Revision, Revision, Revision

by Clare Langley-Hawthorne

I’m on the final round of revisions to my current manuscript and considering a new editing process. In the past I have always tended to bite off more than I can chew when revising – trying to look for plot inconsistencies, character missteps (blue eyes one chapter, brown the next), typos, repetition, dull dialogue, boring exposition and errors all at once. What I’ve found is that about midway through the process, I get completely mired in the editing process and start dismantling what is essentially the final version of the novel, as I lose confidence in both the story and myself (you know, the usual author angst!). This time, however, while I am waiting for beta reader feedback, I am looking at adopting an alternative approach and would love some advice.

My current system involves editing throughout the writing process – from editing the first draft (which pretty much equals rewriting) to doing a final line edit on the completed manuscript before I turn it in to my agent. It’s what happens in these later stages that I need to refine. What I am considering is parsing the final editing into multiple discrete re-reads looking for:

  1. Plot/timeline issues alone – checking for holes, inconsistencies, and errors.
  2. Character issues alone – checking for inconsistencies, misdescriptions etc.
  3. Stylistic issues – repetition, boring/dull descriptions etc.
  4. Final line-edit – looking for grammatical and spelling errors and typos.

Although I’ve looked at all these areas already (multiple times!) while editing previous drafts, with the final version, it’s time to have one more look as invariably I still find errors. My concern is that trying to re-read the final manuscript multiple times to look for these discrete set of issues will be time-consuming and slow (and may possibly drive me demented!). 

What I’d love is feedback/comments on what final editing process has worked for you. 

  • Do you try and do everything all at once? 
  • Do you reread with specific areas in mind? 
  • Do you get others to do a final line-edit? 
  • How do you balance the need for one last look at all the critical areas in a manuscript against being driven crazy after the 50th reread?  

20 thoughts on “Revision, Revision, Revision

  1. I think of my editing process in terms of 4 or 5 drafts. The first draft takes the longest and is just the process of getting the story down. The second draft involves major edits that might add or remove whole paragraphs or chapters. I’m not too concerned with wording or spelling at this point. If I spot something, I’ll go ahead and fix it, but I don’t spend a lot of time on it. The third draft focuses more on how things are worded. The fourth draft is mostly about looking for word usage, and grammar problems. If I intend to self-publish, the fifth draft is the typeset version.

    I have never had a problem with getting tired of reading the stories I write. Or I should say that I’ve never published a book that I grew tired of reading. If I grow tired of the story then there is something wrong with it. In which case, I will either fix it or I will dump it for a better story.

  2. I consider revision, editing, and proofreading separate parts of the process. Especially since I make a lot of typos, so I don’t want to introduce new typos after I’ve proofread!

    With editing, I first start with a fast-pass edit. This is an extremely fast sweep through the book to look for junk that’s made it’s way into the book because of my writing or revision process. I do it because while I was revising the book, there was so much of it that it actually interfered with identifying problems in the revision.

    With the one I’m editing now, I’m going to do a pass just for finding excess wordage. I have a bad habit from always trying to increase word count that I’ve found I have a lot of places where I add one or two words too many. It’s hard for me to see, so an editing pass just for it should help.

    The edit: This is what I consider housekeeping. Look for omni problems, pronoun confusion, repetitions, unusual words used too many times, and anything I have a bad habit with. I take different sections of the story, so not in typical order and then start with the last paragraph and work my way forward in that section. That catches a lot of stuff, particularly pronoun problems. If I spot typos, I’ll fix them, but I’m not reading for them.

    Then final proofreading, also from the last paragraph to the front to catch the typos. Reading it backwards like this takes it out of two problems areas — because it’s backwards, the brain isn’t filling in words. The second is that I’m not focused on getting to the end and missing things.

  3. I feel for you Clare.

    Once that Puppy gets over 50,000 words and there’s a decision to publish, the HEAT is on.

    I edit as I go along like you described, so when I get to the end things look pretty good.

    I utilized beta-readers and asked them specific questions about what bothered them, then answered the questions.

    Michele referenced Sol Stein’s books as a how-to on final edits, and of course, JSB’s book on Revision and Self-editing helped tons.

    Draw up character sheets so you have a description on each one.

    I use “Find” in Word to go through the MS for grammatical, spelling errors, to eliminate the “was’s” and “had been’s” and replace those with strong verbs.

    And for me, because I self-published my first two novels on Kindle, putting them up and then reading them again on the device exposed all the minor errors and issues in crystal clarity. I used the device to go back through the original document, corrected it, then reloaded it.

    Like Timothy said, I never get tired of reading my stories and my process helped me with two products I’m very proud of.

    Good Luck!

