Editing Backwards

I find myself in the glorious position of having completed the second draft of my novel. It feels infinitely more satisfying than the first. Then, I knew there was a mountain of work still to be done, endless shuffling about of scenes and ideas, and there was a long road ahead. Already, this one feels more polished and together, so although there’s still long way to go, it doesn’t seem quite as insurmountable. Thought I’d share a few thoughts on what worked for me.

1. Write it all again

Every single word has been typed afresh, from beginning to end. There is no substitute for having your words on a printout at the side of your computer, and your fingers tapping away onto a blank sheet (metaphorical). This has to come after you’ve read it through and made notes, but simple cutting and pasting and editing what’s already there just doesn’t allow you to appraise and consider each word. In order to get back in, they really have to earn their spot!

 

2. Break it up

I found that there were little ‘arcs’ to the novel that were between 20,000 and 30,000 words long. This way, I was only editing a short bit at a time, rather than doing the whole thing from beginning to end. What it also allowed was a second look through a small chunk, something that would have felt too daunting over the whole book. This allowed me to be far more thorough and detailed in my editing.

3. Use something physical to visualise your story

I love Scrivener. It’s brilliant. I can swap scenes about, put things in folders and label them, move bits aside for later, use the cork board to see all the scenes in a section of the book, and many other things that I did see in the initial setup programme which looked awesome but I can’t remember them now. But there is nothing like having it physically in your hands. I like mapping out timelines on A3 pages, either to do with characters or plots. The cue card system I put in place for the second draft was very successful. In some feedback from my first draft, it turned out that while I had described the scene, the actions, all fine, the problem was that the reader hadn’t actually found out what I wanted them to. So, in came my colour coded system (overlap from teacher-related stationery nerdery). Black was for what actually happened in the scene. Blue was for what I wanted the reader to find out or know by the time they got to the end of it. Green was for any hints I was including at this point which would build up tension and lead to something being revealed later. If it was a scene at the end of a chapter, red was for any hanging questions left open that would pull the reader through the book. As I’m writing a dual narrative, the pink was for any links between the two. There’s a picture at the bottom, if you can read my writing! Then I could swap things around, think about how they linked up, what would work better where (again in smaller chunks, rather than the whole book) which really helped fine tune the plot.

4. Edit backwards

This is absolute genius. My tutor suggested it to me, so I can’t take the credit! While I certainly wouldn’t recommend starting at the final page and working your way back, once you’ve separated your work out into chunks, choose maybe a scene or two, or a chapter, and work from end to beginning, page by page. All of a sudden, you stop concentrating on the story and start really looking at your sentences. You notice typos more easily, you pick up on clunky phrases, in a way that forwards reading just doesn’t produce. My plan is to extend this even further for the next draft. Because my brain was falling out of my ears by the time I got to the end of the novel (and the beginning always ends up with the bright-eyed, eager me) the back third of it is much more sloppy and rushed. So I’m going to edit the whole thing backwards. Start from the final chunk, then go back through it piece by piece, so I can give the rear end the love and care it deserves, rather than spending all my energies on the opening.

5. Be aware of your habits

I did a check for the word ‘seem’ and found 79. There were 35 ‘shuffles’ and 27 ‘nudges.’ We all have our go-to words and phrases that shuffle (see!) out more than others, so being aware of them will stop your reader from thinking you have the vocabulary of a stunted carp. I also massively overuse a main clause followed by an ‘ing’ clause. They’re everywhere! Noticing this stuff means I can pick them out easily on a first read and think of alternatives where possible.

6. Be ruthless

Now and again, I stumble across a sentence and think ‘ooooh, that’s lovely, that is.’ Not as often as I’d like, but it can happen. However, if it’s in a scene that just doesn’t belong, or is causing everything to be a bit, well, floppy, it has to go. In order to make myself feel slightly better, I have a whole section  in the ‘research’ section on Scrivener where I put of chunks of the book that I’ve taken out, so I can always go back and try and squeeze them in somewhere else, or if I decide, with a re-read, that the deleted scene is suddenly crucial. So cut it, but put it somewhere safe, just in case.

7. Set deadlines

I have the advantage of a course deadline, but I set myself the personal goal of finishing my second draft by the end of July, so I would have a whole five weeks (really doesn’t seem that long now) in order to go back over it one final time, until my final hand-in date. Of course, then I’ll have to do it again before I send it to agents, but… let’s not think about that right now. For me, it works. It’s the only way I went from wheezing through a ten-minute run to completing two marathons. I signed up for a run (the first was ten miles) so I would have to train. With that impending deadline, it forced me out of bed on a cold day to run around the park. And, seven years on, it’s still how I do running. Of course, that doesn’t mean I always do it sensibly. My writing deadlines invariably mean that I spend a good three weeks faffing about with a few thousand words, then look at the calendar, have a heart attack and spend the next two weeks writing and editing for hours at a time, with very little sleep, in a bid to make it. But here I am, at the start of August, with a lovely printed copy of my second draft sat on my table (no I haven’t read it yet) so I can start the process all over again!

There aren’t any shortcuts, but hopefully this helps to chart a path through the chaos and trauma that is editing. I think it’s been my biggest lesson, understanding just how many times you have to back over something again, and again, and again, until it’s ready. So only, like, eight drafts to go, right?

My lovely colour-coded card system:

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I'm a writer, teacher and drummer based in London. Short fiction and reviews are my main staples, along with some dabbling in novel writing.

4 thoughts on “Editing Backwards

  1. This is great, thanks Sarah! I’m halfway through the third draft of my first novel and I’m really figuring out the editing process as I go along. Your advice is logical and seems straightforward to implement (definitely going to start at the end for my next edit…although respecting my own deadlines has never been my strong suit).

    1. It is a bit of feeling in the dark, isn’t it? I like to at least attempt a system to make me feel like I know where I’m going. Hope it helps and you get through the third draft. Let me know if you discover anything while you’re doing it!

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