The Science of Editing

This post, from Kim Wilkins, originally appeared on her Hexebart’s Well blog on 7/25/09 and is reprinted here in its entirety with her permission.

I’ve just finished my first edit of “Field of Clouds” and the whole process went really well. Now it’ll go off to my agent, who may have more to add, and then to my publishers, who will no doubt have much for me to fix.

For those of you embarking on a self-edit, the most important thing to remember is to be methodical and detached.

You can get swamped in an edit very easily. I always tell my students that it is like autopsying a puppy. If you can’t be methodical and detached, then more puppies may die. Rule number one is to have a printed copy of the MS, and go through it first with a pen, marking what’s wrong. Don’t try to fix it on the first pass, just make a note in the margin about what’s wrong. (Okay, if you know the perfect substitute word then put it in, but in general don’t fix, just mark). I do this, all the while imagining that I’m not the person who has to fix it. Makes it far less overwhelming (though a little more pathological).

Then take your MS back to your computer, and start at the beginning making the changes you’ve noted. Do the easy ones right away (e.g. typos, deletions, small rewrites) in order. The ones that are a bit harder or need a bit more thought, mark them with a note (I used the “review” menu in Word for Vista) and keep moving on. Once you get to the end of the MS, you can count up your notes. For this MS, I originally had 63. Then you can work on screen, methodically fixing them one at a time. They don’t have to be in order: fix the easy ones first so you get a sense of satisfaction, seeing the number grow smaller and smaller.

For those big structural issues, isolate the sections that need to be worked on. For example, in this MS I had a love affair that felt a bit rushed. I isolated the problem to a particular group of nine chapters, then just concentrated on reading through those, weaving in an extra line here and there, and then writing one extra scene.

What always surprises me about editing (pleasantly, as I’m usually daunted and avoidant about doing the work) is how little is actually needed to effect big changes. I had a huge motivation issue with one of my characters: she does something that seemed awkward and implausible. So, again, I isolated the group of chapters that were bothering me and made a note for every scene on “how is she feeling about her current situation?”. It took minutes to identify that her feelings were inconsistent, and minutes again to excise the internalisations that didn’t fit and replace them with ones that did.

It’s impossible to know if the MS is working now. Ideally I’d put it away for a few months and come back to a complete read-through, and I don’t have the luxury of that time. The next person who reads it will have to tell me if it’s okay. So this is a good stage to seek feedback from trusted writing buddies. Certainly, the next pass will involve finessing the expression a bit more.

Right, on to the changing of the notebooks. All of this paperwork and research is being filed, and my next story’s notebook is making its way onto my desk. Onwards.


Kim Wilkins is an author and teacher. You can learn more about her Queensland Writers Centre classes here, and purchase her books here.