  4. My editing is sort of a composite type. Each time I sit down to write, I re-read the last chapter to get a feel of where I am, and I edit that part as I go.
    As I get close to the end, I look back and make sure I haven’t made some errors by that point (such as having a body strangled in the first chapter and explaining their death by gunshot wound toward the end).
    After it’s all over, I re-read for macro issues, then do another to revise wording (I’m too fond of “just”), and finally read through one last time.
    By that time, I’m sick of the work, and never want to see it again. But I will, when I get my editor’s revision letter.

  5. Clare, working with a co-writer helps me a lot since we catch each other’s mistakes and typos. This is an ongoing system since we exchange chapter drafts right away.

    We also rely heavily on beta readers for plot and character issues. I never ask a beta reader to line edit–in fact I ask them not to since I don’t feel it would be fair unless I’m paying them to do so.

    A couple of things I’ve found true for me regarding editing a draft of a manuscript is to edit on hard copy, not on the screen, and to try to do so from head to tail all at once. Doing so, I believe, is the best way to find “favorite” words, repetition, and plot/character issues. Good luck with yours.

  6. I write at a fever-pitch so I don’t even consider editing until I have finished what I set out to do. I write character outlines so I keep looks of the character consistent throughout the writing process. When I’m done writing the first draft I start the reread. I tighten up parts of the story, asking myself what I was thinking when I wrote a part of the story. You know, the ones that don’t make a damn bit of sense and then I read again. After about 4 times rereading my manuscript I pass it along to beta readers and get their input. Right now I have 3 people who do this for me.

    Once I get back the suggestions from the beta readers, I plug in the ones I like to my copy and read again. (I can admit I need to read the manuscript more.)

    In the end I try my hardest to get my manuscript looking as best as I can before sending it to publish.

    I slacked in the early days of my writing career so some of my first books need a reedit which I intend on doing with my beta readers in 2012.

    It’s a never ending process and in the end I hope I can get the book as sharp and clear as I can.

    Then I let the child out into the world. Hope I did well in preparing it for the reader and then go on to the next project.

  7. Well I don’t have much experience. At this point I only have one completed manuscript under my belt and I assure you, both my first draft and subsequent re-writes and editing process are quite messy and time consuming (I ended up going thru it probably 6-7 times). I too get the feeling there’s a certain bit of danger in going through it too many times, but haven’t found an alternative yet.

    However, for my next manuscript, I was thinking about compiling a checklist from “Revision & Self-Editing” and “Conflict & Suspense” and using that as a guide for my go-through after the first draft. We’ll see.

  8. What I do very much resembles what you’re planning Claire. My first draft is to get everything down; I do neaten it up when I read yesterday’s work before beginning today’s.

    Then I do drafts for description and setting, another for continuity. I even do individual passes for each of the more important characters to make sure their actions, descriptions, and manner of speech are consistent throughout, especially for character who may not appear for extended periods of time.

    Then, when I’m done with all of those, I start one last draft. Day 1 I read a chapter or two. Just read them; nothing else.

    Day 2 I edit what I read yesterday to within an inch of its life, because I’ve made up my mind we’re done after this pass. When that’s over, I read another bit.

    Day 3 I print out and line edit what I edited on Day 2, edit what I read on Day 2, and read another bit. Continue until I’m done. It works very well for me, by allowing everything to stay in bite-sized chunks (not too much in my head at any one time) and allows me to see slow, but steady progress.

  9. I do various targeted passes at the manuscript–for continuity; timeline; overused words, phrases, and punctuation (especially dashes); adverbs that end in ‘ly’; distracting substitutions for the word ‘said’; the proper balance of the use of dialogue attributions versus straight, unattributed dialogue. I added a pass for character descriptors after a beta reader once pointed out that all my secondary characters were blonde!

    Also, if any uglies get pointed out to me during beta read, I do a global search for a repeat offender.

    I initially found that beta readers were incredibly useful, because different readers will always spot different types of issues. I still use beta readers, but as time has gone on, I’ve gotten better at finding my own mistakes. My major problem is usually a deadline that keeps me from polishing as much as I’d like.

  10. My process is:

    Passionate first draft as fast as possible, edit only previous day’s work.

    Cool off at least 3 weeks.

    Read hard copy (or e-reader) as if I WAS a reader. Take minimal notes (I have a few shorthand notations). In the back of my mind I keep asking, “Can I put this book down?”

    Do second draft via a checklist I developed (it’s in my book on revision, but you can develop one yourself). The idea is to go through the big questions first.


    Get the MS to my first editor, who I happen to be married to.


    Do a polish (again, I have a checklist) and send it off.

    The value of the checklist is that I don’t get distracted or tempted to “major in minors” at these critical stages.

