So by now we’ve gotten to the point in the writing process where you’ve written a book. Congratulations! But your work is far from done.
I feel like people with no writing experience see this as the end point. You’ve written a first draft, therefore you’ve written a book, right? What people forget is that things hardly ever turn out right first time. If you read Part Two of my writing process series
(discussing the writing of the first draft), you’ll understand the extent of this and the reasoning behind it. Even if you outlined your book in great detail, there is no guarantee that you won’t change things halfway through, or that you will be happy with the book that your outline produced. And of course, it’s extremely unlikely that you’ll be happy with the actual writing. Every writer has their flaws: some of us ‘underwrite’, some of us ‘overwrite’, and we all have words and phrases that we use far too often. The first draft is just a foundation for all the good things to come later, and it may need fixing before you can even do that.
So once you’ve finished your first draft, it’s time to edit.
Firstly, there are the structural edits, the ones involving plot and character. These are edits that span your entire manuscript, and usually involve adding or deleting scenes or characters, sometimes in order to solve plotholes you didn’t sort out during writing, or sometimes to improve the overall effect of the book.
Once the structural edits are done, you can move on to more ‘cosmetic’ edits. These involve editing specific scenes so that they sound or read better, so that they properly evoke the atmosphere you’re aiming for, so that you can replace your clichéd phrases with something a little more poetic and original. There are different levels of cosmetic edits, too. It can go from checking continuity and checking that what needs to happen in this scene happens, to changing and improving individual sentences, to checking every word and piece of punctuation for correct grammar and spelling. Obviously, the cosmetic edits come after the structural edits, and the more detailed the edit, the later it is employed. There is no point painting and decorating your newly-built house if the foundations are unsafe and the whole thing is likely to fall down at any moment!
And sometimes you do have a foundation too unstable to do anything with. Writing is messy, and some first drafts are so messy you might as well just start again from scratch considering the amount of things you’re going to be changing. This is something I have plenty of experience of: while I am currently just finishing off the second full rewrite of my book, there have been at least four previous attempts at rewrites, and my first full draft was actually one of those rewrite attempts. All the previous projects I’ve edited have all turned into rewrites too, probably because I barely used to plan any further than an interesting premise and a vague idea of the conclusion. I’ve since realised that pantsing like this simply does not work for me.
Another part of the editing process involves getting feedback. A writer is so close to their own work that they cannot judge it; they can’t tell if it’s good or interesting. Yes, that does mean that we spend months writing a first draft which we don’t even know is going to work. We don’t know if this character is likeable or not, if this description is eliciting the intended reaction, if the plot even makes sense to anyone else.
This means that we need a little help. Writing may usually be a solitary activity, but that doesn’t mean we can do it alone. This can be done at various (and multiple) stages in the editing process. Some, for example, want feedback as soon as they’ve finished the first draft, while others may do most of the editing on their own before getting feedback right at the last minute. A pretty common method I’ve seen used is to go through it once after finishing making a few fixes, and then to start getting feedback. This allows you to make sure that the manuscript you have in front of you is in the ball park of what you’re aiming for, but you haven’t edited so much that making any changes suggested to you is too much trouble or even undoing what you’ve undone.
There are generally two types of people who writers might enlist to help with their writing: critique partners, and beta readers. Some use both, or some might use one or the other.
Critique partners are other writers. They can not only give you feedback, but also give you suggestions on how to improve things (if you desire or require it). It’s helpful to have another writer’s perspective on your book as they understand the writing process and can therefore help you with technical things like plot, pacing, and characterisation. As a writer, I find that I often notice things like this while reading anyway.
Beta readers, on the other hand, are not there to give you advice or help you fix your book. You would likely start sending your book out to beta readers once you’ve talked everything through with a critique partner, if you’re using one, and you are mostly happy with the overall structure of the book. Obviously, you don’t want to polish it to perfection just yet as your beta readers will probably give you feedback that prompts you to change things.
Unlike a critique partner, a beta reader does not have to be a writer. Rather than their insights on the technical details of your writing, a beta reader is wanted for their opinions as a reader. This may be things like “what do you think of this character”, “what did you like and dislike about this chapter”, and “what do you think will happen next”. It’s less about making your book coherent and more about making it enjoyable.
To continue our house-building analogy, the critique partners are there to check that your creation is structurally sound. The beta readers are there to tell you what they like and dislike – maybe they’d prefer an extra window here, or an extra plug socket over there – but their opinions aren’t professional, but are instead guidelines as to what appeals to your audience.
Generally, one would have more beta readers than critique partners. With critique partners, you want not only someone who you trust, but also someone who writes in the same genre and at a similar level to you. These factors can make it hard to find the right critique partner for you, never mind several critique partners who are right for you. And not to mention that you have to be right for them too! Unless otherwise stated, etiquette dictates that if someone critiques your manuscript for you, you should critique their manuscript for them. You are critique partners, after all, so the benefits really ought to be mutual! So the number of critique partners you have depends on balancing how many writers’ opinions you want, and how many other writers’ manuscripts you can realistically critique. A common amount of critique partners to have seems to be two or three.
With beta readers, however, you don’t need to be so specific; if they often read your genre, and have time to read your novel and give you feedback, then they can be a beta reader! Not only is it possible to get more beta readers, but it’s recommended. If you get published, your book will be available to millions of people all with different views on life. Obviously, you cannot write a book that will appeal to every single one, but my point is that your target audience will be a wide one, so you want to cover all your bases and get feedback from as many different viewpoints within your target audience. Therefore, the more the merrier! Plus, you have to face the possibility of beta readers dropping out – sometimes people just don’t have the time it takes to give you the feedback you need, even in return for a free book.
Writer Jenna Moreci has also done some good videos on the subject of critique partners and beta readers, so if you’d like to find out more about that, then I recommend those! You can find her critique partner videos here
, and here
, and her beta reader videos here
, and here
Editing is certainly a repetitive process. You read through your work, work out what you want to change, change it, read through your work, work out what else you want to change… Then you get feedback, make changes, get feedback on those changes, make more changes, get more feedback… But eventually – eventually – you should end up with something that you’re happy with. And only now, once you’ve spent months planning, months writing, and months editing, only now can you consider your book done.
Breathe a sigh of relief. Pat yourself on the back. Read through your book and congratulate yourself on what a good job you did and try not to focus on the things you still want to change, because you have to face the fact that your book will never ever be completely perfect.
Now, this technically concludes the writing process. Your book is written; it’s done! But usually, if you’ve gone to the trouble of doing all that editing, it’s because you want to get your book published. So I am also going to do a blog post talking about that, which should be up in a few days.
In the meantime, I feel like this is a good time to point you in the direction of other authors’ experiences with writing books. Since I’ve been talking about the writing process in general, I haven’t been able to be very specific, which I feel has meant that I haven’t been able to fully do justice to all the issues faced during the writing of a book. Also, it is these writers’ experiences plus my own that has helped me write these posts, so it’s only fair they get the credit for that.
So, to find out more about the writing process, I recommend:
Let me know your thoughts and your writing and editing experiences in the comments! And don’t forget to stay tuned for my post on the publishing process! 🙂