Editing your own writing. Can you ever be “done”?

When is a book finished? And other writerly ponderings…

I finished the first draft of my first novel, Art and Soul, back in November 2014. I spent two months editing, then sent the manuscript to my first two readers. While they were reading, I read a couple of books on self-editing and realized I’d committed a lot of glaring errors.

I used my readers’ feedback and what I’d learnt from the books to do another complete manuscript “fix”. I then sent this draft to more readers. Their feedback resulted in more re-writes, particularly to the beginning of chapter 1, which I freely admit I’m still not 100% happy with.

The writer funny by Tom Gauld cartoon writing problems

It was this version from which I took the first three chapters I started to send to literary agents back in May of this year. Each time I got a round of rejections, I took another look at those first three chapters, made some more changes, sent them out again…

Cartoon snoopy peanuts author writing problems

Now we’re nearly at the end of the year without any positive responses from agents, I think I will be self-publishing next year. Before I do this, I plan to send my book to a professional editor for a full structural and content edit. With this in mind, at the start of November I decided to do another re-read of the whole novel, not just the first three chapters.

Indecisive Novelist's characters converse by Tom Gauld cartoon writing problems

I didn’t expect to find much to change. And certainly no typos. After all, it’s been past eight beta readers who have all found different small errors which I have fixed. Surely there couldn’t be any more?

Well there were. In fact, by the time I got to “The End” I had made 298 notes (the Kindle comes in useful again!). That’s 298 edit points. Admittedly, many of these are “delete comma” or “check formatting”. But there were also things I remembered I’d never felt quite happy about. For example, there are three chapters (three!) with endings I feel are somehow “weak”.

On the bright side, I found myself drawn to my characters again and genuinely looking forward to the next chapter, even though I know exactly what’s going to happen. I hope this is a good sign. I’m guessing if your own work bores you silly, it’s likely to bore your readers too.

Proofreading missing words typos cartoon

In conclusion: if you can, I’ve discovered that it’s worth putting your novel away for quite a long time (six months in my case) without reading it. When you return, you will be surprised by what you find. My experience also demonstrates why proofreaders are invaluable. I had asked my beta readers to look for errors, but all of them overlooked things I noticed when I did this most recent re-read (I’m not slagging my beta readers here. I love them. And, hey, I’m responsible for the errors and didn’t notice them either).

It also made me wonder: how do you decide your novel is “done”? Do you have to eventually accept you’ve done your best and hand it over to your readers to find the inevitable single sneaky typo? πŸ™‚

Writers and editors: what’s your experience? Have you ever found any typos which made you laugh?

Β Claire Huston / Art and Soul
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31 thoughts on “Editing your own writing. Can you ever be “done”?

  1. Haha *love* that cartoon you included- it totally sums up the over-thinking writers do when it comes to their work. Sometimes we need to chillax- although even as I’m typing that I’m thinking “yeah right, when do I ever chillax about my writing?” Right now, I’m at the hating everything I wrote stage of editing- as in the stage when it’s finished and I need to leave it alone, but that annoying voice of self-doubt in the back of my brain is bugging me. You know the whole “maybe the whole thing is wrong… maybe all the characters suck…” You know, the completely unhelpful voice that you’ve got to ignore or you’ll just end up butchering the whole thing. Ok, it’s not really editing when it gets to that stage, it’s just being silly.
    Incidentally, I can say the whole editing process gets wayyy easier the more you write- you get a feel for what works and you make less mistakes/you get better at identifying mistakes and correcting them. And you get better at not caring when you have to correct things. And, dare I say it, you might even learn to enjoy it (yes I enjoyed editing it this time- who knew it could be fun?)
    What’s your book about by the way? It’s exciting that you’ve decided to self-publish it πŸ™‚

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    • I found the early stages of editing when I was making big changes easier than these final tweaks! It would be great if some day this whole part of the process was fun πŸ™‚
      I hope you get past the “hating” phase soon. I usually get that as I’m writing. I make the mistake of glancing back at the past couple of pages and I have the urge to delete the whole thing – ugh!
      My book is women’s fiction. It’s a contemporary romance, which is weird because my preferred reading is fantasy/sci-fi! I still have no idea where this story came from… It’s about a single mother who’s stuck working a job she hates since having her son. She has one chance to get back into her former career by fixing the life crisis of a famous painter who’s in a creative slump. Once he reluctantly agrees to hire her the story unfurls from there… I just wanted to write an easy, enjoyable read and I think it’s nearly there… nearly…

