I’ve picked up some corporate writing and editing work again. While it’s far from my dream writing job, this stuff can be surprisingly satisfying. I’d forgotten how good it feels to go through a garbled document and make it coherent, to purge the worst of the management jargon and make the words fell human.
Have I mentioned lately that I love my job? Becuase I really do.
I’ve just had another experience with bad editing. I say “another” because this is a recurring theme for me, working as a freelancer. Clients don’t always have a good regular editor. Sometimes they’re trying someone new and inexperienced, and I end up dealing with the results.
Responding to bad editing is tricky. As a writer, I know that I’m going to make mistakes and get things wrong. Sometimes an edit I don’t like will be the right thing. So it’s only when the mistakes keep piling up, when the misplaced commas and unnecessary changes litter the page, that I let myself believe that I’m right and the editor is wrong.
Dealing with this can be tricky. Sometimes it’s easy to explain why an edit doesn’t seem right to me. Sometimes it’s more nebulous. I’ve lost hours to figuring out what’s wrong with edits and searching for the words to explain it. Because if I’m going to disagree with an editor then I need to be clear on why. I need them to understand my perspectives if we’re to debate a point of language. And I need the client to understand my misgivings if I’m going to suggest that they find a better editor.
It’s frustrating. It’s awkward. It can undermine my faith in myself, as I face changes that don’t fit my idea of good writing, and I wonder which of us is mistaken. But dealing with bad editing is part of being a writer. It makes good editors into prizes worth their weight in gold.
One of the advantages of combining self-publishing with electronic publishing is that you can go back and improve your books. It’s probably not a good idea in most cases – better to move on and create something new. But there are times when it’s going to be worth it.
I’ll be doing that soon with Guans and Guano, the first of my Epiphany Club books. I’ve come on a long way since I wrote that first novella, and I could do a lot better. I’ll soon have a whole five-book series out there and responses to the first book will decide whether people read the rest. So at that point, yes, it does seem worth a rewrite.
So soon I will set to work on a new edition. That’s a strange thought when the book is already published and people have read it. But it’s a think worth doing.
Here’s hoping I don’t choke on just how much I want to change after all these years!
I mean sure, it looks like less work than the writing itself. You don’t need to invent the plot or craft whole chapters from scratch. The material’s there on the page and someone else has given you feedback on what to do with it. This should be easy, right?
For two reasons.
The first, and probably the smaller point, is that there’s no flow. When you’re first writing a story, you get into the rhythm of it. One thing naturally leads to another, one piece of action or emotion to the next. Sure, there are scene and chapter breaks, but as long as the ideas keep coming, you can keep going.
Not so with editing. It’s a stop-start process where you keep having to start again on a new comment, a new change, and different piece of the text. It’s bitty work in which you constantly have to will yourself to tackle the next new thing. That’s emotionally draining and it exaggerates the impact of the second issue – the acceptance of criticism.
Editing is about accepting that you were wrong. Every little mark the editor leaves is a sign that they think there’s a better way to do what you’ve done. Every time you change something, you’re conceding what a corner of your mind feels as an error.
That’s hard to do. Our first reaction to any disagreement is to get defensive. It’s the most natural human reaction. Whether it’s in politics or relationship or just opinions on books, we’ll tend to double down and justify ourselves when challenged. Conceding the point to somebody else is tough.
It’s especially tough when it’s about something you’ve created. Even when I’m working collaboratively, ghostwriting somebody else’s plot, I’ll get defensive. My brain sees criticism of me when the editor’s intent is constructive comments to make a story better. I’m not saying it’s healthy. I’m not saying it’s right. But it’s what the brain tends to do. Somebody is attacking your precious creation and by extension you!
Except that they aren’t. It’s not an attack, even though you feel it that way. And so, after the emotional battering of reading the comments there comes the emotional work of changing your perspective, seeing how their way might be better than yours, undoing your own work.
If that doesn’t make some small corner of your mind scream in horror, then you’re a better person than me.
I cope with it all by giving in to that scream before I do anything else. I read through the notes. I yell at the screen about how they’re wrong. I run through my defense of what was there before. I let the defensiveness out.
And then I let it go. Because an editor has a perspective on my writing that I don’t. 99% of the time they’re going to be right. So once I’ve got my raging out of the way, I take a deep breath, come back with a cleansed emotional pallet, and try to see why they might be right. It’s still not easy, but at least I’m no longer fighting myself every step of the way.
Editing, especially responding to the editorial comments of others, is damn hard work. But at least when we acknowledge that we can make it a little easier.
