Dead Trees and Highlighters: My Editing Process


Many trees died to bring you this edit.

One of my critique partners asked me to share my editing process, which I’ve cobbled together after writing a few books. This is the process that works for me, and like any advice in writing, it may not work for you. Like all of my craft processes, it’s a work in progress.

Note: I run backups a lot. I’ve had plenty of friends lose work to computer crashes and am almost paranoid about it. You can, but do not have to, pay for cloud-based backup software. I tend to email myself my latest version at the end of every writing or editing session.

Step 1: Finish the Draft

I don’t run full edits until I have a full draft. That’s not to say I don’t do a lot of editing and rewriting along the way. I’m currently about 50/50 panster/plotter, but I’m working hard on tilting toward plotter because I feel like it helps me write faster.

Step 2: Kill the Trees

Once the draft is complete, I print the finished manuscript off on paper, double spaced, and using a different font than the one I used on screen (the font tip came from Gail Carriger and I’ve found it helps a lot to force my eye to read more closely). Then I read the entire book aloud. This first pass is intended to catch the big stuff: timeline errors, pacing issues, confusing plot points, etc. I note anything else that comes up, like typos, format errors, or dialogue tags. If it’s a typo I mark it on the page. The big stuff I leave margin notes or put a post it on the page with the issue if it’s something I need to fix elsewhere in the book. I do this so I don’t have to stop reading or flip through the pages to find the point it needs fixing since that’s so much easier to do electronically.

Step 3: Structural Edit

If my book has multiple points of view or different timelines, I use colored tabs to denote each chapter and number the tabs with a fine marker. Note: I do not number my chapters in the manuscript until the very end of the edit as I often find I’m making changes until the very last. Once I have every chapter tabbed, I look at the stacked pages. Is there enough thickness before the POV shifts again? Do the switches between POVs or timeline happen too frequently or not often enough?

I might draw a bar down a page, separate it into squares, and color the squares to show the alternating POVs or timelines. Then I shuffle the stack to get the right feeling for the switches (taking notes of what changes I made). I then make all the structural changes electronically.

Step 4: Rainbow Edit

If I need to make major changes, I do that and print it out again. If I am not looking at major changes, I can use the same pages and save some paper. The idea of the rainbow edit is to tighten the language and overall writing.

Someone at the Pikes Peak Writing Conference (I sadly don’t remember who), advised me to have three things on every page: something beautiful, something ugly, and something weird or strange.

I take my printed pages and read them again, usually aloud, listening for these three things and make one full pass for each thing. I use highlighters to mark the sentences or descriptions that fit the bill. If nothing on the page fits the requirement, I look for a weak bit of description or writing that can be rewritten and do so (this is where the double spacing comes in). I highlight the rewritten bit to indicate what it’s for, then complete the other two passes. I review the entire printed stack, making sure that all three colors show on every page. Then I make all of the writing changes electronically.

Editing 2

True: Editing is harder with cats.

Step 5: Dialogue, Character and Voice

This pass is much like Step 2, but it’s focused entirely on the characters and making sure they sound distinct. I read it aloud yet again, trying to really focus on the emotions of the characters in each scene and how they’re acting/reacting to the plot. If a chapter or scene is particularly troublesome, I bribe a friend to read them aloud to me as hearing it in another voice, much like the different font trick, helps me pinpoint what needs to change. I usually find that this pass ups my word count as I add reactions and more emotional description from the characters.

Step 6: Critique Group and Editor

Now that the book is fully baked: written, organized, and polished to the point where I have thoroughly reviewed it, it’s time to get some outside input. I post the book to my critique group, who are excellent at noticing things I missed. Further, I pay an editor, Sara J. Henry, who is worth every penny. Sara is fast and thorough, but most importantly she’s no nonsense, and she is quick to identify overwriting or structural issues I missed. There’s always something you’ve overlooked, which is why critique partners and beta readers are so important.

Note: using other writers for critique partners and as editors can mean you’re going to have stylistic differences. You have to be open to listening to feedback and honest enough with yourself to identify when you should ignore feedback and when the critique partner has a point. I usually find that a sentence or section they’ve marked just isn’t working. I almost never accept their change, if they’ve provided one, but end up making a change of my own. Thank your critique partners and check your defensive instincts. They’re doing what you’ve asked and they’ve taken the time to read your book.

Once I have the feedback processed into the electronic copy, it’s time to read it like a reader.

Step 7: Kindle It

I got this tip from Rachel Aaron’s excellent 2k to 10k: Writing Faster, Writing Better, and Writing More of What You Love, which I highly recommend for anyone trying to write commercial fiction at a faster pace. Once the book is polished, I save it as .rtf and email it to my Kindle app. To find your Kindle email address, follow these steps:

  1. Go here
  2. Sign in to Amazon.
  3. Click on Your Devices.
  4. Click on the Kindle device you want to send your file to.
  5. Email the file to the email address displayed.

I read my manuscript on my Kindle app as a final pass. Since I can’t edit the file on the app, it forces me to just be a reader. While I take notes on any typos or missing words, I don’t let my editing brain engage. I’m not here to wordsmith or tweak, but just try to see the book as a reader would. If something big jumps out, I’ll make a note and go fix it, but at this point you should just be catching little things.

Once this pass is complete, I send it to my agent.

One thought on “Dead Trees and Highlighters: My Editing Process

  1. Liz Mallory says:

    I’ve always done the Kindle pass too! I love that one, especially being an over-editor. There’s a slightly more complicated way of getting your book on your Kindle that allows you to input “bookmarks” (Table of Contents and Chapter links) so it’s easy to navigate around…but that’s only for if you really care about such things.

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