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      • haha thanks, so do I! I also get it when I’m writing from time to time and it puts me in a writing slump until I’ve gone back and corrected whatever the problem is- I tend to edit as I go more and more now, cos I find mistakes in an earlier part of the book have a knock on effect (plot-wise) if you just leave them. Also, if I’m not 100% satisfied with what I’ve written so far, then I won’t feel like finishing it- I’m a bit OCD that way.
        Ooh that sounds fun πŸ™‚ I love easy, enjoyable reads πŸ™‚ What was her former career?

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      • I’m writing my second novel at the moment and I’m going to re-structure it completely once I’ve finished. I’m having to hold myself back from going back to the beginning now and starting on that, rather than finishing draft 1 first.
        Becky (the main character in Art and Soul, my first novel) was self-employed as a “life fixer”. She was a sort of professional fairy godmother, hired by people whose lives have got into such a bad place they need someone to come in and sort it out. So she brought clients’ businesses back from the brink, sorted out their relationships problems, legal issues, etc. She thrived off the challenge, stress, and the sense of achievement because she felt she was really helping worthy people. Oh, and she earned quite a lot too. Which helped πŸ™‚

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  2. Congratulations on wading through your revisions! And the news about you self-publishing is very exciting indeed. πŸ™‚ Looking forward to reading! I agree about creating a little distance from an MS. I tend to edit best when I’ve more or less forgotten what I’ve written. I also agree that beta readers are invaluable. About the work ever being done, I honestly think it can go on forever, from finding typos to modifying the story itself. I guess that’s why some writers have ten year gaps between novels, ha ha. That sounds awful to me! Love the cartoons. The Snoopy one is great!

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    • There are so many Snoopy cartoons about his frustrations as a writer – I never knew!
      I think the six-month gap meant I could read my own writing as if it were someone else’s, which I always find easier to critique/edit.
      I’m glad it’s not just me who feels they could make changes to their MS forever πŸ™‚

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    • So what’s the trick to finding good beta readers?? Almost every single beta reader I have sent my book out to has pretty much failed to give it back b/c they are too busy. Except my mom llol. Your mom is always your biggest fan right

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      • I have that issue, too, and I understand as I get busy, and if someone gave me a 120,000 novel and asked me to make notes I know I’d be inwardly groaning whilst smiling. My mother is also busy so no luck there, but I’m thinking of asking people at my writing group, as with them I should be able to repay the favour and so seems more fair πŸ™‚

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      • I wish I had a writing group as I think they would be ideal beta readers. They should be able to give you insightful, constructive feedback about character and plot, as well as style. And, as you say, you can offer to read their work in the future. Win-win! πŸ™‚

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      • Mine range around 80 but the first beta drag was 88. So people tend to take a while reading it. BTW a pro editor is great if you can afford it. I sent only a portion and I wish I could afford the whole thing. Ah someday

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      • My mum was probably the most underwhelmed of my readers, strangely enough. I think it’s because she’s not target audience… I hope, anyway – haha!
        I’m lucky to have friends who are very critical readers and who aren’t scared to tell me what they thought worked and didn’t. They had very variable reading times though. One read it in 3 days and another took 2 months! Overall, feedback has been positive – they all enjoyed reading it, liked the characters, wanted to know what happened to them, etc. But they also told me where they thought I jumped about in time too much (I have a tendency to use flashback unnecessarily) and when characters did things they thought were inconsistent with their development. In one early draft there was a throwaway event I hadn’t given too much thought to and, thanks to a beta reader asking “so what happened after X?”, I made it a major point and it helped ramp up the tension and make the dislike between two characters far more plausible.
        Overall, I’ve been very lucky. The worst is when someone spends ages reading it and then says, “It was fine.”
        I think the other reason they all read it (even though they’re busy) was because they were desperately nosy to see what I had written πŸ™‚

