PLAN your self-editing process so you can reduce your editing costs + come out with a stronger novel
By Gillian Hill
Editing can be a scary process. When you finally type the words THE END, the temptation to walk away and celebrate the fact you’ve completed your book is huge. You certainly should celebrate; a lot of people set out to write a book, but few reach The End. But you need to remember that this is a messy first draft, and there’s still a LOT of work to be done. Whether you’re a pantser or a planner, things will have gone awry in your first draft; locations forgotten about part way through, or minor players having suddenly taken over and become central in your plot.
There are many reasons why you need a good editor, too many to list here! But you can minimize the work you send your editor’s way to just that which they are experienced in. Most editors calculate their fee by estimating how long they will take to complete the edit, even if they give a quote based on word count. If you can tidy the draft up before an editor sees it, you can ensure you only pay for their involvement where they can provide you with true value. Plus, if you can learn to analyze and pick apart your draft as an editor would, you’ll be more receptive to their suggested edits when they come, and it won’t break your heart (or the concept for your book) to do it.
As a result, I have created a four-part self-editing framework called PLAN. I want my authors to enjoy receiving an edited manuscript from me, and be receptive to my notes and comments, and as a result, I much prefer if they have gone through the framework first. It makes my job easier, as I can focus on the issues they really need my help on, and we can spend time where it matters. As a result, I have happier authors who want to come back and use my services again!
I like to compare editing a book to building a home. While you can get all caught up in what pictures you’re going to put on the walls, until you’ve figured out where those walls should go and what size they should be, picking the art work is pointless – it might be the wrong size or color for the room you finally end up with.
Just as when you’re building a home, when you’re editing a book you need a PLAN. PLAN stands for the four stages of editing.
If you’re willing to give the PLAN framework a try, it should allow you to reach the stage of being ready to publish much faster and ease the pain of self-editing in the process.
Step 1 – PLAN
Start by reading through your manuscript and identifying the three different levels of editing, as you come across them. Mark each issue with the relevant letter or pick out three different color highlighters. Use whatever works easiest for you but remember that while you analyze your manuscript from beginning to end, you won’t edit in that way. It is so tempting to start editing by opening chapter one on your computer and fixing any typos you see. But it is not uncommon, especially in a first draft by a new writer, to realize after you’ve finished that the story starts in the wrong place. The first chapter is the one that is most likely to need changed structurally; either deleted altogether or reorganized to optimize the introduction of characters and settings. If you spend time fixing spelling and punctuation in this chapter, it will feel satisfying, but it is also quite likely that it will be a waste of your time.
This is the stage where you need to see the big picture. If you are building a home, the first thing you need to do is design it. Planning a home involves considering how many bedrooms you need, what size of kitchen you want and being able to see how the rooms connect. When self-editing, you need to be able to hold the whole concept of your book in your head (and on one sheet of paper). That means understanding the plot, the main characters, and how these connect.
To create your Plan, read through your novel one time, making notes using a Manuscript Survey for each chapter. The notes in the Manuscript Survey will help you identify problems and see the bigger picture of the plot once you’ve reached the end. Do it as fast as you can, in just one day, certainly under a week if possible. You want to be able to hold the entire story ‘as written’ (and not just what you want it to say) in your mind, just as a reader would when they set the book down after the last page.
Then, write your Synopsis. If you haven’t written one before, check out this post 5 Tips to Help You Write Your Book Synopsis Today on my blog, which details how to do it and provides a template. This allows you to summarize the overarching plot and character arcs. If you find it hard to document your story in one page, that will tell you there are some problems in the blueprint of your story.
If you are a plotter, it’s worth comparing this with the outline you prepared before writing. It’s perfectly normal and acceptable to have deviated from your outline while writing, but if in doing so you dropped a major plot point and didn’t replace it with anything else, that could cause problems. If you’re a pantser, creating this reverse outline will let you see the bigger picture that you possibly missed while you were deep in writing the draft If you need a template to create an outline, check out this post How to Outline Your Novel on my blog.
