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About Writing Right: The Blog


A writer-type fella posted a question online the other day on how many edits an author should give his book before considering it finished. Here's what I replied.

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Congratulations. You received not only two previous answers to your question but also two horrible previous answers. That's batting a thousand. It might be a new online record.


For the respondent who said, "For newer writers, it's prob beat to only do do after you've finished your piece," forget him. Anyone incapable of editing the first fifteen words of his own response about editing so that it's understandable is incapable of offering a cogent and meaningful response.


For the other respondent who advised you to "Try to get it right the first time around!" when you're on a tight deadline, well, really? Isn't that what writing is all about? Trying to get it right the first time around? And isn't the purpose of editing to go back and revise those things you failed to get right the first time around? Am I missing something here?


If you want the most accurate response, I suggest you turn to someone who actually knows about writing, about editing, and about teaching writing and editing. Someone who has published nearly a hundred books in all genres, both fiction and nonfiction, with conventional, advance-paying houses. Someone who has been writing his entire life. No applause, please. Just setting the stage.


Here's how I do it because trial and error have taught me it's the most efficient way to get near-perfect results every time. (There's no such thing as "perfect" writing, alas, but we can all keep striving.)


In response to the question, "How often should a writer edit HIS [not THEIR] work," the answer is as often as possible. Now, I'm a writing machine. In addition to my books, I have published tens of thousands of short stories, plays, scripts, magazine and newspaper articles, blogs, columns, and more. I live to write. I write to write. Here's how I edit what I write.


I crank out as much writing at a sitting as comfortable. I stop periodically along the way to review the last few sentences, half page, or several paragraphs I wrote and give them a quick scan, making changes where required. That means correcting typos, punctuation, and concepts and sharpening dialogue. That also forces me to slow down and think about the writing still to come--laying it out in my mind. Then I continue writing until I'm satisfied with my output, and I go back to repeat the review process.


After that, I'll do something else for a few hours and come back to re-read what I wrote earlier that day, editing more as I feel necessary.


The next day, I'll sit down and reread all of the edited material I wrote the day before and make a surprisingly large number of changes. Still. Often, I read the manuscript out loud because the human ear is better at "hearing" the flow of language than the mind is. By the time a book is finished, I'll have re-read at least parts of it several dozen times. Then, I put the book away for several days to a week or longer so I can return to it "fresh." I read it from the beginning to the end, marking those areas that are particularly weak or need major changes, and I make small edits as I go.


Then I wash, rinse, and repeat. I put the completed manuscript aside for a while, and I begin the process anew. If by the end of my final book read-through I'm relatively satisfied with the results (which for me is never a sure bet), I'll run a final check for typos and such and send the book off to my agent or publisher. If not, I'll go through it again. And again. And again.


By this time (bear with me), I have not only caught all the everyday errors in my writing but also the conceptual weaknesses in the plot, character development, etc. I address those weaknesses until they're "fixed," and then I put the book to bed. I don't send it out to a professional editor because I am a professional editor. For those whose editing expertise is more limited, I suggest you place your baby in the hands of a qualified professional. Doing so will probably be worth the money you'll have to spend.


Not every writer works this way, of course. Nor does everyone need to. But if you want the greatest chance of producing the best book possible as often as possible, this is the most efficient and effective way I've found to do so.


By the way, I have written some books using an outline and other books not using an outline. I find fewer mistakes and glaring holes in the storyline by working from an outline than not. I also find the editing process goes quicker because the outline doesn't allow me to "wander" too far from the story. I've been writing books from an outline for the past thirty years or more. Trust me on this. Don't wing it. Don't be a "pantser." While that might work for a few writers, it fails far more often than it succeeds.


I hope this advice proves useful. And, if not, well, hell's bells. You can always ...


Smoke if you've got 'em.

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D. J. Herda is author of the new series of writing advice, About Writing Right, available in eBook, paperback, and hardcover formats at Amazon and at fine booksellers everywhere. You can check out his weekly column, "The Author-Ethicist," at Substack

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