Editing for the Incompetent

Kate Paulk

Namely, me.

I’m an extreme pantser, with almost everything emerging from my subconscious. One of the things that’s extremely difficult for me is editing: I often simply can’t see where there are problems – or worse, I see problems that aren’t there, and break things when I try to fix the non-existent problems.

With the able assistance of Sarah’s pointy-toed boots, I’m learning.

So for other extreme pantsers out there, and anyone else who finds editing difficult, here’s some tips I’ve figured out for myself. This certainly isn’t a complete list, and it’s anything but definitive. As a general rule, give it a try. If it works for you, great. If not, try something else until you find a collection of techniques that work for you.

  1. If you have an ebook reader, use it. Particularly if it’s one that lets you add annotations or highlights. One thing I’ve found incredibly helpful is that with the kindle I see things I’d never have picked up reading on-screen.
  2. Read through with the ebook reader/printout/not-your-normal-format (when the layout looks different, it’s easier to see where the problems are) and take notes on everything you see that’s out of place. I don’t even try to make changes during this pass: I note anything that strikes me as clunky, incorrect, names that need changing, whatever (oh kindle note-taking how I love thee), until I get to the end of the piece.
  3. For line-edit passes, starting from the end and taking a sentence at a time is effective (it’s also a royal pain in the anatomy for a novel, but it’s worth if it you really need to clean up your sentences).
  4. Once you’ve got all your notes in, have the annotated whatever where you can see it, and the file to edit on your computer ready to go. From here it’s a case of going through to each bit that you flagged, and making the changes. Sometimes there’s back and forth, sometimes you’ll decide that no, you don’t really need to make that change after all.
  5. Do not ever overwrite your original file. I’ve made this mistake. If you change something you shouldn’t have, and you overwrote the original, you’re SOL. My habit these days is to start by saving the edit file with a new name before I put any changes in. That way, my original is safe.
  6. Take as many passes as you need. For me, it’s usually two or three – but each time I’m focused on something different, and I don’t look for anything except what I’m focusing on. I also find it’s much easier and less painful to do a note-taking pass followed by an edit pass, particularly with a novel. With short stories I’ll often skip the note-taking pass, but for novels if I try to do that I’ll do something horrible.
  7. Listen to your betas. You do have betas you can trust, right? Sarah’s posted a lot here and over at According to Hoyt on the importance of good beta-ing: I’m not going to try to repeat that.
  8. Spill-chuckers aren’t much use. I use mine while I’m writing to catch the words that I always misspell. Otherwise I ignore it. If I was to do anything so exotic as to teach it Feegle, it would then try to Feegle-ize everything I ever wrote. Nuh-uh.
  9. Global search is your friend. Global replace usually isn’t. Do I really need to describe what happens when you replace every occurrence of “dick” in your manuscript with “penis”? Penis Van Dyke would like a word with you in that case.
  10. Don’t sweat the small stuff. Punctuation usually gets mangled by house styles anyway (unless you’re a serious comma-abuser like me, in which case it gets unmangled), so does spacing, paragraph indentation and the like.
  11. Don’t try to do it all in one big session. I’ve found I get much better results if I can space it out, doing maybe an hour or two at any time. Much more than that, and I start losing focus. You’ll find you’ve got your own internal time limits: work with them, don’t fight them.

All of these help me to see what needs fixing – something I need a lot of help with. Anyone who has any other suggestions, feel free to chime in.

29 thoughts on “Editing for the Incompetent

    1. Oh, yeah… That’s why you always keep the original in its own file. You can go back and put the context back in.

      1. Perfect example of this is the novel I grabbed from the TBR tonight.

        1/2 way down a page the Baddie shoots the Victim with 9mm round, heart shot. 1/4 of a page later there are brain fragments on the wall.


  1. Backup. Backup everything. Frequently. Computers die. Burglary happens. The moronic user pushes the delete button one too many times before she realizes . . .

    I finally gave up and paid Norton to do it for me.

