Writing a Novel - Edit Like A Reader

Editing_Photo Authors often become so myopic when writing that they miss glaring issues right in front of them. Granted, these are usually caught later by outside observers and beta-readers, but it's helpful to cultivate the skills to work in such a way that you catch problems first. When writing my new novel, Penwell, I developed a two-phase method of editing that successfully allowed me to self-edit on both the micro and macro level.

Edit Like A Writer

This is the part of the process that all writers are familiar with. Putting words down on the page and twisting them until they play nice. A thesaurus is never far from hand. Thanks to the handy note-taking features of Scrivener, I had amassed a small army of fixes that required specific attention. At the same time I knew I needed to not only polish the prose, but overhaul each chapter to make them powerful on their own.

To do this I revised chapters individually in reverse-chronological order. Instead of having a million issues fighting in my brain when re-working the book in order — where did the characters come from, where are they going, what has to happen in this chapter, how does this play into the overall character arc — I focused on the most important part of writing: making the material engaging. I treated each chapter like its own short story and fought to make every word count. Also, perceptively, it's much easier working on something that is only 3,000 words instead of 100,000. Hugh Howey, the author of the wildly successful self-published-turned-published-turned-phenomenon Wool said, "If you're not dying to write what happens next your readers aren't dying to know what happens next."

Edit Like A Reader

After all of my notes had been addressed, I felt comfortable with the structure of my story. Only then did I begin editing from the beginning. This time through, I worked quickly. Almost as quickly as if I were reading the book. To emphasize this even more I read my work on a Kindle Paperwhite, the same way many of my readers would see it. There is some strange magic to viewing your work in a final format that elevates certain problems and makes others vanish (more on that in another post). Once your words are set in stone, such as on an e-reader, PDF, or printed page, you are able to step outside yourself and view everything much more objectively.

Reading/editing at this fast pace forced me to consume the material like everyone else will. How it is supposed to be consumed. Some sentences felt too long. Others were unnecessary. As opposed to editing 1-5 pages per sitting, I was suddenly working on 10-20 which made me realize that I had used the word "walked" too often. When read in context, a chapter that I had loved on its own felt repetitive and completely ruined the pace. It had to go. That is something I never would have discovered had I been reading sentence to sentence instead of viewing it as a whole. Slow and methodical editing is important, but since the reader really just wants to know what is going to happen next it's important to read your work like your audience will. When working in film, I don't review my scenes in slow motion, I watch them in real-time. Musicians don't play back their tracks at half speed. Following the same principle, I've found great value in editing at nearly the same pace as a reader will read.