Friday, October 7, 2011

Editing Your MS in 30 Days or Less

Okay, so sue me. This is a re-post from my days on the QueryTracker blog. It's about 2 years old, but I still think it's frawesome.

So, uh, take it away Past-Self!

Okay, so imagine you've finished the fifth draft of your amazing NYT bestseller. You've let some time go by. And now you're ready to edit the manuscript. Again. (*Note: for the purposes of this post, editing and revising are synonymous.)

You sit down, open the document, and...proceed to stare into the great black abyss like somehow your MS will edit itself. Oh, sure, maybe you're like me and you immediately click on gmail when something earth-shattering doesn't hit you about your novel. Or Twitter. Or Facebook. Or a writing forum. Heck, maybe when you get really desperate, well, let's not go there.

I know (trust me, I KNOW) the thought of editing an entire manuscript is overwhelming. Daunting. Like climbing the mountain--again.

So today, I'm going to give you some pointers that have helped me tackle my 320-page manuscript, edit it, polish it, get it to betas and then out the door in less than 30 days. Strap yourselves in.

1. Set goals. Not only a "finish-by" goal date, but goals for what you want to accomplish in the edit. Does character A need more depth? Do you need to introduce the antag earlier so readers know who/what the MC is up against? Do you need stronger world-building? Faster pacing? A sub-plot that needs fleshing out? What are you trying to accomplish with the edit?

Know what these are. Don't freak out that there's SO MUCH that needs to be done. Just make a list.

2. Chunk your MS. It's much easier to wrap your mind around 100 pages rather than 350. So chunk your MS into manageable sections. I split mine into three distinct pieces and worked on them individually.

Okay, so you really haven't opened the document and started yet. This is all the "behind-the-scenes" stuff that you can do in a notebook or in your head. It usually takes me 2-3 days to make my list and chunk my MS. Take some time to do this. It helps things settle in your head before you actually start.

3. Read. That's right. Hopefully, it's been a while since you've read or worked on your MS. You'll be able to see things with fresh eyes this way. I printed the first chunk and sat down to read. Yes, I had a pen (it was black, not red) in my hand. During this reading phase, I was doing three things:


  • Line-edits (for awkward phrasing, repeated words, word choice, paragraphing, funky formatting, etc. Everything looks new and different on paper. I strongly encourage printing the chunk and editing on paper.)
  • Outlining (I don't outline before I write. So I create my outline as I edit a finished draft. I have a pad of small (2-inch by 2-inch) post-it notes next to me. After I finish reading a chapter, I write the main focus of that chapter on a post-it and place it neatly in my manila folder. Can't sum it up? Maybe you don't need that chapter. Every chapter must advance the plot. Even if you write from an outline, you can do this to see if you've really used every chapter, every scene to advance your plot. And hey, maybe your outline has changed.)
  • Making Notes (I know my goals for the edit, so as I'm reading, I draw a star and make myself a note. Like, "Insert a memory about character B here." Or "This would be a great place to reflect on plot point G." Or "Introduce antag here by way of video." Or "More world-building/setting here." I don't actually write the insertions. I simply make notes of places where they could go.)

4. Transfer from paper to computer. Remember, this is only for the first chunk. For me, it was about 115 pages, and it took me about 3 days to read, line edit and make notes for the section. Then I finally opened my Word document and started with page one. I entered the line edits, written changes and deletions. When I got to spots where I had a note for new material, I wrote it. Everything is done with the "Track Changes" feature on, so I can see what I've done. Actually transferring the changes is easy. And since you have something tangible to do, you don't waste any time staring at the screen, wondering what to do and where to do it. Transferring only takes 1 day. Maybe longer if you have large sections to add/rewrite.

5. Rinse and repeat. After section one is transferred into the computer, print section two. Read, pen in hand, post-it's nearby, computer off. Transfer to manuscript. Print section three. Read, transfer. Since I only had three sections, I edited my entire novel in about 12 days. With the goal-making, I finished a round of (major) edits in two weeks.

(*Note #2: Some of you might stop here. If this is say, the second draft, and you're not ready to send to readers yet, you're done! In only 2 weeks. Leave the MS for a while, write something else maybe. Then come back and start with #1 with new goals for another edit.)

6. Send to readers. Now, this could be an entire post by itself. But I don't have time for that, so I'll just say to choose people who you A) trust and B) love and C) will read FAST. I mean, you only have 16 more days. I recommend recruiting a few (meaning: 2 or 3) readers who will critique as you finish chunks. So really, you could have stuff out with Beta readers after you transfer the first chunk. When they finish, send them the second, and so on. This way, you're not stalled at this point in the process, waiting for reads. You've been getting them back on shorter sections. Which is how you want to work anyway.