It’s editing time, and I’m back to building characters out of Lego to keep me motivated. It might not be the most productive tool for writing, but if it keeps my head in the story then it’s something, right?
So here we have the adventurers of the Epiphany Club fighting invading soldiers in a German castle. If only Sir Timothy was paying attention!
My personal favourite thing about writing second drafts is finding something cool I wrote but had forgotten about, something that reminds me that I really can write. David expands upon the joy of second draft better than I could do, so if you’re still struggling with those pesky edits then go check out his post.
Second drafts are the most reviled part of the writing process. Having poured your heart into your story, you open it up and find that your beautiful creation has been replaced by a hideous mess of rushed sentences, incomplete plots and grammatical errors.
Spirits sinking, you set aside the red pen and go looking for an excuse not to continue. At worst, you set your precious story aside and never touch it again. At best, you begin a slow, terrible slog through this mess you’ve made.
But it’s OK, it doesn’t have to be this way. And so, at the request of Popverse writer Megan Leigh, here are my top tips for surviving the second draft.
It Happens to Everyone
The one thought that should get any writer through is a simple one – this happens to everyone.
I write for a living, and my first drafts are relatively clean. But I still find all sorts of crap when I start editing.
I’m currently going through edits on a short story for a magazine. In the final scene there are two ships, and everyone’s on them. Even with just two ships I’d managed to mix up who was on which, and not to make the scene clear to readers. That’s only one of a bunch of errors that had survived my second draft, never mind the ones I found. They don’t mean it’s a terrible story, or that I’m a terrible writer. They’re just part of the process.
Finding errors isn’t just a sad necessity. It’s a good sign. If you read that first draft and it seems perfect then you haven’t learned anything while writing it. Finding things you don’t like is a sign that you’ve improved, and worked out better ways of writing since that draft.
One Step at a Time
As with any project, if you try to deal with everything at once you will go insane. There’s just no end in sight.
So break that second draft down. Deal with a chapter at a time. Tick each one off on your list as you do it. Pat yourself on the back for each achievement. Maybe give yourself a reward for each one you complete, or every three, or whatever suits you. I use Habitica for a to-do list that reinforces achievements, and reward myself with trips out for coffee and Lego sets. But if what you need is a big bottle of whiskey and a to-do list hastily scrawled on the back of the receipt then you do that.
Maybe don’t give yourself whiskey while editing though.
I have a note stuck to my writing desk. It says “Daydream about the rewards for all this…”, and that note helps keep me sane.
Sure, it sounds like something off one of those twee motivational posters. But there’s a reason those posters became popular, and why people somehow still display them without irony. Sometimes you need a sincere and positive sentiment to get you through.
A second draft isn’t a fun process, but think about where it’s taking you. Let yourself stop and daydream for a few minutes about the completed book you’ll have at the end. About being paid to write or seeing your book in Waterstones or whatever motivates you. Picture yourself receiving your Hugo from J K Rowling while the zombie of J R R Tolkien applauds from the front row, if that helps.
Dream big, and remember that’s what all this editing is for.
If a few minutes of daydreaming don’t get you motivated again then follow the other note on my desk – “Writing becoming drudgery? Do something else for a bit.”
You write because you enjoy it, or because of the satisfaction you gain from it. You should get positive feelings from the process of editing, on some level at least. Whether you take pleasure in good grammar, enjoy writing descriptions or like the company of your characters, remember those feelings. And when you can’t find them, step away for ten minutes. Refresh your brain rather than grinding at your writing until you hate it. Because if you spend your whole time taking long breaks then you’ll never get the draft finished, but if you come to hate it then you’ll never finish it either.
What About You?
So there you go – my tips for getting through a second draft. I hope they’re helpful to someone.
And if you have tips of your own, please share them in the comments – help me find new ways to do this better.
Thanks to Megan for making think about this. Turns out I had more to say than I expected.
To many people, editing is the dark half of producing a book. The creative work is done, and now someone comes in with a red pen and decimates your beautiful manuscript.
In reality, editing is a vital part of the process, a creative act in its own right, and one we can’t afford to neglect. Today I’m privileged to have a guest post from the ever insightful Sue Archer, an entertaining blogger and professional editor, on how you can afford professional editing. Over to Sue…
How can I afford professional editing?
One of the challenges indie authors face is the cost of hiring a professional editor. Writers on a tight budget often wonder how they can possibly afford such a service.
