What I learned from editing my first book

What I learned from editing my first book

After I’d written 30% of my book, I decided to pay to have a content editor go over it to see if it would be worth the money. It absolutely was, and I decided that I would hire a content editor when I finished. That part of the process proved to be a good decision.

When I finished the first draft, I had several people read it and provide feedback. I assumed that having 6-8 people go through it, and rereading it twice myself would get the book to a reasonable state. For a little background information, I wrote Genesis without an outline. For those of you who don’t know, that basically means I set myself up to have all kinds of issues because I didn’t understand the story as a whole before I started. Don’t get me wrong, I loved writing it that way… but it took me a really long time to finish.

After I had gone through the draft a few times, I hired Ranee Clark to do a multi-round content edit. Initially, I believe that my story was in good shape, so I pushed back pretty hard on some of her early recommendations. I also–this is the kicker–only read the changes and comments themselves and some text in the surrounding area when I went through the first round of edits. After all, I believed in my book. I wanted to polish it up and get it out there into the hands of all those people who desperately want to read it…

The most frequent problem with my manuscript was that I didn’t realize how many times I’d used unnecessary words, passive voice, telling, or some other thing that weakened the story. Those were the easy things, but also the most numerous. There were too many of these things for Ranee to mark them all so I had to figure out some of it on my own. 

There was more though, such as the stuff that content editors typically focus on.

  1. My protagonist cried too often which made her seem weak or pathetic and while those occurrences made sense, in aggregate, it was too much.
  2. I artificially withheld information from the reader and made my protagonist look dumb because she wasn’t asking hard intelligent questions. Meanwhile, I was trying to build suspense and mystery, but that effort made my character less likable.
  3. I slipped in a couple one or two scene point of views for other characters because it was useful. Ranee said this was cheating and that it would bother readers (I still only partially agree).
  4. I had a scene that I showed from two character’s points of view. There was a lot of overlap because there were missing elements from both. Ranee said this slowed down the pacing at the climax of the story (I totally agreed, it was just hard to figure out a way to fix it).
  5. Many other items…
Overall, I got a ton of fantastic advice from Ranee and would recommend hiring her, but that’s not the most important thing I learned. The most important thing I learned was to read the entire book end-to-end, especially if you have made significant changes in a few places or if you’ve learned something important about writing better. After the second round of editing came back I focused on only the edits once again and only grudgingly decided to read through the full manuscript.

Holy crap. With the knowledge I’d gained from receiving two rounds of editing and going through one and a half of those I was suddenly able to see many problems Ranee hadn’t highlighted. Sometimes those problems related to weird word choice, or the items listed above. Some of what I did was cut words, phrases, and sentences that simply didn’t add value. Even though it hadn’t been edited or marked, reading through it again revealed a massive number of problems with my writing that I couldn’t see before. What began as a grudging full read through turned in to two full read-throughs before I sent it back to Ranee for round three. The second read was out loud (Ranee’s recommendation). This was exceptionally helpful in hearing where there were missing words and awkward phrasing. It’s slower, but also exceptionally helpful. Personally… I like trying to act it out by trying to match expression and tone to get a feel for it.

The last thing I wanted to mention is Ego. After seven years of writing, I’d lost my ability to see my story objectively. That led me to ignore some feedback early on that related to fairly critical story elements (from my wife 🙁 giant fail). Realizing how blind I’d been to feedback from my editor and how many assumptions I’d made about the quality of my story helped me open up and realize that I needed to listen closely to all feedback. In addition to all of this, I’ve been reading a book about outlining and how to driving pacing. All of these things together have provided a pretty incredible education that I need to build on.

Final thoughts

In summary, I learned some really important things about how to write and edit more effectively.

  1. Don’t ignore feedback, it’s relevant to at least one person. Decide what the impact (how many readers) is and decide if you need to act on it. Set your ego, how much you love scenes, and everything aside.
  2. If you learn something significant in the middle of writing or editing, read through your entire manuscript again.
  3. Hire a content editor for your first book if you want to ramp our your writing ability and quality quickly. It will be emotionally painful and draining to have someone rip apart your work and expose all the problems, but it’s either that or get torn apart by your readers later and potentially never understand where you need to improve.
  4. Read through your manuscript out loud and trying to match your character’s expression and tone.
  5. Keep improving and educating yourself. Read writing books and editing books.

Writing books I’ve enjoyed

  1. Immediate Fiction (writing)
  2. Take off Your Pants (outlining)
  3. The Anatomy of Story (Havent read this one yet)