Step 2 – LARGE PROBLEMS
When a house is completed, the council needs to provide a certificate of occupancy before it can be lived in. If any parts of the building do not meet the safety codes, then the certificate can’t be granted. In a novel, if there are issues that don’t meet the conventions of your genre or the expectations readers have about books (the characters’ motivations don’t feel real, or there are worldbuilding inconsistencies) then you will struggle to sell your book.
These large problems are the ones that scare you and make you wonder if your story works. You will notice repeated references to them in your Manuscript Survey, flowing across multiple chapters. You often only see them after you’ve read your book through in one go, or when you’ve written your synopsis. Some writers try to hide from these and pretend they aren’t there, but the truth is, if you don’t do something to fix them now, your editor will charge you a fortune to help you fix them later. It is perfectly acceptable to realize you’ve written yourself into a hole that you can’t get out of without help, and involve an editor to guide you out again. But before you do that, have a look and see if you can identify what the problem is, and if possible, fix it yourself.
If you spot any major problems in your Plan, then you have major work ahead of you, and you have to be mentally prepared to do a lot of cutting and fresh writing. This can be a hard issue to address head on, but if you really need to remove a character or add a plot point, then knowing that before you spend any more effort on the draft as currently written will save you a lot of time in the long run. And looking at your manuscript from this very high perspective can sometimes make it easier to find a solution to a problem that has niggled at you for a while and you knew you were going to have to face eventually, but couldn’t quite put your finger on while writing. Hash it out with family or friends, beta readers, or hire a developmental editor to help you work through the Plan and come up with solutions to strengthen your plot.
Step3 – MID-SIZED PROBLEMS
In a newbuild home, once the certificate of occupancy has been granted, the owner will usually do an inspection with the builder to note any issues that need fixed. If carpet needs replaced, a cupboard door is falling off it’s hinges, or the yard still needs seeded with grass, these are issues that must be resolved, but they don’t stop you occupying it. You know the house is structurally sound but living there will be so much better once the issues are fixed. In a novel, these Mid-Sized Problems often take an hour or so to fix, but they’re usually isolated issues (such as resolving a character’s motivation in one chapter or moving a Plot Point to earlier or later in the story.) You will often find these are noted only once, or only in a couple of isolated chapters in the Manuscript Survey.
Step 4 – NIGGLING LITTLE THINGS
In a newbuild home, these are the issues that you deal with once you’ve moved in, without involving the builder. You have to decide where to hang pictures, whether you need new furniture to fill gaps, and if you should plant flowers in the yard.
In your novel, this is where you start fixing punctuation and grammar, consider detailed word choice, and work on making dialogue sound more authentic. These are small things, and you can pick your manuscript up for ten minutes and work on them and then put it down again. They can seem overwhelming when looked at across the entire 70,000 words of a novel, but if you fix a few as you go, you’ll be through it before you know it. If, while you were doing your first read through, you spotted certain words or phrases that you use too often, you can use a search and replace format to find them and consider mixing things up a bit. Dialogue can often sound clunky in the first couple of chapters as you get to know the characters you are writing; once you’ve finished and have a solid idea of who your characters are and what they do in your story, you can go back and polish the dialogue so they sound as strong at the beginning as they do at the end. This work is usually not picked up in the Manuscript Survey, but you can’t help but notice these glitches as you read through your finished work. Resist the temptation to fix as you go, and work on these once you’re sure the large and mid-sized problems have been fixed. Your editor will always find some more; it is almost impossible to spot all your own grammar and punctuation mistakes (and it is why I use an editor for my own fiction work), but if you can reduce the quantity, the editor will take less time and hopefully charge less money.
So, there you have it, the PLAN framework for self-editing. I’d love to hear how you get on if you try this out, and if you have any questions about how to use it, please don’t hesitate to let me know.
Gillian Hill is an editor and writer. She runs Gill Hill Edits, and will carry out any kind of editing you require. She loves to dig into a good developmental edit if possible, and you can find posts on her blog about work you can do as an author before heading into the great unknown of editing.