Like all professionals, editors need to make a living, and charge accordingly — but there are ways that authors can reduce their spending while still benefitting from the services of a professional editor.
As a freelance editor who works with indie authors, I’d like to share three ways that you can reduce your editing costs: improve your self-editing, obtain a lower-cost editing service, and negotiate a services contract that is right for you.
Improve your self-editing
If your editor charges based on an hourly rate (which many editors do), the more effort that your editor spends on your manuscript, the more cost to you. So anything you can do to improve the shape of your writing before submitting it for editing will benefit you. Submit your work to writing critique partners or beta readers for feedback. Take advantage of good self-editing resources like Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Browne and Dave King. And find out where you have weaknesses and work on them.
One of the most common issues with initial drafts is that they are too long. Almost any manuscript has areas that can be cut to tighten the writing. Find out the standard length for your genre and work towards it. Take some time between your drafting and revisioning stages, so that you have the objectivity to spot things you can remove or change. Reducing the word count will lower your editing costs.
When you get to the detailed self-editing stage, I recommend using a style sheet. A style sheet is a place for capturing stylistic decisions on items such as spelling, capitalization, and punctuation. (I have a free style sheet template on my website that you are welcome to use as a starting point.) A style sheet will help you confirm that you’ve applied the same style consistently throughout your manuscript. In addition to helping you self-edit, it will save your editor time and potentially help your wallet as well.
Obtain a lower-cost editing service
You’ve done all the self-editing you can. Now it’s time to see if you can find a really cheap editor who will catch the rest of your mistakes — right?
There’s no getting away from the axiom that you get what you pay for. Qualified editors charge for their services accordingly. Going with an editor who advertises an extremely low rate could result in you wasting your money. What I recommend instead is that you find a flexible, professionally trained editor who offers lower-cost types of editing services. (And yes, I am biased here — but I have heard many horror stories from authors who received the equivalent of a spell-check when they thought they were getting a real edit.)
A manuscript assessment, for example, is an excellent way of getting feedback from a professional editor for a lower cost than a substantive edit. The editor writes a report outlining the strengths and weaknesses of your manuscript and recommends changes. You can then apply this feedback to your writing.
Another alternative is a time-based mentoring service. I have seen this service become more popular in editing circles, especially among editors who work primarily with indie authors. It allows authors to get some advice on an area they need to work on without going through a full edit. I offer this service for writers who are looking for feedback on a particular section of a manuscript or have editing-related questions.
In general, having a flexible editor is an asset. Some editors offer set prepackaged services, while others package each project individually. Ask your editor if there are ways you can reduce the cost of an edit, such as paying for fewer editing passes.
Negotiate the right editing contract for you
So you’ve done all you can to find the editor and editing service that’s right for you and your budget. Now you can relax!
Not quite. Before going ahead, I’d make sure you take a thorough look at the terms of the editing contract (and if there is no form of contract, whether formal or informal, I recommend you look elsewhere).
The editing contract is a key tool for controlling your costs. And, like any contract, it is negotiable.
Be sure to verify exactly what is included in the service. What does a “substantive edit” or a “copy edit” mean? Will the editor review the manuscript again after you make changes? If you’re not sure about something, ask, and get the answer in writing.
Check to see what the maximum fee will be under the contract, and how things will be renegotiated if more work is needed than originally estimated.
Finally, pay attention to cancellation terms. If you are not satisfied with the service as things progress, can you cancel with partial payment? Is there a kill fee? How much notice is needed? The last thing you want to do is continue to spend money on something that is not working for you.
You can afford a great editor
There are many wonderful professional editors who provide great work for a reasonable cost. You’ve spent a long time working through your manuscript — why not spend a little more time and money to make it the best it can possibly be?
If you’ve worked with professional editors, what was your experience? If you haven’t, and you are a writer, is there anything holding you back from hiring one?
If you have any questions about editing in general, please feel free to ask me below or contact me directly. I’d be happy to answer them!
As writers, we put the most effort into the smallest details. This only struck me today, and now it’s driving me nuts. Here’s why.
I read a design article by Ted Alspach, creator of the board game Suburbia, in which he talked about the huge effort that went into balancing the game’s latest expansion. He cited the 80/20 principle, that 20% of the work on the game, tweaking things to get the balance just right, took up 80% of the time.
This 80/20 principle, which is used in many ways and many contexts, is also known as the Pareto principle. It’s named after its inventor Vilfredo Pareto, who therefore has the dubious honour of being history’s only famous statistician. Famous to maths teachers and business consultants that is, not real people.