7. Go over crits, make changes. Add stuff, delete stuff, etc. This is just a polish. You've already done the major reconstruction. Now you're just smoothing over the edges, based on what your readers have said. If you have fast readers, you can probably get this done in a week or so. I think I had my chunks back and crits incorporated in about 8 days.

8. Leave it alone. Which means, leave it alone. Don't open it. Don't read it. You can think about it if you want. I didn't. 2 days. I actually did this immediately following the final transfer (step 5), while waiting for reads to come back on chunks. It doesn't matter when you do it, but it's vital. Seriously, leave it alone.

9. Send entire, repolished MS to trusted readers. These are NOT the same people who read the chunks. Different people. I had 4. I sent them the "final" MS as well as a list of my goals so they knew what I was trying to accomplish with the edit. (*Note, I did this because with one exception, my readers had already read my book, so I wanted them to know specifically what I was trying to do this time around.) Again, they need to be A) trusted B) loved and C) fast.

10. Final edits based on final reads.

11. Done!

This system worked for me. I managed to edit my 83,000-word novel, get reads, and polish it up in under 30 days. Hopefully, you've seen something in this list that can help you focus your energy into accomplishing an edit (no matter if it's your third draft or your, um, eighth) of your manuscript without falling into the great black abyss.

What do you do that helps you get the editing done?

43 comments:

Leigh Ann said...

SO happy to see this post today. I'm sososo close to finishing the first draft of my WiP, and then I've gotta clean it up - a lot. This list helps me feel not quite so panicked.

My number one editing tip is to have the book read aloud to you. Since I'm mostly an incognito writer, my Kindle does a perfect job of this. So many things changed for my first MS after the Kindlebot let me HEAR it instead of reading it.

Thanks Elana - another SUPER helpful post!

thegracefuldoe said...

Like Leigh Ann, I also read aloud/have ywriter read aloud to me. Another thing I do when editing is use different coloured highlighters eg: green where I need to show rather than tell, yellow for awkward phrasing, purple for more description.

I loved your tip on writing post-its for each chapter. Will have to try that one!

Not sure I'd get my novel edited in under thirty days, just because I have kids, so have to work around them to find the time to sit down and do it without interruption, but your post was certainly full of great tips!

Donna K. Weaver said...

It was great to see you at Book Academy yesterday, Elana.

Thanks for this list. I've found that refusing to let myself do the Internet things helps, but I also have to silence my phone since my email is linked to it.

I'm copying this and pasting it in a Word doc for future reference.

WritingNut said...

I loved this post, I had bookmarked it. Sound, excellent advice!

Have a wonderful weekend! :)

Shakespeare said...

I'm in the "final reads" section. I'm making a list of things I need to address in the final go, after my last reader has returned the manuscript. This is timely for me. I really hope to get the last bit edited in the next week or so, and by then I'll have my agent listing completed, so I can start SENDING!

So excited!

Natalie Aguirre said...

This is awesome advice. I still emember the post and have used your ideas in my last revision. It worked!

Ted Cross said...

I like publishing the book at Lulu with a nice cover so it looks like a real book. That way I can grab a pen and read it with a genuine feel of a book to it, and I catch so much more this way.

Slamdunk said...

Good repost Elana.

I especially like the idea of breaking a lengthy document into manageable sections. It just makes sense when it is easy to become overwhelmed trying to tackle it all at once.

Christine Fonseca said...

still a great post!

i'm erin. said...

Ok, I'm so editing right now, and I totally need this post. You are awesome Elana! I'm glad to stalk your blog.

Jenilyn Tolley said...

Great suggestions! I usually try to come up with some reward I can have when I finish. Like I can't go see a movie that I really, really want to see until I'm done. I respond well to bribery, apparently. :)

Deana said...

Gosh Elana, you must rock because I mapped out when I will have all my editing done with all I have to do and the date is November 28th! My first draft is a mess:( I'm not upset though, just gotta get to work:)

Krista said...

I told myself I could not start on another project until my MS was in the hands of my beta readers.

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

That process sounds familiar. And I always print out my work, at least once. I miss stuff otherwise.

Matthew MacNish said...

I can't imagine critiquing an entire novel in 16 days. For me it takes at least a month.

Stephanie McGee said...

For me, the best editing tool is a detailed scene-by-scene outline. I read through it and make cuts and other changes, find the plot holes, and then revise off of it. I might go through a couple of detailed outlines (and I have them printed and coil-bound at FedEx Office), but it's one of the most effective tools out there.

I know I've blogged about it in the past. Might have to re-run the posts...

K.T. Hanna said...

Thank you so much for this. It's perfect! I'm in this stage right now and feeling extremely overwhelmed. This will help me in ways you couldn't possibly imagine :D

I have chunk readers, and I have a crit group who'll do the non chunk read.

Brilliant - bookmarking this.

