Do you remember those innocent days when you thought the hard part was going to be writing the book? Then you discovered that when the writing was finished, the book really wasn’t, because you still needed to do editing (cue scary music).
[First, let me define my term. I include under the editing umbrella fixing up the plot, making sure the continuity is right, tightening up the writing, making sure the word usage is correct, as well as the grammar, spelling (not so difficult any more now that there’s spell check, but then it’s not perfect in that the word can be spelled right but still be the wrong word, e.g., mean when it should have been meant), and punctuation, and that last huge bugbear, proofreading. There may be more things to it, but those are what come to mind offhand.]
Fixing up the plot isn’t so bad. I think by the time you reach ‘The End,’ you already have a pretty good idea of the places you have to go back to and fix up so that everything is copacetic and cohesive. Continuity problems should stand out when you do a read-through (but apparently they don’t always, not even for best-selling authors with professional editors. Case in point: I recently read a James Patterson-Alex Cross novel in which the Cross family was having their kitchen remodeled and had no access to their stove. The 90-something grandmother was doing all the cooking on a hot plate in the dining room. Yet she managed to make ‘baked’ pork chops for the family. There is no way one can bake on a hot plate. That ‘baked’ should have been ‘fried.’ And who lets their 90-year-old grandmother do all the cooking for the family? Especially since in a prior book she had almost total body failure, heart, lungs, kidneys, and now she’s back slaving over a hot plate? Does that qualify as elder abuse?)
Tightening the writing isn’t too bad once you get over the feeling that every word you wrote is precious and deserves to be in the book. I was very lucky in that I went back to college later in life and had two history teachers who were excellent editors — they even slashed up the essays you wrote during a test — and I got to see first hand how much better writing can be when you get rid of the excesses. Not that it’s always easy, but I have been willing to get rid of a lot more than I used to if it made things move faster and more readable.
Sometimes in the haste of trying to get it all down, you might use a word you think is right, but maybe it isn’t. I’ve been surprised sometimes when I’ve used familiar word and checked its definition and found out its real meaning wasn’t quite what I thought it was. (Another case in point: prodigal. Everyone assumes from the Bible story that it means long lost. Nope. Try wasteful. It’s misused about 99.9% of the time.) If you don’t own a dictionary, use an online version.
But the worst part of all in editing is proofreading. It’s horrible. It should be banned. But it’s absolutely necessary, and unfortunately, at least in my case, has to be done multiple times. Because you know what’s supposed to be there, and whether it’s there or not, your helpful brain lets you see what you expect to see. Like the ‘or’ when it should be ‘of’ or ‘of’ when it should be ‘if.’ And it’s not just the little things. I think I read my most recent work five times before I noticed that in one part the phrase ‘for the’ actually read ‘for the for the.’ Now, how did that happen? I can’t imagine that in my haste to get what I wanted to say down on paper I actually typed the same words twice. It had to be the gremlin that lives in my computer. I have yet to figure out an easier way to proofread, and if somebody knows something, please share it. I’ve tried reading the manuscript out loud which I felt was a surefire way to catch mistakes, but that proved not to be true. I’ve passed it on to friends. In one instant, the first friend found about 25 typos. In the process of correcting what she’d found, I found about 75 more. The friend that read that corrected copy found some more after that. And that was in a manuscript I thought was in excellent shape when I gave it to the first reader.
And bear in mind that editing holds fast to Murphy’s Law: it’s going to take much longer than you think. I had thought I’d have a book ready to publish in early September. I finally published it yesterday. Murphy’s Law in action. I hope I didn’t miss anything, or at least not anything too glaring when editing. But if I did, I’ll remind myself that even professionals screw up some time. In the same James Patterson book mentioned above, there was a word, it might have been ‘lucky’ or something similar, that was written along the lines of l*uc&ky.’ I thought at first it was supposed to be a comic strip type expletive, but no, it was just a normal part of the sentence.
Good luck with your own editing!
(And in a blatant bit of self-promotion, here is a link to my latest book: