• Chris OBrien

Editing: Step One - Take Six Weeks Off

Updated: Mar 30, 2019

When it comes to the editing stage of a book, there's one golden rule that you'll find every writer/blogger/teacher is in agreement on. We'll all say things like: "It's about the rewrites." "It's all about the revisions." "It's about what you cut, not what you add."

And when you see this advice it's like, alright, cool, I get it, but like how many rewrites? Should I be doing two drafts? Three? Ten? How do I know when I have my final copy?

For starters, I think the rough draft can be defined as anything that hasn't been read by anyone else. So, even if you have been working on the manuscript for ten years, if the only person who's seen it is you, that's still in the rough draft category.

The rough draft is tricky, because it feels like you're so close. I declared my novel Toilet Bowl finished in 2011 and again in 2014 (it wasn't actually finished until 2017). My assumption at the end of those rough drafts was, "Ok, I probably need to clean up the grammar, make a couple of adjustments, then it's ready to go."

But the truth is a rough draft, at best, is at the 60 percent mark. Barely hanging on to a D-. We can't see it in the moment, because we're too close to it. But come back to the pages a year later, different story. Two years later, you become an even harsher critic. You might say, "I need to start the whole thing over." This changing of perspective is the same reason in middle school we didn't necessarily feel goofy-looking, but ten years later we look back at a photo and go, "Wow, I looked like an alien."

If you have 1-2 years to wait, this self-revision strategy works pretty well. But if you want to speed things up to 1-2 months, the key is to bring in your "Supreme Court of Editors."

The Supreme Court is a group of 5-9 people who you ask to read your rough draft. And they don't all have to be English majors. It's good to have a mix. The Supreme Court for my upcoming book is six former co-workers, two friends from college, and my parents. I think nine or ten should be the max, because more than that you start getting too much feedback and things can get confusing.

And remember, this is the D- stage. What you want your friends to read for is more high level stuff. What do you think of the main characters? Are there any chapters that just dragged on? Anything confusing? Don't worry about grammar at all. Not at this stage. Checking grammar on a rough draft is like a mechanic spending days polishing all the nuts and bolts before getting to work.

The trick, too, is to send over a specific list of things for your editors to look for. Without it, the feedback can be too vague. "I think it's good" or "I think it's just a little too long" don't really help for a second draft. For an example, here are the seven prompts I sent over for Here or There:

1. If you had to cut two entire chapters, which ones would they be?
2. If you had to cut five entire chapters, which ones? Or even if you wouldn't cut them, which five are your bottom five?
3. Which parts did you get lost, confused, annoyed, or say, "Ok, Chris, wrap this up." 
4. Any parts where you said, "Wait, what?" 
5. The order of chapters, should I change anything around? Any chapters that should be moved forward for earlier?
6. The chapter "Moral Dilemma in the Laundry Room" is all over the place. It’s a sprawling mess that runs this way then that way. Past tense, present tense. It’s just crazy. I need to know 1) is it worth keeping and 2) if it is, I could use some help organizing it into a more easy to follow chapter.
7. Any favorite chapters? Favorite parts/quotes?

And now, the best part, go ahead and take six weeks off. Seriously. Take a vacation from your book.

The six week number, I believe, came from Stephen King's book On Writing, which is definitely a book worth buying. Also check out anything by Heather Sellers. While the Supreme Court is reviewing the work, there's really no reason to make edits. Use this time to start another project or, honestly, just read a bunch (or maybe catch up on sleep). At the end of the six weeks, you'll have the Supreme Court's notes + fresh eyes to take things from 60 percent to 85-90.

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