  11. I have several steps to revisions/editing/proofreading just as everyone else. I first write/type the story as it comes to me, making notes, in a notebook I keep at my side, of each chapters “things to remember” such as first kiss or specific details of a town or even the birth of a baby. (I write Romance.)

    The second step comes when I’ve reached a comfortable word count and I believe the entire story has been told. I print this off, take a chapter a day, and read it out loud to myself for awkward pauses, flow, and storyline. I take a new notebook and write out my changes careful to note the chapter and page. Then I read the manuscript on the screen while entering these changes. Sometimes I catch and correct any typos during this step. Well, actually I fix typos at every stage of the revision process.

    Third step is that I go through and format it for eBook publishing, which is how I publish. I don’t look at the words during this time, I only correct formatting.

    Fourth is that I run the manuscript through SpellCheck and then through a software called White Smoke. This software catches mistakes such as “their”, “they’re” or “there” which SpellCheck doesn’t catch.

    After all the steps are completed I have one more step to do. Fifth step: I read either on screen or a final hardcopy print for misspelled words only.

    I’ve been hesitant to ask anyone to beta read for me until now. I have a couple of people lined up. And I never get tired of reading my stories; I get tired of the revision process. I guess no matter how many times we check our work, there will always be mistakes. Even with the HUGE authors such as Dean Koontz, Nora Roberts, and others alike, I’ve found mistakes in their books. Major mistakes like character mix-up as well as major typos. But we’re human and that’s bound to happen.

  12. Reading the comments, it appears everyone customizes the editing process to what works for them. Some authors reach a process that they use over and over, while others use a new variation on every book they write.

    My only advice is not to over edit. Don’t drain the life from your work by smoothing it out to a lifeless road of plot points.

  13. I can reread an ms. ten different times and miss things. I give it to my wife. She’s the best at spotting errors.

    I recommend finding a fresh pair of eyes (or several such pair) to look things over. There are flaws in a baby that a parent never sees. It takes a party who was not present at conception to find the flaws.

  14. Clare, I think you just have to do what works for you. If, as you say, multiple readings for various categories will make you lose your mind, then that’s not the way for you to go.

    I know in my case, I wrote 3 novels (first drafts only) in about 3 months back in 2009. They all came pouring out. I then spent the next two years polishing them up, a little on this one, a little on that one, and so on. This period included presentation to my critique group on a chapter-by-chapter basis, as well as examination by my beta reader and a professional editor. Two of the novels are now out and the third one is still in the critique group.

    But that’s me. You may be more comfortable with another method. And THAT’S the one you should go with.

  15. Revisions are always tough. It’s taking off the creative hat and becoming a ruthless editor.

    Depending on the time constraint, the luxury of walking away for a week or so gives me a fresh eye on a re-read. But, if I don’t have the luxury of time, I depend heavily on a beta reader to target inconsistencies and grammatical errors. Otherwise, I have to trust I completed my task and my editor will point out the final touches.

    Otherwise, like you, Clare, I could go daffy in second guessing. It’s a trust issue with oneself, I suppose.

  16. Thanks for some great revision tips and processes! I always find it is the last few rounds that I have to be careful of – so I don’t start undoing the good stuff but do catch the final crappy stuff…

  17. Great post, Clare. I like how you broke down your edit process thoughts.

    I edit as I go. I keep writing fresh material everyday, but I also edit prior pages until I no longer find much to edit. My first pass is always to delete & sharpen and look for repeated words. My next pass, I look for deeper understanding & emotion from my characters in each scene and adding color to narratives.

    I do my edits in waves, covering sections over & over while I move forward. By the time I’m done with the book, I make only one quick pass through. I find that staying in close touch with each chapter as I go is better for me than doing drafts after I’ve finished, because I want to be open to clearer character motivations or plot twists as I’m developing them. This process works well for me.

    My $.02

  18. My favorite thing about writing is editing and putting polish on a great concept. Thanks for spelling out the parts and pieces of proofing and editing, a subject close to my heart.

  19. I have a stupid human trick. I can spot inconsistencies that are hundreds of pages apart. If one trips my trigger in a book, I have to go back, even to the beginning and track it down.

    Back in school, I was a hot ticket among teachers because I could pick out cheaters by catching the patterns in their answers. In college I participated in a graduate study about certain types of memory and skewed the results.

    No, no photographic memory. Half the time, I can’t find my keys, but can still remember questions off the grad study. Again, it’s my little savant thing, the mental equivalent of a double-jointed thumb.

    I get to exercise it as a proofer for a micro-press. They are about to throw a 130K word brick at me and I say, “bring it.”

    Other types of editing, I have to watch out for paralysis-by-analysis and not get hung up as I go along. I over-edit until it is stale and then I don’t want to come back to it. Still working on the discipline of a happy medium.


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