How and When to Edit

manuscript with markup

Many people think of editing as reviewing a written work, line by line, for typos and errors in grammar. While that is certainly a significant part of editing, there are other types of editing that can be just as beneficial as line editing. In a previous post, I discussed the writing process. Now, I want to discuss editing in relation to the writing process, specifically how and when to edit as well as the various types of editing.

But first, a gentle reminder because writers don’t always take the best care of themselves.  It’s always helpful to take a rest of at least a few days before revising or editing so you can come at the daunting task feeling fresh. You’re going to need that! The focus and analysis you use during editing is distinct and more intense—in a different way—than the other phases of the writing process.

I find the prewriting stage to be both interesting and frustrating. It can be a challenge to find the resources that will suit your writing project best. There is also a lot of skimming and reading that can be a bit tedious.  But I try not to get hung up on that and move on to writing as soon as I have a baseline. The revision stage can, and often does, include more research so everything works out in the end.

The writing period is like the honeymoon phase of a relationship. It is intensely creative. Ideas, words, and phrases reveal themselves all the time, sometimes at the wrong time. Like when you’re trying to sleep! It can be magical when you’re in the zone and the words quickly fill page after page. It can also make you cranky when it doesn’t flow, and then you know it’s time for a break. Many of the authors who I’ve interviewed for my blog agree that writer’s block means you need to take care of yourself. If you are struggling to write, you must replenish yourself physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually.

I want to say that revision is my favorite part of the writing process. However, like many writers, I struggle with this aspect. I know what needs to be done. I can see where more details are needed. The sections where the writing is not sparkling. The inconsistencies and discontinuities. But it often feels overwhelming. Nevertheless, revision is the opportunity to see the work as a whole and to weave our writing more tightly together. There is creativity in this step but also a lot of evaluation. Many of the students in my freshman comp classes went right to proofreading after they completed their first full draft, but revision is an important element of writing that should not be neglected. This stage is necessary for anyone who wants to bring their best writing. It can be a lot of work—more work than writing—and that can be scary. Looking at the literary devices and techniques in your stories, drafting an outline so you can play around with the plot, examining the synthesis of your research, along with your conclusions and recommendations, requires a lot of time and energy. It sometimes involves scrutinizing your word choices to refine the tone, making sure your outcome is a forgone conclusion in hindsight, strengthening your arguments or researching and writing some more. If analyzing your writing is not your thing, an editor can help by providing an editorial assessment and/or a substantive edit of your manuscript to identify the components that need work. Then, you can focus on what you do best (and enjoy the most)—writing.

An editorial assessment is a detailed analysis of a work as a whole that concentrates on the development of a novel, including an appraisal of literary devices and techniques, or a chapter-by-chapter critique of a technical manuscript, such as a dissertation, including examination of the lit review, discussion of the research, the findings and the recommendations. A substantive or content edit studies the structure of a work—how the content is organized and presented. Both of these will highlight the work that is needed when you revise your work.

Line editing and proofreading, which comes after the writing process is complete and you have a fully developed manuscript, is a different animal again. It requires a lot of dedication, patience, and hard work. There are so many facets that need to be considered: spelling, punctuation, subject-verb agreement, switching verb tenses, repeated words, sentence lengths and structure, word choices, and the application of appropriate style guides for academic and journalistic writing. It can be difficult to tackle so many aspects of writing all at the same time so many writers make multiple passes, focusing on one thing at a time. One writer said they make seven passes at editing. That is an excellent way to edit a work. But you don’t have to make seven passes. Try breaking down your editing as follows.

  1. Inspect sentence lengths and structures. The more varied you can be, the more interesting it is for readers, and it also creates a nice flow. Check your punctuation while you are at it.
  2. Examine your word choices to ensure that you are not repeating words and that you have used the correct word (such as ‘an’ instead of ‘and’). Spell check won’t catch that. Assess your use of figurative language such as similes, metaphors, symbolism, imagery, irony and so on. This is more engaging for your readers and makes them think.
  3. Make sure your subjects agree with your verbs and that you aren’t switching tenses.

Looking at style, grammar and punctuation is characteristic of line or copy editing and you can hire a professional to do this for you. I recommend hiring an editor at least once because it can be very enlightening to see your work through the eyes of another. You can learn a lot and began to change how you write. If you don’t need a review of style and are ready to move on to your next work, you can pay someone to proofread before submission. Proofreading, sometimes called mechanical editing, will evaluate your grammar, spelling, and punctuation so you can send a well-polished manuscript to publishers. As a writer and editor, I have at least 2 people edit my writing and a third to comment on the content and development. The diverse perspectives are extremely beneficial to the piece and to how I approach later writing.

Many writers do not like proofreading or line editing but, if you take the time to do it, you can learn a lot. The more you edit your own work, the better your writing will become. Correcting your own errors is a learning process if you do it mindfully. Recognizing and correcting mistakes will make you less likely to make them while you write. Still, there is nothing wrong with paying someone else to do this for you. It leaves you free to write more! Let’s talk about your editing needs.

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