Editing is important. But did you know it's magic?
It starts with the power of the written word, connecting the minds of writers and readers across space and time. Steven King said it's like telepathy -- I write something. You read it. I never opened my mouth, and you never opened yours. We're not in the same time together, let alone the same room . . . except we are together. We're close. We're having a meeting of the minds. -- I agree with King, and if you're looking for a metaphysical or spiritual source for this special power, google: "In the beginning was the word."
But let's be honest, not every fragment thrown on paper (or screen) connects my mind to yours. At worst, there may be mistakes that sever the writer from the reader. Bad word choices or confusing sentences weaken the connection.
For example, if I write "the balloon is a levitating red blob," you might scratch your head. What does that mean? But if I write "the red balloon floats up," your mind is likely meeting mine. We have flow. The mental picture may not be the same, but that's the point and the beauty. We are reading and writing, not watching a movie.
Editing is the magic that helps our minds meet. As a writer, it is impossible to know whether the reader will meet your mind with every sentence. You can guess, but the only sure-fire way to know is to have someone else read what you wrote. Someone outside your own head. You have to get the substance of editing down (check out Self-Editing for Fiction Writers), but I've come to believe the process is just as important. Based on my experience (that is, learning the hard way . . . through mistakes), below are five ideal steps in the editing process.
Write a first draft in a short period of time. Do not show it to anyone. Just let the words fly, as often as possible. Because your mind is in the story more consistently, it's a good bet your reader's mind can meet yours more consistently. It took me years to write my first book, and that made the whole editing and finishing process harder. It took me months to write my second book, which produced more cohesive raw material for a better final product. The writing ideally will be done over a short period of time -- measured in weeks or months, not years.
Set your first draft aside for a while, then be your own first reader. If it's a novel, throw the manuscript in a (digital) drawer for a month or two. Ignore it. Write something else. Then plow back through it, as your own first reader. If you can't meet your own mind, edit the manuscript until you can.
Enlist ONE development editor for a first read. This should be someone you trust to wield the red pen and tackle the big issues. It may be your soulmate, or an expert you pay. As one of the best editors explains it: "Developmental editors offer specific suggestions about the core intentions and goals of the book, the underlying premise, the story, character development, use of dialogue and sensory description, the polish, narrative voice, pacing, style, language – the craft and literary art of the book."
Enlist multiple beta-readers for another editing round. After you and your development editor have fixed the big-picture changes, share the manuscript with 5 to 10 diverse readers. Include your mom, your biggest fan, and a stranger. Ask them to circle anything that breaks the flow. This crowd-sourced editing helps ensure that the writing can connect with readers of different backgrounds. Go through each of their comments and make the necessary changes.
Enlist a final copy editor. Once you think the manuscript is perfect, and you can't stand to look at it again, pass it off to a nit-picking perfectionist. This person will catch those last little typos that seeped through the cracks. Fix them. Make your words a seamless tube connecting your mind to the reader's.
Follow these steps. Each one is a secret ingredient to successful writing. Will editing make you a bestseller? Nope, not by itself. But will editing give you the best chance to connect to readers? You better believe it. It's magic.
Make your words count -- J.B.