Being a Better Writer: The Process of Editing

Editing is a curious thing. Almost everyone agrees that it’s something a written work needs to have. But by the same token, it’s one thing that I’ve noticed that, in my time as an author, many people don’t actually agree upon or know much about what it entails. The most accurate consensus I could assemble from what I’ve read and heard from casual writers (not dedicated authors) or the average layperson is that editing is about making a written work better. It’s about fixing the mistakes.

Now, that doesn’t sound bad at all. But here’s the thing: What do people mean when they say “fixing the mistakes?” And that’s where the root of today’s topic comes from.

See, you’d be hard pressed to find a reader of books somewhere that wouldn’t make a case that editing is something a manuscript needs. But if you ask them what goes into editing, you’ll get something like “Well, you know, fixing errors and stuff.”

Yes. “And stuff.” While that’s an answer that makes sense and technically is accurate, it really doesn’t give the discerning writer much to go off of. After all, there can be a lot of errors in “stuff.” And this vagueness in turn makes it difficult for new writers, first-timers pushing out their skills to try and get their first manuscript together, to understand what they need to do to fix errors, or even what those are. It’s a bit like asking someone to fix a car and then, when asked what’s wrong with it, giving the answer “stuff.” Not only is it not helpful, but those who have worked on cars (or really, done any big tune-up project) know from experience that there are some things that matter more than others, or need to be done in a certain order.

See, editing isn’t just about “fixing” errors. Too many young writers I’ve spoken with are stuck with a perspective that “editing” is simply going through with a spell-check or maybe a reader to point out typos and misspelled words. If they catch all those, things are good.

But they aren’t. Editing isn’t just the equivalent of running your book through a living, breathing spellcheck. There’s more to it than that, more than just attempting to find a transposed vowel or a misplaced apostrophe. It’s a process, something that takes time and, quite often, dedicated effort. Editing on a book can take as long, if not longer, than the writing of the actual book did. Not because there are that many errors, but because the process of working on said book is simply a time-consuming process for everyone involved.

Now, here’s the caveat I’m going to give before I go any further. Editing is a process, and a process is going to follow a system of some kind. I would venture to guess that every major and minor author out there has a system of some kind, be that system is as hands-off as “pass manuscript to editor, don’t see it for three months, make all requested changes when it comes back” or as hands-on as “put it in a drawer for three to six months and don’t look at it, then read it and note everything that needs to be changed.”

Now there are obvious differences to attention with those systems, but the big thing behind each of them is that they are a system. Which is something young/new writers need to learn. As pointed out above, most people think of editing as “fixing,” or at the most, the “draft” system taught by most high-schools and even colleges … which in my own experience isn’t much of a system, but rather a practice designed to make you do multiple run-throughs of your work to find as many errors as possible.

You are going to do a lot of that, but it’s not editing, it’s part of editing.

Point is, each author is going to have a system that they follow. So when I talk about editing today, bear in mind that what I’m about to present is my system for editing, the steps that I follow, which I acquired by drawing inspiration from other authors explaining their systems. This is not an invitation to disregard the purpose of the system I propose, nor to debate on how many steps from your system it might miss, but to highlight that as a prospective author, you’re going to build your own system. Each writing style will have its own perks and strengths, weaknesses and strong points. As such, the editing system you’re going to want to utilize is going to reflect those in a way.

So, let’s take a look at the editing that goes into my work when I “finish” a manuscript.

Step One—Alpha Editing
Alpha editing is what I refer to as the first step of my editing process (and this has several “sub-steps”). This is what begins the moment I finish my first draft, which I refer to as “Alpha 1.”

This draft is not yet ready for eyes. Not yet. I’ve typed that final word, I’ve “finished” it, but it’s not ready. No, the first thing I do is make sure I’ve not left any lingering errors I need to clean up.

Sometimes when writing a story, especially a long one, I may find that a chapter or a scene will work better with a change to an earlier scene or plot point. Usually I go back and fix these as I’m working on a draft, but before I start getting extra eyes to look at my alpha, this is something I double check. I go down the list of changes (either mental or, sometimes, a sticky-note on my desk) and make sure that I remembered to adjust each one of them. Then I go back and look at different scenes or moments that “sat on”—or in other words, wasn’t 100% sold on when I wrote it, and now want to verify now that my head has had a little time to clear.

Once all this is done … then the manuscript is ready for the initial Alpha run.

What’s the Alpha run? Simple.I have others look at it and read it. From start to finish. Making notes along the way. Not on typos or other errors, but on problems with the story itself.

Which may seem counter-intuitive to some new writers out there, or strange (in fact, I’ve had many voice almost this exact phrase, so it’s less of a “may,” really, and more of a “do”). To many, editing is looking for “errors,” by which most mean typos, etc, or major plot holes.

The second of those two? That’s what this step is for. And anything associated with it.

