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Now here’s a funny thing. Before coronavirus, you’d frequently hear me moaning about how little time I had to work on my creative writing. Now, in the midst of lockdown, I’ve suddenly got lots of time…and have I written a thing? NOPE!

After a while, I gave up. There was simply no point trying to force the words when they wouldn’t come. Instead, I pulled out a manuscript that I finished well over a year ago, with the intention of editing the hell out of it.

A bit of backstory

This particular manuscript is the bane of my literary existence. I wrote it in a total frenzy a couple of years ago. Polished it up, then sent it out to agents and publishers alike. I received 10 full manuscript requests – which isn’t bad going, by any means. However, I also received 10 rejections.

Those who were kind enough to explain why indicated that it was just too elusive. It was ambiguous to the point of feeling a bit pointless. My agent (the most recent person to read it, last year), asked me if I knew what happened in it.

Of course, I replied, then quickly explained.

Ah, he said. Sorry to say, but I didn’t pick up on any of that while I was reading it.

Uh-oh. That was bad news. Basically, I’d taken such great care to keep the ending inconclusive, that I’d ended up creating a novel that made no sense at all. Ha!

I tucked it away in the ‘needs editing’ folder on my laptop, then thought no more about it.

Pulling it out for an edit

For some reason, while in lockdown, I kept thinking about this manuscript. Perhaps it’s because it’s about an isolated community, and how remoteness can drive a person crazy!

Then, in the shower a few weeks ago, I had the eureka moment; that lovely few moments when you figure out how to make the book better.

The big question was – how the hell would I tackle it? This was no small amount of editing – rather a complete overhaul of the entire book.

How I go about it

Now, this is obviously how I do it, and this approach might not be everyone’s cup of tea. However, I’ll share it anyway, in the hope that it might help.

Step 1

I scribble down the main things that need changing. In particular, I focus on what the book’s currently lacking, and what needs to be seeded in, right from the start. These are my over-arching BIG themes – the aspects that will (hopefully) give the book meaning and purpose.

Step 2

I read through as a reader. No editing, just reading for the pure enjoyment of it. Make sure you leave your draft for at least a month before trying this – otherwise you won’t be seeing it with fresh eyes. This time round, I noticed lots that was really positive about the book, but I could clearly see its flaws too. In this case – nowhere near enough focus or motivation. It was a drifting, meandering book, and it needed to have a bit more drive – that key ingredient to keep the reader reading.

Step 3

I start editing. This initial edit is focused on the big overhaul, not the piddly little details. I’m quite ruthless; if something doesn’t work, it’s chopped out, or rewritten entirely. I also frequently return to earlier sections of the book, to check that the new stuff ‘marries’ with what’s happened in previous chapters. This is the big edit – the stage that takes the longest time.

Step 4

I leave it again, then return to address the smaller details. By doing a massive overhaul, I may have accidentally created inconsistencies, for example. Some parts may now be confusing, or redundant. I also start checking things like spelling, repeating words, flow etc.

Step 5

I leave it again! Then, once it feels ‘fresh’ for a third time, I read through it as a reader would, and review it at the end.

Overall, this process takes about four months. Yup – it’s a time-consuming process (especially as this book has already been edited in the past).

Viewing editing the right way

See it as an integral part of the process. The draft is the big, broad brushstrokes that create an impression of the picture. Now, you’re at the stage where you add the little details that turn it into a masterpiece.

There’s something enormously satisfying about improving a book through editing. Of course, sometimes the reverse can happen (which I always panic about – and am in the process of panicking about at the moment with this book). But nothing ventured, nothing gained; and if you hate the new version, you can always re-edit it at a later date.