    Take a long break between major editing sessions, weeks, if not months. You’ll start to forget what it ought to say, and see what’s really there. Change the font, change the font size, the color. Pathetic, how many tricks we can play on our own minds–and they work.

    For the first big edit, I print out the whole thing, scene by scene. Is everything happening in the right order? If not, change them around. What needs to be happening between scenes? Is each scene wrapped up and finished, before the next starts? Does each scene throw in some clues about where it is happening and who is there, pretty close to the start of the scene?

    Then with notes scribbled all over, it’s back to the computer.

    1. Absotulively.

      My “trunk” is almost entirely gone. The electronic copies of my published stories (except the last couple) are gone. As Benjamin Franklin is supposed to have said “Three removes equals one fire” and I’m well into my third fire since I started this. And several computer upgrades, two of which were motivated by computers dying on me, is what took out those electronic copies.

      If I want to do anything with the surviving stories, I have to retype them. (I hate doing that. How the computer has spoiled me.) Likewise if I want to do anything with my published stories (like maybe sell them again or maybe put some up as samples on one of my blogs or anything like that).

      These days I use a flash drive for my “working” files (which allows me to write on any computer that has Office ’97 or later installed on it and a USB port) which I backup to my home computer daily _and_ periodically archive the backup to DVD.

      1. Oh, yeah… After assorted issues with that, I now have backups of my backups, as well as periodic emailings to my gmail address. Especially since I’ve been in the world of pain that happens when your backup is corrupted…

    2. Yes, yes, and yes. I have things I never got back to because the edits were half-way done when a computer crash left me without a current backup. I was NOT going to go back and re-edit, not when I had doubt the piece was saleable anyway.

  2. I’m going to disagree — slightly — with #10. From an editor’s standpoint, the punctuation and grammar needs to be clean enough that it doesn’t throw me out of the narrative. As fond as I am of dashes, I don’t want to see them in every paragraph, much less in ever sentence. Nor do I want to see how long of a sentence you can write by using commas, colons, semi-colons and dashes all together.

    But where I will really disagree is when it comes to paragraphs and indention and spacing. For whatever reason, we’ve gotten a spate of submissions where there are no indents to paragraphs. Instead, the author is adding an extra space between them. Add in the number who do this AND single space everything and you have the prescription for ticking off the slush reader before they even start. So, unless the submission guidelines say to format your work this way, don’t. Follow standard manuscript formatting guidelines.

    1. Hi, Amanda,

      This is really for the author’s edit passes. I keep my formatting as clean and simple as humanly (or word-processorly) possible because it’s going to be switching between multiple machines each with its very own interesting flavor of quirks. The less format, the less that can screw up.

      The very LAST thing I do, right before submitting, is make a copy and format that for submission to whoever I’m sending it to – following all their guidelines. I don’t worry until then, because I honestly find I don’t need to.

      And for anyone who thinks I’m arguing, no, I’m not. Amanda is looking at this from the editor’s side. When your manuscript gets to an editor, it damn well better be formatted the way that editor’s place likes it. Anything else is laziness as well as bad manners.

    2. As we get used to blogging and commenting like this, I think we’re beginning to see this no-indent-blank-line-between-paragraphs format as “normal.”

      It’s how I used to write, when I posted bits online for comment. As Kate says, when you’re done, that’s when you format for the recipient.

      Or try to. I’m still fighting with conversions. Well, actually, that’s on hold for a last run at editing. All those notes on what to check or change don’t do you a bit of good if you lose them. 😉

      1. Pam, sorry, but I just don’t buy it, especially not when there are standards and guidelines easily found that show the format for a submission. Frankly, it’s basically laziness on most folks’ parts. They are simply using the default setting on whatever their word processing program is and not taking the time to adjust it for what is required.

        Frankly, unless you’re like Kate and go between OS’s and formats, then you probably ought to write in standard manuscript format. I make the exception for those like Kate (and occasionally even me) who move between Windows, Mac and Linux because that can and often does throw odd things into the word processing code that can muck up formatting. In fact, as Kate has said before, if that is what you do, your best bet is to simply keep the formatting as simple as possible, at least until the first draft is done.But that is the only time you should avoid what would otherwise be normal manuscript formatting.