The purpose of an Alpha Edit is to find problems with the structure of the story, not the grammar used. This is the point where character’s motivations need to be cemented, when events and pacing need to line up, where reader’s thoughts on motive and meaning need to come to the forefront. This is the editing step where plot holes and bumps are found and smoothed over, where readers leave notes regarding thoughts on each chapter so that the author can tell that they’re walking away with the right thought process, that the story is leading them in the right direction.

Is an alpha reader bored by a chapter? I want to know about it. Excited by a reveal? I want to know that too. Shipping characters by chapter seven? Yes, I want to know that too. Alpha editing is my chance to find out all these things.

So, how does this work? You can do it a number of ways. When I first started writing, my pool of alpha readers was quite small, and operated mostly independently. Alpha readers got a locked, digitally signed copy of the Alpha 1 of my work, such as Dead Silver, in the format they asked for, and read through it on their own time and then sent their notes back to me via e-mail or Facebook.

Thankfully, I don’t need to do that anymore, as this made lining up notes with locations sometimes … problematic. Google Docs makes this process a lot simpler. Now, alpha readers just log in, read the story, and leave comments right on the line that they want to discuss or talk about. Piece of cake. I know right where I need to make changes, and can even reply once a fix has been made to check to see if it has the intended effect.

Reader bored? Check to see if all of them are. Consider changing pacing so they don’t get bored. Etc, etc, rinse and repeat.

Now, once that is done, and the alpha readers have made it through … am I done with the Alpha edit step? No. No I am not.

All the changes I’ve made? All the smoothing and streamlining? The fixes I’ve made to character and plot? I save all of it in a new file called “Alpha 2.” Then I go get a new batch of Alpha readers and I submit the newer,  second manuscript, again.

Keep in mind that none of this is specifically working on grammar, typos, or spelling errors (unless it’s a  case of “this sentence doesn’t make sense/what happened here/reword this/missing word made this hard to get”). This is all just making sure that the plot, characters, pacing, information/worldbuilding, chapters, story elements, action, etc … all that stuff that makes up the story, is clear and concise.

So, Alpha 2 is readied with all these changes, and a second set of eyeballs gets a chance to go over it and leave commentary.

Why? Because there’s a stunning amount of variety between readers, and certain readers will notice different things. Showing a fix to one of the first alpha readers merely has them add that fix into what they’ve already read, while a new reader can come at it fresh, with no prior knowledge.

So again the manuscript is put before Alpha readers, and again, changes are made, though usually by this point much more minor. Changes from Alpha 1 to 2 can be highly involved, sometimes involving the rewriting of entire chapters, or the addition/removal of tens of thousands of words (Colony‘s Alpha 1, for instance, had about 15,000 or so words added to it—about 50 pages in book form—and almost an equal amount cut to clean things up and trim the fat, in addition to all the sections that were rewritten before it reached Alpha 2 status). But in the grand scheme of things, my Alpha 2 changes are usually small things, details that work to make the story a smoother read. Ironing out the bumps, so to speak. Though if they aren’t, and a number of the second Alpha readers are pointing out more detailed changes that need to be made, then I might find it prudent to have a third Alpha read.

But once I’ve reached the point where the Alpha readers are moving smoothly and finding very little to dig into, then it’s time to move on.

But first, one note here that many of you are probably asking. Concerning professional editors … when do they fit into this pattern? And the answer is: Where they’re needed based on the services they’re offering. For example, if you’re hiring an editor to identify problem areas with your story (like plot holes and the like, aka Alpha stuff), then you’ll want to do it during the alpha, with when it’ll be sent based on what you want them to look at and what you’re paying them. If your goal is to send them as clean a document as possible, wait until the end and see how many more issues they find. If you’re willing to spend the extra cost, get them involved with each step. This one is ultimately up to you.

Of course, if they’re an editor that comes with your publisher, they’ll have their own rules, so be sure to account for that.

Step Two—The Beta Edit
Now that the alpha has hit its peak, it’s time to move on. It’s time for the Beta edit.

The Beta edit is what most people think of when they think of “editing.” This is the step where, now that the plot is streamlined, the character motivations are clear, and the pacing is robust, you finally get to go through and clean up all those annoying little typos. One, by one, by one. Yes, this is my least favorite step, partially because by the time I get through with it, I have now reread the nearly-finished manuscript far more than I want to.

So, does the final Alpha become Beta 1? No. It does not.

Instead, I run through the entire thing myself. That’s right, I read every word, page by page, in Word, and I try to catch every single typo, misspelled word, and error that I can. I clean. And while I’m at it, I do a final Alpha read-through, making sure myself that everything flows smoothly and making small adjustments here and there as I go. But eventually, my brain buzzing (and usually hurting), I reach the end, having made every change I could find. Then I upload it as “Beta 1” and send it to my first batch of Beta Readers.

That’s right. First batch. Like the Alpha, I find it helpful to have not only multiple eyes looking over everything, but multiple sets of eyes. It’s a bit like a collection of mesh windows for sifting rock. The first set of eyes (mine) catches a lot of the mistakes. The next set, however, is a finer grade (as errors are less common, and have a harder time slipping past). Then there’s the next mesh, or the Beta 2. Sometimes I’ll add new Beta readers in halfway through. After two sets of Beta eyes, I’ll do another check myself—still in Beta. Then, if using a professional editor, I send the draft to them (which would be the 3rd Beta).