Don’t get outraged, maths teachers and business consultants. I’ve done both those jobs. I’m allowed to be rude about them.
Anyway, this is a principle that applies in my writing. 80% of the words are the easy ones, the fundamentals I can throw down on the page and won’t have to change. They take up 20% of the time. But it’s the other 20% that will take up 80% of the time, whether I’m tearing my hair out looking for the perfect way to describe a lightbulb or editing the same paragraph fifteen times because it just doesn’t read right.
I didn’t mind until I noticed this, but now I resent that 20%. How dare it suck up all my time? Screw you 20%, and screw you with nobs on Vilfredo Pareto, for making me notice.*
But it’s that 20% that makes the remaining 80% – the bread and butter of story and sentence structure – worth reading. It’s the icing that turns a bland sponge cake into something exciting. The ketchup in the fried egg sandwich. The Zayn in One Direction.
So maybe I should relish that 20%. It is, after all, what will make my writing worthwhile. Because without that ketchup, who wants to eat a fried egg sandwich?** And without Zayn, who cares about One Direction any more?***
* Not really. Pareto did good work, and is not my type.
** Brown sauce is also acceptable.
*** Wait, you didn’t care about them anyway? Congratulations, you’re a better person than I am. Now go listen to ‘Kiss You’ and tell me it didn’t make you smile.
Writing Excuses 10.16 was, as is often the case, a really good episode. Talking about the importance of the first few lines of a book in drawing readers in, they provided the usual mix of top advice and interesting points to consider. If you’re not a regular listener (which if you write you should be) I particularly recommend this one.
This week’s exercise was:
Write your first thirteen lines, and see how much you can fit into that space—character attitude, point-of-view, mood, genre, conflict, setting, and more.
In keeping with the advice from the show, I’ve taken one of the beginnings I wrote two exercises ago and adapted that. Based on useful feedback in the comments from Ben and Sheila, I’m using my third beginning, which gets quickly into the characters and plot. You can look at the previous exercise to see the original version. Now for the new one…
My New Beginning
Night was falling as the hot air balloon crossed the Prussian siege lines and reached the walls of the Red Castle. Two teenagers in livery gawped at the steam motor as they took the ropes from Dirk Dynamo and secured the balloon to the crenelations. Even before they had finished, Dirk leapt down onto the stonework and assessed his surroundings by the light of burning torches. One hand lay on his holster, ready for whatever trap Isabelle had prepared.
Behind him, Sir Timothy Blaze-Simms scrambled excitedly out of the basket, accompanied by the clatter of gears and gadgets rattling in his pockets.
An elderly servant in a tailcoat held out a gloved hand. He said something in German.
“You catch that?” Dirk asked.
“Sorry what?” Blaze-Simms looked up from peering at a gargoyle.
“Ah, you are British?” The butler’s expression didn’t change as he shifted into English.
“He is.” He pointed at Blaze-Simms. “I’m American.”
“Oh.” Was it possible for a man’s face to fall without moving a muscle? If it was, then the butler managed it. “May I have your card please?”
The most obvious thing is in the first line. A big part of the plot and atmosphere of this book revolves around the castle being besieged by a Prussian army. I’ve added that in the very first line, and in future revisions I might also use that to tease out hints at Dirk’s military background.
I’ve added a motor to the balloon to hint at the steampunk genre that’s part of these books – together with the already present rattling gears and gadgets, I hope that sets the right tone.
Speaking of tone, I’ve tried to build up the action and suspense side of both the story and Dirk’s character through the way he behaves coming off the balloon. He’s not just looking, he’s assessing for danger. His hand is on his gun. This is an action hero expecting trouble.
The same lines let me introduce the conflict with Isabelle McNair, who Dirk was previously working with. The story’s other main plotline, and the main one for character development, is there straight away.
Some of the character attitudes and setting were already present. The servant’s formality and disdain for Americans, which creates instant conflict with Dirk. The castle setting. Dirk leading the way as Blaze-Simms bumbles along behind him. I’m pleased with what I’ve added. In some ways I’d like to get more in there, but I was concerned about things getting bogged down. I’ve even trimmed down some of the prose to avoid that.
What do you think? How does this work as an opening? And if you’ve read the previous version, is it an improvement or have I just made a mess – these things do happen. Leave a comment, let me know, and if you’ve done this exercise then please share how you got on.
Oh, and if you like the look of these characters then the first in the series, Guns and Guano, is free from most places you can get ebooks, including Amazon.com.