        This has become a pet peeve with me, sorry. I used to wonder at those agents and editors who posted that if you didn’t follow guidelines, your work wouldn’t be read. But, after a year of reading slush for NRP and seeing how few people actually try to follow the submission guidelines, I’m beginning to understand. There is part of me that wonders why I should care about a submission that hasn’t been properly formatted when the author hasn’t cared enough to at least try to follow our guidelines. This is especially true when other authors take the time to email and ask if they have questions about formatting.

        But there is another aspect I look at from a writer’s standpoint. It takes time to go back and reformat a 120,000 word novel, time I feel I can better spend either editing or writing. Besides, I tend to mess up the formatting somewhere along the line when I try to go back and do it later — and that means even more time going back to check to make sure everything is as it should be before submission.

        As I said, this is a bit of a pet peeve for me, especially right now as I’m reviewing slush submissions.

      2. Reply to Amanda,

        From the writer’s side I would have to disagree. Write with whatever format you, as a writer, are comfortable with. Just be sure that before it goes out the door to make sure it’s in the format the editor wants.

        As it happens, I generally write in “standard manuscript format.” I have a template set up to set that for me. However it so happened that the editor at one market didn’t want the manuscript in that “standard” format. She wanted it in something else entirely. Fortunately, thanks to modern word processing software, changing my manuscript to fit that format was the work of a couple of minutes . . . and led to my most recent short-story sale.

      3. Since I’m likely to be writing on absolutely anything from – and I’m not kidding here – an ancient PDA, my Eee with Xandros Linux and an elderly version of Open Office, my work box (XP and Word 97), my home writing box (the current Ubuntu Linux with whatever the heck they call that Open Office branch) and my home other stuff box (Windows 7 with the latest Open Office), I’ve learned to keep it REALLY simple.

        For me, RTF, nothing fancier than italics, two line breaks between paragraphs (because it’s hell to figure out where your paragraph breaks are if one of the many format shifts kills tab settings). Since OO lets you do a replace on non-printable characters, I can always reformat when I’m ready to send out.

        I do anyway, so I don’t get the cross-format mystery loss of double-space settings.

        Believe me, it’s much easier when you’re only dealing with one application and one operating system.

      1. I tend to do an awful lot of ellipses. And no, you haven’t ever inflicted that one on me. It’s now purchased.:)

  3. Here’s my question regarding editing:

    (Any help would be appreciated and is really needed.)

    How in the FREAKING WORLD do I shut my internal editor off long enough to get something done? I have this bad habit of writing a sentence then getting halfway through another and going back and fixing it….

    Then correcting the previous paragraph…

    Then remembering something that I need to fix from an earlier chapter (usually something I need to add because I am a semi-pantser and didn’t foreshadow this awesome new event that I just included) and going back through files to find it.

    This is not to say that I’m a perfect editor by any means. Even my academic writing gets goofy sometimes. I turned in a paper once that had a prof asking me if I had proof that the wives of the Manhattan Project scientists had cheated on them. That hadn’t been what I meant, but reading back through that’s what it sounded like… and I missed it.

    But really, it would be much easier to edit if I could write and thereby have something TO write…


    1. well… more men have this issue than women, for some reason. You just need to personalize your editor then banish him. Mine is named Bob and he’s a little guy with glasses. I used to have signs that said No Bob Allowed! all around me while working.

      Consider I don’t know, a different word processor or background or a different place to work. Tell yourself you work in this format, then edit in the other.

    2. What Sarah said.

      Also… start by giving yourself permission to write crap. You can tell your internal editor “Yes, this is crap, but you can have at it once I’ve finished the book”. Usually once you actually finish and you’ve more or less forgotten that early bit, you find out it’s not quite as crappy as you thought it was.

