Editing, Editing, and More Editing

When I was in the final stages before the release of Kilimanjaro Diaries, I almost despaired over the tedium of the final book editing stage.

I’m not alone. Stephen King, in On Writing, has this to say about editing:

“By the time a book is actually in print, I’ve been over it a dozen times or more, can quote whole passages, and only wish the damned old smelly thing would go away.” ~ Stephen King

My editor had pointed out that while my style was nice and conversational, I had to be careful about too much chattiness. There were too many unnecessary words. There were words that I repeated too often, because they flow so easily off the tongue when you write in a style as if you were having a conversation at your kitchen table. And I was careless with my cliche budget.

Finding cliches in unusual (if beautiful) places

Let’s talk about cliches first. Keeping them to a minimum made sense to me. But it’s tricky finding them; they can hide in the most innocent places. Who would have known that the word “beautiful” is a cliche? Well, it is, and you’ll see why when you think about it for a minute.

When you climb a mountain like Kilimanjaro, you come across one beautiful sight after another. There is natural beauty all around you, from the sunrise when you are standing on top of the world, to the jagged edge of the ice on the water bowl in front of  your tent. But simply calling it “beautiful” doesn’t make it so, and the savvy reader will see right through it.

Replacing it with a synonym doesn’t always do the trick either. Although talking about synonyms allows me to offer up this brilliant quote by Baltasar Gracián:

“A synonym is a word you use when you can’t spell the other one.” ~  Baltasar Gracián

I realized I’d have to describe the beautiful sights I saw on that mountain in some of the sentences where I’d been lazy by using the word instead. Show, don’t tell. It took days for just that single exercise, combing through Word and replacing some of my “beautifuls” with more meaningful passages, passages I was only able to create by spending hours staring at some of my pictures and digging deep within me to put words to what I had felt when seeing that particular landscape.

From chatty blogger to book author

There were other “chattiness” problems with my manuscript, my editor had said. She attributed this to my coming-of-age as a blogger. Bloggers thrive on chattiness, but that style doesn’t often translate well into a book. She redlined phrases and words like “pretty much,” “really,” and “actually.” I typed them into the Word search box, one after the other. Yikes! Do you have any idea how frustrating it is when you do that and see your manuscript light up like a Christmas tree?

There was pretty much a “pretty much” on every other page. At 215 pages, you do the math. What’s more, you can only ever look for one word or phrase in your document, meaning you will have to comb through it again and again and again, each time trying to spot a new wayward phrase.

It reminds me of the time – the only time, thankfully – my girls came home from school with head lice. Head lice, if you haven’t ever experienced them, grind your life as you know it to a complete halt. I spent the next weeks – which felt like years – combing through the girls’ hair, one strand at a time, looking for those telltale nits. I’d section off portions of hair, lift them up to look through every hair, working my way over the entire head, and as soon as I was done I’d be starting all over again.

Clean up your book, and then be done already

That’s what “tightening up” my manuscript, in the words of my editor, felt like. Nitpicking. It just had to be done.

Then there was all the cleanup I didn’t have to do, but wanted to do in terms of consistency. Using the same format to describe times of day, how to punctuate a.m. and p.m., when to use number words and when to use actual numbers (there is a rule!), making sure I stayed in the right verb tense (and if not, making the jump logical with what my editor called “signposting”), and hunting down wayward prepositions and pronouns. I wouldn’t even have known to go look for pronouns if it weren’t for Stephen King again:

“I hate and mistrust pronouns, every one of them as slippery as a fly-by-night personal-injury lawyer.” ~ Stephen King

By the way, editing is not altogether tedious. With my insatiable appetite for learning, I can be sidetracked for hours on some grammatical boondoggle deep into websites like the invaluable Grammar Girl. On one of the more obscure websites I discovered, I was thrilled to learn the reason behind a stupid rule I have never understood, ever since I was made aware of it by an editor years back:

There are peculiar typographical reasons why the period and comma go inside the quotation mark in the United States. The following explanation comes from the “Frequently Asked Questions” file of alt.english.usage:

“In the days when printing used raised bits of metal, “.” and “,” were the most delicate, and were in danger of damage (the face of the piece of type might break off from the body, or be bent or dented from above) if they had a ‘”‘ on one side and a blank space on the other. Hence the convention arose of always using ‘.”‘ and ‘,”‘ rather than ‘”.’ and ‘”,’, regardless of logic.” This seems to be an argument to return to something more logical, but there is little impetus to do so within the United States.”

Tedious or not, there will be an end to all your editing. It won’t arrive naturally. No Writing God will appear and ring a little bell and say “ding ding ding, congratulations, you have now finished editing the last word of your novel.” No, the final edit is more elusive than that. It will come when you’ve finally exhausted yourself, when you can’t fathom opening that dreaded file one more time and having to read even one single sentence in it. When you tell yourself, “Fuckit, I’m going to publish, ready or not, here I come!”

Editing your book for self-publishing is a tedious business
Before you get to this, an actual published book you will fall in love with, you spend many weeks, if not months, not liking your book very much at all.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this post. If you’re looking for something a little more instructional, as in the mechanics of editing your book for self-publishing, read How to Publish a Book, Part Two (The Editing). If you’d like to keep informed about any new books I’m writing (and editing!), subscribe to my newsletter.

5 comments

  1. Ha it all seems a distant memory already but this time last year I was going through this! Although I found paying for the services of a proof reader as well as an editor to be invaluable. Like you say, it’s impossible to see the wood for the trees with your own manuscript so every extra pair of eyes really makes a huge difference!

    • Clara – I was skimping on the proof reader but yes, it would have been nice to have one of those. I also only got the “structural” editor, the one looking at the big picture, and didn’t get a copy editor. With my second book, I might go the other way around, since I think I have a better grasp of the big picture now. Maybe you and i should copy edit each other’s books:-)

  2. Funny thing is, some of that editing you’ll only have to do once. Now that you know about using “pretty much” too often, it’s pretty much a guarantee you won’t do that in the next book! Of course, some other phrase will come up–that always happens to me. One book every character seemed to begin their dialogue with “so” when they’d never done so before.

    Interesting tidbit about the quotes, though; I’ve never heard of that before. Great post!

    • Hi Hunter – excellent point! I feel like there are so many things that are going to be so much easier the second time around, but do you think that has so far motivated me to get the second book written already? I procrastinate even worse than on the first one, even though I know how to do everything so much faster now. Weird.

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