Martha Ramirez said...

Great tips, Elana! Thank you.

Regarding chunking the ms--I find even when I do critiques this helps A LOT!

Emily said...

This is very helpful for me. I'm am just finishing a 2nd or 3rd draft? Depending how you look on it and am needing a final edit.

This post makes me not so terrified! Thank you. I'm bookmarking this for after NaNo.

Taffy said...

Thanks for posting this today! How did you know I was staring into the MS abyss??

Bethany Elizabeth said...

Thanks so much for this great post! :) I'm trying to finish my rough draft right now, but then it's NanoWriMo, so after THAT I'll be editing. :) So, I'm saving the link to this post. :)

Shannon O'Donnell said...

I just printed this and plan to follow it step-by-step as I edit my manuscript. I have three months to re-write/edit it. Gah! :-)

Krispy said...

Wow, this is intense, but what a system!

Mel Corbett said...

Hi Elana! This is an awesome system. I've always been kind of at a loss of how to handle my edits. I like how you clearly define your goals for the edit ahead of time. I think I'm going to have to bookmark this and refer to it later when I'm doing my edits. Thank you!

Nicole Zoltack said...

I'm currently on step 9. Hoping to start sending out queries next month!

Jemi Fraser said...

I'm never going to be that fast, but I like the system. I think I'll adapt some bits and pieces for me :)

Julia King said...

I've tried editing my last ms on paper but it drove me crazy. Why? Because I had the whole blasted darn thing in my hand. How daunting can that be? Very! Thank you for suggesting doing that in chunks. I'll try that for the ms I'm working on now. I desperately want to finish my WIP a lot quicker than my previous work. Ugh! It took forever.
Thanks for you post and a great blogging session at the writing conference yesterday. Gave me lots of great ideas for my blog!

June G said...

I didn't catch this post the first time around. It's really great. Thanks for the help! You're such a sweetheart--seriously. :-)

Ann Best said...

I'm glad I came over to read this. I'm VERY glad you re-posted it. It's just what I need right now as I putting together an ebook containing two novelettes and a short story. There are steps here I haven't used that sound excellent. Thank you!
Ann Best, Author of In the Mirror, A Memoir of Shattered Secrets

A-man said...

Hi there! I just wanted you to know that I love your book possession! It's Totally Awesome!
Take Care,
Eli Myers

Angela Brown said...

And this is why you fracking rock!

Go past-Elana!

Yes, this one is for the bookmark.

Thank you :-)

Sophia Chang said...

I LOVE this post - I just wrote a ninja post for Ali Cross' dojo about not sharing my work with anyone, even betas, until at least 3 revisions in seclusion and people were surprised. It's soooo good to see someone else work on their piece nth times through before sending it out.

Alice said...

wow, how much time do you spend each day to get this all done? It usually takes me at least a month to read through and edit the whole manuscript once if I spend an hour or two a day working on it.

J.C. Martin said...

Thanks for the advice! I'm doing my final edits of my novel on my Kindle, and find that so much more productive than staring at a computer screen!

J.C.

Join me in the Trick or Treat Spooktacular! Could you help make the Grand Prize a brand new Kindle Touch?

Peggy Eddleman said...

Fabulous information! I'm about to start a huge revision, so not only was it fabulous, it was very timely.

Anita Saxena said...

thank you! This is a great step by step plan. Unfortunately, whenever I delve into edits I find myself rewriting major chunks, rather than tweaking existing chunks.

Theresa Milstein said...

Since I haven't seen the post before, I won't sue you.

I'm impressed with this method. Makes much more sense than my ad-hoc way. Normally, I take MONTHS. The only exception was my last manuscript, only because (I had no time to write) I wrote it so slowly that I had a lot of time to think about the writing along the way. The end result was a lot cleaner as a result.

Karen Amanda Hooper said...

I remember this one. Still great advice! :)

John Waverly said...

Great post, Elana's past self.

Since I'm in editing mode right now, I'm going to try chunking. I'll let you know how it goes. Besides, I'm looking forward to people asking me how my writing is going. I'll answer, "I'm in the chunking phase right now." Then see what they do. Haha.

Leslie Rose said...

I am SO glad you re-ran this post. It is new to me and it is a structure I can really cotton to. Thanks a million - no a billion - no a trillion...

Small Town Shelly Brown said...

Rockin' awesome! Thanks Elana :) Great timing. I gotta get this thing to betas by NaNo and this is giving me the confidence to get it done.
Now, OFF THE INTERNET!

Hannah Kincade said...

Yes, yes, yes and yes. So many fantastic points.

Carrie said...

This is one of my favorite posts. When I edit I read this post to motivate me through it. I go through chapter by chapter and try to edit a certain amount a day. Then I send it to readers, get feedback and start the process again.

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