Almost Perfect – Editing Advice From Joanne Phillips


Today’s ‘Editing Advice’ comes from Joanne Phillips who’s blog is excellent for advice and tips on eBook publishing. Back in May Jo published her first book through Kindle, called Can’t Live Without which has an average of 4.9 stars on Amazon and 4.11 stars on Good Reads.

Jo has recently published a selection of short stories, A Life Unpredicted and is currently preparing her 2nd novel for digital publication, The Family Trap.

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I recently listened to an interview with Pulitzer Prize winning novelist Carole Shields, who said she enjoyed writing poetry because it was possible to get a poem just about perfect. But not a novel. Novels, she said, are too long to get completely right. When Vikki asked me to write a post about editing, this was the first thing that sprung to mind. I think the best place to start is by accepting you will probably never get it absolutely perfect. And go from there.

So, if you’ve just finished Nano and have a good 50,000 words sitting in front of you, or if you’ve some other unpolished, unedited or generally rough draft calling ‘Look at me!’ from your computer, here are my top tips for the editing process – from as-rough-as-they-come to almost-perfect.

1. First, read it in a different form. I like to quickly format my first drafts for Kindle and read them on that, but anything that is different to the form in which you wrote the draft will work. If you have to read it on your computer screen then at least save it as a pdf. This does two things: it enables you to see the story in a different way, and it stops you making changes as you go along. At this stage just read it. Make notes. What do you enjoy? What bores you? Try to go macro not micro – focus on the bigger picture. This is probably the hardest stage: not the hardest work-wise, but the hardest psychologically. You’ll probably think it’s rubbish. If you get any external feedback at this stage you might be put off it for life. But remember, you can’t edit until you have something to work on, and you’ve already put in the time to get this far. No matter what you think, keep going.

2. Plan your first re-write. Next I make up a kind of scene-by-scene list, describing each scene (not chapter) in one sentence. This is a technique I learned from the excellent Roz Morris, whose book Nail Your Novel is full of great editing advice. If you can, get the whole book on one or two sheets of paper. Then get out the red pen and make any structural changes. This is the structural edit, where you might move things around, make a scene from the middle the start of the novel, or cut or add an entire subplot.

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3. Don’t re-write yet! At this stage I write my blurb. I try to get it perfect. Imagine what will end up on the back of the book, or your pitch to an agent. Once you get it right – and remember you are describing the kind of book you want it to be, not the kind of book it is right now – pin it up where you can see it. It will help keep you focused when you start re-writing.

4. Now I start re-writing, following my new plan, and ironing out any other problems – typos, spelling, inconsistencies etc – along the way. This can take a long time, and depending on the book and the changes you decide to make, can involve two or three more run-throughs of the process above. As you get closer to the overall structure you want, begin another read-through – this time in Word – focusing more closely on the language, atmosphere, setting etc. Really get inside the text, analyse each sentence, make sure every word is the right one for the job. This is the line-by-line edit, and this is the most fun. (I think so, anyway.) J

What can you do if you get stuck? If you read your work and just hate it? Should you give up and start something else, or just keep plugging away? In my opinion, writing – even the hard work of writing, which is what re-writing and editing is – should be fun. If you’re not enjoying it, then maybe put the book aside for a while and start something else. But if you have a contract or a deadline this might not be possible. Then you have to find a way to fall back in love with your book.

Often, once any structural problems have been sorted out, what most people end up with is a sense of flatness. Rarely do people struggle with editing because their novel is too exciting or pacy. Here are some tips for injecting life into a lifeless manuscript:

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Think contrast. Contrast is good for the reader. Try to make sure you regularly change between settings, viewpoint characters (if multiple viewpoint), fast paced and slow paced sections, dialogue and description. Inject some humour, even in a sad scene, or add a sense of sadness to a funny scene. Contrast characters with each other – give your heroine a friend who acts as counterpoint; make your characters as different from each other as possible. Contrast speech patterns in dialogue.

Surprise yourself. If you think a scene is boring, throw something into the mix. Stuff happens, even during arguments (the electricity suddenly cuts off, the postman knocks at the door, the neighbour’s dog starts going crazy), and it can lead off in a different direction and provide (you guessed it) contrast.

Go with the senses. Everyone says this, but you’re bound to have one or two senses you lean towards in your writing. I’m visual and auditory, but rarely does it occur to me to describe how something smells or tastes. This can add telling detail and bring your work to life.

So, be brave, take a deep breath, and jump right in. Editing does not have to be scary. And it doesn’t have to be perfect. But it will be hard work. And it will definitely be worth it.

Thank you so much Jo! Some great advice there. I hope you all found it as helpful as I did. :)

Yes, senses….I am so guilty of not thinking about sound and smell. Which of the senses are you guilty of forgetting?

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31 thoughts on “Almost Perfect – Editing Advice From Joanne Phillips

  1. Excellent post and I will give it a shot next year. But, really, I don’t know a poet who thinks they can write a “perfect” one. It’s not much different than prose. Eventually you have to say – ok that’s it.

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  2. Pingback: What’s going on…. | Zara ~ a writing story

  3. Pingback: Tops Tips on Editing | Joanne Phillips – a writer's journey

  4. Love this – very good advice, which I will be sure to use as I work my way through edits (which I have postponed for far too long).
    I’d agree that even with poetry it’s never quite perfect, but at least a little bit closer to what you had in your mind than with a novel or short story.

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  5. smell and taste–must add that to my repertoire more as well as surprise and contrast–like when the kids who collect cans for the food bank come to the door in the middle of negotiating a new mortgage with the bank, or a friend calling during the middle of an argument–must come back and read this again

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  6. Great advice! My best tool for editing is to give the first draft some time an space. Let it breathe. Come back to it a few days, weeks, months later. And yes, read it in another format and from a readers POV is key to seeing in from a different perspective.

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  7. Outstanding advice! I always find when I give my first draft some time and space to breathe, when I come back to it days, weeks even months later I have a whole new perspective. I too find it helpful to read it in another format and from the readers POV.

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  8. Found this really useful! I have Nail Your Novel too and need to re read it before January! Would be useful to know how many hours other people take to edit – am always amazed at what a lengthy process it is!

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