well-kept secret – or maybe the skeleton in the cupboard – depending on your view of it. Yet it plays a critical role in whether your book, article or thesis is outstanding or simply average.
Having been a journalist, a professional support lawyer and, latterly, an author, I’ve had plenty of experience of editing. I’ve pruned, re-arranged and developed both my own work and that of other people. By this stage, you’d think it would be easy.
But that’s the thing. Editing is never easy.
I’m now half-way through the first edit of my third book. Editing my first, The Devil Dancers, took me nearly two years. It looks as if my current project will prove equally long.
Perhaps it is my fault for choosing to write historical fiction. Editing in this case involves the additional burden of fact-checking to the ‘nth’ degree. Sometimes, you have to arrange the background material to fit your story, but you have to know your facts before you can do that.
My next book has World War II as its setting and, to make life easier, I’ve arranged the material by year.
This morning, I started reading the material that I have collated for 1940. This is a large section and the thought of tackling it was pretty daunting so I wrote a few notes to myself before I started.
I thought that these might be useful to others embroiled in what can sometimes feel like an overwhelming task so I’ve jotted them down here. Hopefully they will prove useful. Here goes!
Keep an editing diary. This can be a physical diary (mine is a beautiful notebook gifted by a friend) or it can be a digital version. It should include a daily entry of where you’ve got to, the name of the file (especially digital but physical ones count, too – I’ve got at least seven on the go), where it can be found (e.g. the name of the computer/physical folder), the name of the file’s predecessor (especially useful if you are keeping digital versions), a note about the history of the file if it has been re-vamped from an earlier version, and, most crucially, what action needs to be taken next. It is also useful to keep a note of where you store discarded copy as you may wish to re-use it later.
All this may sound so obvious that it seems unnecessary. However, if you leave editing for even a day it is very easy to forget where you were or what material you were working on. Keeping track of what you were doing is essential and saves a huge amount of time and energy.
Break up your editing into logical sections then write a table of contents for each. For instance, this may consist of the document title/number and a brief sentence summarising the contents. This makes it much easier to re-arrange the order of your material and to find it later on.
Aim to edit bite-size pieces, not everything in one go. With hundreds of pages to edit – and many different versions – the entire content will be completely daunting, rather like standing at the bottom of Mount Everest and wondering how to get to the top. By breaking it down into manageable chunks, you will be able to work steadily through it without having a major meltdown. (Small ones are not only permissible, they are unavoidable!)
Identify themes and characters and follow the course of each through the narrative. Are they consistent? What are the gaps? Do they need more work, further development, additional research?
Never re-write immediately. Read through your material and make pencil changes in the margins. Do not action these until later. First re-arrange the order of the material, write/add any essential material, then re-read the whole section. You will often find that the ‘wrinkles’ that you identified on your first reading have either been ironed out or were not ‘wrinkles’ in the first place. I have often drafted new paragraphs only to find that, on a subsequent reading, the original version was better.
One edit will never be enough. Prepare yourself to re-read many times. However, as you progress through various versions, fewer amendments will be required. Towards the end, you will be focussing on small points of grammar and presentation, not huge re-writes. Definitely something to savour!