  4. Replying to David, the writer in me wants to say yes. However, I have seen too many submissions come across my desk here — and when I was reading slush for Baen under Pam — that shows what happens when authors do that. It doesn’t take any time to set your document to 1.5 or double spacing and to set first line indents. You can get used to it. Unfortunately, too many authors don’t do that and don’t take the time to reformat into the requested format and, as an editor, it doesn’t reassure me about an author when they show they can’t or won’t follow instructions. As a writer, all I can do is shake my head because there are so many of us trying to snatch up those all too few contracts. Why put a strike on the board before the editor or agent reads even the first line of your manuscript?

    1. Then so much the worse for those writers and the better for me. 😉

      That’s one of the reasons I don’t worry so much about the “long odds” of the “slush pile”. Most of that stuff (from when I was reading slush) is barely, if at all, literate. I can write reasonable literate English sentences. Those stories are not competition to me. Others try to write to their own “style” and don’t bother with things like proper manuscript format for the submitted story. I check the guidelines and make sure my manuscript matches. Those stories are not competition to me.

      My “competition” is the much smaller pool of professionals (whether sold or unsold) who can write reasonably literate English sentences and follow simple directions. So I don’t worry about whether someone like Stan Schmidt is getting 500 or 1000 manuscripts the month mine crosses his desk. I worry about the handful of folk, including some newcomers, who have a clue.

  5. To Kate: Tab sets are evil. Don’t use them. Do first line indents in your paragraph preference menu. It helps on two levels. The first is that you don’t have to worry about the different programs stripping out your tabs and the second is that you set it once and forget about it. The only time you have to worry about it is if you have something that needs to be centered. Then you just turn off the indent for that particular line or lines and continue on.

    1. I have in fact discovered the evils of tab sets. I save the first line indent settings until last because of the other… issues of the multi-OS, multi-word processor stuff I do.

  6. One of the big issues that pansters face is structural (rather than line edit) editing problems. As a plotter I suffer from it, but it’s a ‘by this sign ye shall know them’ mark of a panster novel. I’m not sure how to overcome all of the issues, but with multiple plot threads what I do is lay out in different colors on a piece of paper (a large, multiple A4 stuck together for the Heirs books) the POV character chapters, A sort of weft and weave if you like — with the plot threads coming down, and POV chapters coming across. I’ll often redo this a few times in a book, but does make sure no thread is left without input so long that the reader forgets, and that all characters are re-enforced in reader world-picture, and that all threads eventually end up tied off. I’ve ended up doing it at the end of a novel too. What works for me, of course, may not work for any other person.

    1. Oh, yeah. I usually have to go and redo a fair few things for the structure – usually making sure there’s enough foreshadowing, I haven’t set up any dangling threads and left them hanging, all those fun things.

      My most complex piece to date I ended up with a big spreadsheet that had the steps going down, and each cluster of characters/significant bystanders/etc in the columns. Then I charted out what each one was doing at each step, so I didn’t miss anything…

      At least, I hope I didn’t miss anything.

      And yes, what works for one doesn’t necessarily work for another. The best advice I can offer anyone is to keep trying different ways to sort things out until something works.

  7. Thankyouthankyouthankyouthankyouthankyou.

    Just tried your suggestion of putting the manuscript of a short piece into a format other than the one I use to write (in this case converting to epub and sending it to my iPod Touch). I immediately found a half dozen or so things that could be improved (in a 3500 word short).

    So, thank you.

  8. Carolyn See wrote in her excellent book “Making a Literary Life” that she prints out her stuff from the computer (thus forcing her to read it in a different format), gets some wine, and starts marking up the paper.

    Anne Lamont, in “Bird by Bird,” says that her first drafts are so bad that she expects them only to give her the idea for her second draft, nothing more.

    Sol Stein, in two different books I’ve read by him, said that whatever works for you to self-edit should be used, whether it’s different formatting, different colors, printing it out, using a different device, etc. So any and all of those work.

    What I usually advise is to read your stuff aloud. (Sol Stein says to do this without inflection; I can’t do that, but can see that it might help someone else.) If what I’m reading aloud doesn’t match what I had in my head, then I work on it some more.

    I also do what Kate suggests and save the files under different names, which helps a great deal.

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