The Write Way: Editing Tips

Editing of Mystery Novel from Istock.JPGDon’t let anybody fool you.  There IS only one way to write a novel.  Your way. 

Attend any writer’s conference, sit through workshops, and you may come away with the idea that everything you’re doing is wrong.  You might as well quit before anybody sees that beloved manuscript you’ve so faithfully and enthusiastically nurtured.  You haven’t followed the rules.  It can’t be as good as you think.

Truth is, ask any two successful novelists how they put their novels together, whether they start with characters or plot, whether they outline or not, whether they believe an editor should see a polished manuscript or a first draft, and you might get two completely different answers.  Truth is?  There is no truth.  There’s only what works for the individual writing the book.

Beginning today, I’ll be devoting one blog each month to writing tips.  MY writing tips.  You’ll find them listed under The Write Way, in the categories listing to the right. These are the tips that work for me, or for my friends.  They may not work for you, although I certainly hope they will.  I don’t have time to answer writing queries individually, but if you send me questions, I’ll try to blog on the ones that might be helpful to the largest number of would-be writers.  Again, these are my answers, which you can discard at will if they don’t work for you. 

So kick back and enjoy.  Even if you’ve never considered writing a novel, haven’t you always wondered how it’s done?  Hopefully each month The Write Way will answer some of those questions.

Right now I’m working on the final edits of the fifth mystery in my Ministry is Murder series for Berkley Prime Crime.  Writing a series is substantially different from writing a single title.  In addition to all the usual editing problems, I must be certain I haven’t changed significant facts about the lives of my characters.  Spelling of names.  Physical characteristics.  Setting details.  And voice.  Since I write general fiction, too, every time I flip back into the head of Aggie Sloan-Wilcox, my minister’s wife sleuth, I have to find her voice again, and the voice has to be strong, clear and consistent.

I’m a compulsive editor.  While many of my writer friends don’t go back and edit as they write, preferring to do it in one fell swoop at the end, I must edit a sentence until it is, at least, almost right–by my own definition.  Only then do I feel good about moving forward.  At the end of a section?  I return and make certain the section feels right.  At the end of a chapter?  Same thing.  It’s not uncommon for me to dive back into a chapter I completed weeks before.  Sometimes to change a detail that no longer works.  Sometimes, usually in my mysteries, to rewrite or even plant a clue.  When I finish a novel, I want to know it’s “almost” there.

But what’s almost there?  Well, all the facts are correct.  The voice is at least consistent, at best accurate.  There’s enough humor and enough drama.  No section drags unbearably.  My characters have been true to themselves.  I didn’t pull my ending out of the hat without warning.  I could go on.  I won’t.  There are so many elements to look for.  How do I find them?

I finish with two final edits.  The first takes me as long as it will take you to read the completed novel.  I make myself comfortable, and for a day or two, or even three, I read my novel from start to finish.  I don’t make corrections, but I do make notes.  I’m looking for pacing problems, for inaccuracies, for questions that aren’t answered, for boring sections where nothing important happens, and again, for characterization inconsistencies. 

Once I’ve finished, I make all needed changes.  

Then I do the final read through.  Out loud.  Word by word.  Slowly.

Is it fun?  You tell me.  Is it mandatory?  Absolutely.  The first time I tried this, about a million books ago, I realized how many errors were still on the pages.  After all that editing.  After all that agonizing.  Errors. Words misused or overused.  Facts that had changed.  Sentences that didn’t make sense.  Clunky dialogue.  The list goes on.  My ear will pick up what my eye did not.  I can’t speed read through my book.  I’m stuck with each and every phrase.

What’s the payoff for this kind of painstaking review of your novel?  Editors love you.  Their job is so much easier.  And the payoff for you personally?  The very best book you’re capable of turning in.  There will be changes, of course.  Editors will still find passages that need clarification, and sentences that need to be rewritten.  But even if the book isn’t exactly what they’re looking for, they will know you’re a pro, and the next time you send them a manuscript, they will remember.


  1. Laney4 on January 21, 2010 at 12:19 pm

    I can SOOO relate to this post. I type for a living, and this involves lots of editing too. I ALWAYS print the “final draft” and read it out loud to myself. That indeed is how I find the same problem areas, missed words, etc. It is easier to review pages 2 and 4, for example, when they are side by side, than trying to go back and forth on the screen (no matter how large the screen). Sometimes you find repetitions on those pages so you can combine them instead (or delete one of them). There is no doubt in my mind that my customers return to me repeatedly because of my editing skills rather than my typing speed (although my speed is fairly quick too).
    As an aside, have you noticed how many people under let’s say 35 years of age can’t put a sentence together properly? These are skills that were drilled into me in public school, but my kids were never taught these things. No time apparently. It’s a crying shame….

  2. Emilie Richards on January 21, 2010 at 1:22 pm

    Good points all. Thanks for your comments.

  3. Ingrid King on January 21, 2010 at 4:25 pm

    I love this post, and I’ll look forward to future issues of The Write Way. When I was working on Buckley’s Story, which was my first book, I approached editing the way I had approached editing a business letter or short article in my professional past, and quickly found that that didn’t work for me for a book length project. Through trial and error, I found a process that worked for me. I wish I’d had your advice back then.
    I will say that the best piece of advice I got at the time from another writer was to read your book out loud. I couldn’t believe how much I caught that way, even though I thought I was pretty much “done” editing!

  4. Kathryn on January 23, 2010 at 3:00 pm

    Emily all this tedious work pays off, I love reading your books! I am not a writer, but I do write student reports, and I am thinking, hmm maybe I should read all of them out loud before handing them in!
    Also I notice as a teacher children pick up their mistakes more frequently in writing when I ask them to read what they have written out loud. I must do more of that.

  5. Emilie Richards on January 23, 2010 at 9:11 pm

    Kathryn, I think it’s a good tip for lots of different uses. So glad it could be helpful for you, as well, and the children you teach.

  6. Kitty Tomlinson Wood on January 27, 2010 at 8:49 pm

    This made so much sense. I tend to edit myself as I write also. I thought I was a freak. You’ve certianly made me feel better. Thanks.

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