Now, as this follows a similar pattern to what I mentioned above, this segment may seem shorter, but there’s another thing I need to talk about first: not everyone who proposes a change is going to be right.

This tends to come up more often, in my experience, with Beta reading than with Alpha, but you’ll see it there as well. For example, one reader may not like a scene, but all of the rest do, in which case you need to decide who to go with.

Beta reading can—and will—bring a similar, frequent scenario. Why? Because the written language is a complex tool, and there are a multitude of styles, rules, and opinion out there concerning the craft.

Look, the most important rule, as any editor can tell you, is that you have consistency. If, through your entire book, you choose to break a spoken sentence with an action by using an em-dash, a quotation mark, and then follow it with a lowercase begun sentence that ends with a comma before going “quotation mark, em-dash” to start the second half of the dialogue, then guess what? As long as it’s consistent, it’s okay, even if it may be seen as more or less of a “correct” form in some venues.

This is important to recognize because there are many cases in English where multiple forms of something can be correct,  and not all Beta Readers are going to be aware of this.

To go with a very easy example, which spelling do you use when spelling “grey?” Do you use the “e” spelling there … or do you use the “a” spelling, “gray?” In America, gray is more popular while in the U.K, grey is. Either is correct, provided the author stays consistent.

That was a simple example. Many things in English, however, can get far more complicated. And this, in turn, can lead to the act of Beta editing being a lot more difficult than you would expect when disagreements arise.

To use a real-life example, early in my writing career I once had a clash online with some individuals who “advised” me that I was using a possessive plural wrong with a particular word (princess, if you’re curious). I was surprised by this, because I’d done my research before embarking on the project precisely to answer that question. So I looked into things and … the method I was using was correct … for a novel. The problem? The group that was holding to the other usage was using journalism rules, designed and put in place to reduce the number of letters used to an absolute minimum. Which, for the possessive plural of the word “princess” actually changed the result quite a bit.

So, who was right? Well, technically we both were, but in the context of what was being written, I was.

They didn’t take that news well. Things went swiftly downhill when they refused to believe that there was any other alternative to the thing they’d suggested.

This is not uncommon, though thankfully the reaction I experienced is. But the truth of things is that most people don’t know nearly as much about grammar or proper English as they think they do. Which means that when you enter your beta, you’re going to see some false positives. Hopefully not many, but you will see them, and you need to be ready to identify them.

Don’t be afraid to explain to a Beta Reader a rule that they weren’t aware of. Sometimes they aren’t aware of a word, or a specific rule of English that you’re following. Sometimes they don’t see that you’re deliberately breaking a rule for a specific effect (such as a character’s dialogue not using contractions).

Of course, if you’re going to be doing this, make sure you are doing your job properly first. Doublecheck even if you think you’re right. Find examples. You don’t need to show them what you find, but it may help you with further narrowing down specific conventions.

The bottom line? Not all of your beta readers will make a correct judgement 100% of the time. This is normal. Sometimes they’re just as tired as you were when you made a mistake. Sometimes you’re both half-right, and there’s a better, cleaner way to make clear what you were pointing out.

Eventually, however, after going through a few betas, everything is ironed out. Is it time for me to publish?

No. Not yet. There’s still two more steps.

Step Three—Copy Edit
Right, so what comes next?

Well, now the story is pretty clean, and the plot is concise, etc, but that doesn’t mean that my manuscript (or yours) is ready for publication. I still need to reformat it and get everything set up. Why don’t I do that while writing it, you might ask? Well, because formatting something to actually be a book requires some changes to the file (we’ll assume that you’re with the 21st century here) that can be a bit of an annoyance to work around when I’m actually writing the book. Some formatting, like page breaks and indents are easy enough to insert as I go, but others are a little less so.

So, this step is all about making those changes. And again, it can take several steps. First, there’s making sure that everything looks right in the document when it’s in its near-final form. Paragraphs starting properly and with the right indenting, pages in the right place, contents properly spaced out, titles centered … whatever. My job here is to make all the changes, then fine-tune them so that everything looks proper.

Now, once it does, am I done?

Nope. There’s still one more step to my editing.

Step Four—The Final Check
It’s time for me to sit down and read my work. One. Last. Time.

That’s right. This is it. The final check. The final comb for any last-minute mistakes that need to be changed before the final print is made. Read it that one final time before it releases. When I reach the end and close the final page, the last change made … I am done editing.

I can put the book down, clock the release, and wait for people to buy it, read it, and hopefully love it enough to leave a review.

Right, so there you have it. The editing process, as seen through my eyes, for books. All four steps: Alpha, Beta, Copy Edit, and the Final Check.

Did you learn something from this or find something you’d like to alter about your own editing steps. I hope so. Do you do something different that you think I missed or that others would benefit from? Comment below!

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