There aren't many authors I come across who openly admit to being like me, that they prefer the editing of their manuscript to writing the first draft. But the awesome Michael Bowler is one of them. And he has some absolutely stellar advice on the subject.
THE JOY OF EDITING
The best part of writing a book is… editing it. I know, I know, so many writers hate this part of the deal because it can mean—gasp--changing something in their baby that they slaved weeks or months to bring into the world. For me as a writer, the first draft can be frustrating to complete, but the editing—or revising—period is when my books really come to life and every element “clicks” into place.
I tend to write stories with numerous characters and intertwining plot threads that all come together in the end, so solid revising and editing are essential. I hate reading published books that contain editing errors, especially those of continuity, dropped plot points, storylines that are clumsily wrapped up, or when characters veer wildly from their established personas because doing so better serves a plot convolution. Sadly, I’ve read more books—from big publishers—with these major gaffes than I’d care to acknowledge. As a result, I am obsessive about reading and re-reading and revising every line of my own work before I even send it to an editor.
I suspect much of the blame for typos finding their way into published books is the result of editing on computers, rather than on paper. Typos that fly under the radar on the screen fly off the page on paper, but I’m someone who believes in protecting the environment and not contributing to waste, and it’s less wasteful to edit digitally. What’s disturbing, however, is how often I find story and continuity problems in published works. I don’t know if editors have to work fewer hours on simultaneous projects or if the editors themselves aren’t careful readers, but—just like plot holes in movies—plot problems in books can—and should be—fixed well ahead of the release date. I guess this reason alone is why a great editor is worth his or her weight in gold.
With my own writing, I first edit on the computer for several drafts, making any necessary revisions and catching as many of the typos or syntax errors as I can. Then I turn the Word document into a PDF and read it on my phone. Suddenly, like a light going on, obvious errors, and even continuity problems, that I should have seen on the larger screen become glaringly obvious on the smaller one. By going back and forth a few times between computer and phone, I manage to find most obvious problems or mistakes before an editor ever reads the first line.
Since I have no publisher that has worked with me for more than one book, and no representation, I have to hire my own editors to help me get each manuscript into the best shape possible before I send it out. I’ve worked with editors who feel that nasty, smug, insulting comments are the best way to entice an author into improving a manuscript. As a high school teacher for twenty-five years, I never used such methods with my students because they don’t work. Seeking to undermine the confidence of a student, or a writer, will not create a better version of either one. Don’t get me wrong, I want honesty, and I especially want to know what doesn’t work so I can fix it, but attitude is everything—in life and in editing.
Thankfully, for my last three unpublished books, I found a great editor named Loretta Sylvestre who has helped shape my sometimes-unwieldy manuscripts into smooth-flowing, highly readable books with all the plot and character threads playing out in believable and satisfying ways. So far, those edited versions haven’t enticed any interest from agents or publishers, but that is due to my storytelling abilities—or lack thereof—and not to the editing. These books are more highly polished and professional-looking than many already in print. My current middle grade project is in the beta-reading stage right now—by both adults and middle grade students—and then I will need to work with an editor who knows this genre.
Which brings me to another worthwhile point: it’s essential to find an editor who knows your genre. I feel I could edit books for teens, since I read and write in that genre. I would not be a good fit for romance books since I don’t read them and don’t know all the conventions, but I’ve read tons of fantasy and horror and could easily work with those stories. Likewise, professional editors have their areas of expertise, and writers should inquire ahead of time what those areas are and what books the editor has worked on.
My love of editing goes back to my eleventh and twelfth grade English teacher, Ms. Marna Maynard. She saw early on that I had a flair for writing and taught me how to revise, how to edit, how to clarify points I thought I’d made, but didn’t clearly state on paper. She instilled within me a deep love of writing, especially the necessary truth that writing is all about re-writing. She guided me through multiple drafts of every paper while she provided feedback on each and every version. She was the kind of teacher I strove to be in my own teaching career, and I hope I was able to inspire at least a few kids the way she inspired me.
I know all writers don’t love editors, especially if those editors are nasty, but good, affirming editors who provide real, solid suggestions for improving a book are the heartbeat of a great story. As authors, it’s hard to distance ourselves from what we write, and impossible to see our stories the way a stranger sees them, so that extra set of eyes is essential. A writer weaves a spell. An editor helps cast it. Together, they make magic.
About the Author
Michael J. Bowler is an award-winning author who has made low-budget horror films,
written stage plays, taught high school for twenty-five years, and been a lifelong volunteer
with youth, especially incarcerated, disabled, and marginalized youth. Michael hopes his
books can show young people they are not alone in their struggles, and he continues his
advocacy for children’s rights.