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  3. Yep, your experience sounds JUST like mine. I finished in Aug 2014 and actually let it sit for like 6 months. That was after like…8 drafts. Then, I edited the entire thing again for a good 3 to 4 months off and on, while working on the other 2 books in the series simultaneously. Then this last November I took a break. And now, I am back…doing ANOTHER edit, and dear Lord I hope this is my final edit. The major thing about this edit that is changing is the much deeper character development. The best thing that I actually could have done, aside from setting it aside for 6 months, was to write the other books in the series BEFORE even considering publishing the first. Because, while writing those other 2 books, I developed all of the other characters (there are 6 altogether, 2 focused on in each book. So while I spent a lot of time developing the next 4 characters, I am now able to go back and work in those developments, as well as use them to enhance the actions and reactions and etc of my first 2 characters.
    All in all, I completely redid the prologue, and rewrote several chapters, deleted about 8,000 words I think. Its very hard to actually finish something, to actually let it go. But I totally understand. And we have a lot in common. Ah, I knew I clicked ‘follow’ for a reason hehe

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    • Wow! When writing a series there’s a whole other level of complexity to editing that I hadn’t even considered. It sounds as though letting the first book “rest” while you wrote the other two books really paid off for you. It would have been awful if that first book were already published and you wanted to write something significant in book three but were restrained because book one was locked.
      It’s so nice to know I’m not the only one sitting here staring at a word so long, I’m not sure if the word has meaning or I’ve spelled it right! I know when I finally hit the “publish” button it will be with my eyes scrunched close and a small squeal… so hard to let it go πŸ™‚

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  4. We can be self-publishing buddies next year! I probably ought to do a re-read of my novel soon. It’s been that long since I actually decided mine was done that I’m not sure I remember what the turning point was. This year has been mostly about formatting and getting my cover designed (and because I am kind of terrified of having no excuse not to publish it anymore, it took me a long time to actually kick-start the design process).

    I did three major revisions (as in, it started out as a 22k novella, then the second draft was 35k and the third one was 45k). There are definitely still parts that make me bite my nails, but I think that will always be the case. In my case, one person read the original version, and a few read the second. My partner then did a a full edit for me (I am lucky as he has an editing and publishing diploma, so I don’t need to out-source, so to speak). I didn’t actually pass the third version to anyone, but it retains the major parts of the first and second, along with extra character development and such, so I think it should be okay. *gnaws fist*

    As for typos, I shared this on Facebook, but not sure if I put it anywhere else. This is from my Operation: Sugarplum ms: “Well,” he said, standing and moving towards Clara. “What have we here?” He stood and moved towards Clara.. That’s been my favourite, recently.

    Also, I love that first comic for it’s complete and utter accuracy.

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    • I would love to be self-publishing buddies πŸ™‚
      I loved that comic too. I overthink everything and particularly anything I hope will be funny!
      How great to have an editor in-house πŸ™‚
      I could easily spend a year designing the cover. I already have a specific idea so I hope that will speed the process up. Having total control over cover design is one of the major plus points of self-publishing. As my book is a contemporary romance, if I went with a traditional publisher I know I would have to let them design a cover which looks very similar to their other contemporary romance titles. And that’s not how I see my cover…
      That example of the “orphan” section from your MS hanging around reminds me of something my most recent reader found… in chapter 1. Yes, the chapter 1 I’ve been merrily sending to agents. In an earlier draft Becky must have said, “Call me when…” but I’d changed it to “Give me a call when”, but left in the “me”. The final result was “Give me a call me when…” Seven people over-looked this. And me too. *sigh*
      I will have no nails left when I finally publish this thing.

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  5. I’m of the opinion that there will always be something I want to change, especially a few years later, after I’ve grown as a writer. Also, since I’m in the process of writing and editing a series, I’m learning that there are things that are said in a later book that contradict what I wrote in the earlier book. It’s hard to keep it straight sometimes, and I’m worried that if I’m not careful I’ll end up writing myself into a corner with certain things said in earlier books.

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    • I hadn’t thought about the editing issues a series had brought up until another writer mentioned it in the comments here. I can’t imagine how difficult it is to keep the plot lines straight, particularly the large ones with details you are drip feeding throughout the books to build up to a big reveal/finish.

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  6. Pingback: Editing your own writing: identifying your errors and bad habits | Art and Soul

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