Monday, October 19, 2020

A Writer's Note About Editing

 I recently had the opportunity to be a beta reader for a novel that I expect will be published next year. As a beta reader for this particular task, my job is to read the manuscript and address a list of questions submitted by the author. Did the events flow naturally? Were the following characters believable or necessary? Did that big twist in chapter 12 catch you off-guard? And so on. I will tell you that my job as a beta reader has many good parts and gives me wonderful opportunities to think and grow as a writer while examining other works. However, there is one very difficult part: I can’t be an editor.

As an author, this is torture.

While the main duty of any writer is to write, there are plenty of separate tasks that come with it, and some are more difficult than others. One of the big tasks is to be an editor – to make a written work better. The editor hat is a very important one to wear, as it carries many responsibilities under its brim. However, as important as it is, there comes a time when we need to take off that hat for the sake of our writing.

I have discussed the importance of editing before, so I will just briefly go over some of the points authors need to consider when they are editing. The process of editing starts from the big-sky view of the work, making sure it is readable and presented in a structure and manner that a reader can easily digest. It then narrows in to the next stage, where characters, plot, and motive are studied to make sure things flow organically. Then the magnifying glass comes out and we hit the last stage, checking spelling, grammar, punctuation, and other things that enter the realm of proofreading. As a writer, we should eventually become fluent in all these processes, but more to the point, we should know when we need to turn them off and just write.

In this regard, I am pretty bad, and I advise people to not follow that part of my process when they create their first drafts. My first drafts have perfect spelling, the semicolons are placed with precision, and my use of the subjunctive is near flawless. This may sound helpful, but the first draft should just be about creating a story, and that’s what I try to tell people. First, write down the story, then spell it right on a third or fourth pass. No publisher will, or ever should, read a first draft, so don’t worry about what it looks like. A lot of time can be wasted in a first draft making sure the commas are just right when the entire paragraph will probably be rewritten anyway.

This is where beta reading can be difficult for a writer such as myself. Beta reading should be an approach from the second pass – a study of what the story is presenting, how the characters develop, the progression of the plot, tension, conflict, suspense, and so on. Again – the spelling doesn’t matter. The Oxford comma is not important. Subject/verb agreement can be set aside. This second pass is really where a critical reader earns their paycheck, because this will make or break the story. A natural proofreader such as myself is not very useful here unless I can put away that hat and just be an engaged reader.

As National Writing month approaches (more on that in the next post), I think it’s important to think about how we can improve our processes and make sure when we are writing we are not editing. We can write new content while we edit, but when we are trying to create something, we set aside our editing hat and just be writers for the moment. It’s a lot to ask of someone, but it will pay handsome dividends, especially during National Writing month. 

(And yes, I will try to fix my own process as well.)


  1. This reminds me of a quote from the poet Paul Verlaine. He said he never finished his poems, he abandoned them. What he meant was that he could spend an inordinate amount of time editing, revising, tweaking and outright rewriting. But at some point he realized he would have to let go and move on to the next project.

    1. Exactly. I do not believe there is the perfect piece of literature. There can only be the one that brings the writer satisfaction.