Writing a Book Part Two: Death by a Million Edits

A year or so ago (they've all sort of melted together) I posted on Facebook that I'd finally taken my book as far as I could on my own, and was ready to start looking at publishing. Some guy I once knew who has a knack for stating the obvious felt the need to comment: "Is that the same book you've been writing all these years?" followed by a bunch of laughing emojis.

It took everything in me to just take it for the snarky and unsolicited comment that it was, and not respond with something biting or defensive. But it did really poke at a weak bit. It has felt like I've been writing this book for forever. One chapter, one review, one edit after another and before you know it you've amassed a sizable number of years. Years where I was fed up,or lost my confidence or the story line or whatever will was in me to keep pumping through.

In any case I was finally ready to move from writing to pitching. But in between writing the first draft and getting to that point, there were many years of editing. It was the part of the writing process that I liked the least and that brought out my greatest procrastination tendencies.

Editing procrastination also keeps you with your book a bit longer. Once you move on from editing, it's like you lose a consistent companion in your life. As the main character in Lily King's Writers and Lovers states:

Since college, I've moved eleven times, had seventeen jobs, and several relationships that didn't work out. I've been estranged from my father since twelfth grade, and earlier this year my mother died. My only sibling lives three thousand miles away. What I have had for the past six years, what has been constant and steady in my life is the novel I've been writing. This has been my home, the place I could always retreat to. The place I could sometimes even feel powerful, I tell them. The place where I am most myself.

Imagine how hard it is to leave that.

But we must move forward or abandon at some point. In case you were wondering what kind of editing goes into a book (you know, for that novel that's burning a hole in the folds of your brain), here's a bit of a summary of the process (or at least the process I went through).

Content or Developmental

I'm a woman of many words. Often too many. So first draft, no problem. It's normally terrible and filled with placeholders and more adjectives than a narcissist's dating profile (and many bad metaphors...case in point), but so many words. So the first step was to cut my 150,000 word (man that's a lot) first draft into something that could possibly pass within my genre (creative non-fiction travel memoir). And this is the part that took the most time as it requires being ruthless. I had to cut major sections (over 50,000 words) that were sort of my "darlings". So I avoided doing this like I had a million better things to do. 

I'd go through spurts of updates where I'd excitedly finish a draft and send it to the local Staples to print. Then I'd sit myself down over a number of weeks and grab a bunch of different colored posts its and read with a focus on: What themes are present throughout? What characters are introduced? What are there motivations? What timelines am I committing to and are there inconsistencies? Are there stories that I don't love as much as others that I could cut? Have I used the best quotes to introduce each chapter?

My most successful edits of this nature were during self-directed writing retreats. I'd take a vacation from work and book a cheap and often artist-centered room (I got most of my suggestions from the list on Firefly writing), and I would check-in, grab some dinner, and get down to doing a full two-day read through of the book. Fun vacation!

It's really important to read the book in one go. When you start and stop or do it in between a million other things, you'll forget about the connections or repetitions. This was one of the biggest contributors to me cutting out all of the words and having a draft that feels like the right length with the right selection of stories to contribute to the overall story arc.

You can read about my all-time favorite retreats here: Cabin Writing Retreat, Scotland Writing Retreat

After a while, it all gets a bit boring. I do love my book and every time I read it I'm reminded of the lessons and find myself in a bit of a warm haze of "this could help someone, or at least entertain." But reading it again and again over multiple years becomes quite tiresome. So we move on to the next phase of editing.

Structural Edit

This was quite administrative. I counted out chapters, number of pages in chapters. Tried to ensure a proper cadence. Have you ever found yourself reading a book and flipping pages ahead to see where the chapter ends? That's when a chapter is not flowing, when the content not exciting enough to hold you for a number of pages outside of the normal cadence. I organized my book around seasons, so it was important that sections were appropriately introduced and that it felt like a proper number of chapters per season to bring us along the narrative arc.


Am I the only one who doesn't actually remember being taught basic grammar in school? Maybe it happened at such an early age that I forget the details, but when I started in french immersion and was thrust into conjugations of verbs, I realized I had no idea what the English equivalent was. Then teaching in Japan, I realized I had no idea how to teach English grammar rules outside of conversational English. In any case, a copy edit looks at things like (from Reedsy):
  • Spelling
  • Grammar
  • Capitalization
  • Word usage and repetition
  • Dialogue tags
  • Usage of numbers or numerals
  • POV/tense (to fix any unintentional shifts)
  • Descriptive inconsistencies (character descriptions, locations, blocking, etc.)
I did a few reads to look for these issues, but this is something I will definitely need to pay an editor for as a final step. Somehow no matter how many times you read a document, there's inevitably something that you miss.

Apparently line editing falls under the umbrella of copy editing, though I haven't really done a line by line edit as far as this definition goes: While a full copy edit looks at all of the elements listed in the bullets above, a line edit would only take word usage, POV/tense, and descriptive inconsistencies into account, and provide more detailed suggestions as to how to strengthen the prose itself.

First Readers

After I felt pretty confident in cutting the book down I decided to trust my manuscript with some first readers. And it really is a trust exercise. I gave them a set of things to watch out for: Are there any stories that don't fit or bore you? Any characters that annoy you? Any big inconsistencies that stand out?

This process was really helpful in identifying some things that I was missing. There was one scene that apparently was heartbreaking in it's depiction and sort of distracted from the overall theme of the book, so I changed the specific parts of that scene to highlight different details.

Cultural Edit

This sort of falls into the realm of the content edit, but I asked some additional readers to read the manuscript from the perspective of how I was portraying the culture. In order to, as one writer friend put it, ensure that I'm admiring but not fetishizing the culture. I wanted to ensure that everything I relayed was very clearly identified as being from my viewpoint and experience and didn't attempt to speak for the culture I was lucky enough to spend some time in. That I was truthful and kind in my descriptions wherever possible. I wanted someone who was from Japan to read the book as well in order to provide that perspective on how the book would be perceived. I feel like this is a really important step for this sort of book. I've read a lot of travel memoirs from years past and cringe at some of the descriptions. I mean there are certainly funny and interesting differences to note between different cultures, but there's a way to describe this without sounding superior (that's the best way I can think of to put it). 

Proofreading and Fact Checking

While I've done a lot of this throughout, this will need a final scrub. 

Keep Your Day Job

As you can see writing a book isn't for wimps! And writing without any promise of a publishing deal at the end of it really shows the passion involved in writing. I read an article in the Guardian recently that basically said that writing rarely pays the bills and to find a job that gives you time to write on nights and weekends. It’s why I haven’t pursued moving ahead in my day job. I've sort of been riding the line between two lives. So now I feel like I'm behind in my career and behind in writing. Ah well, life is all about managing the balance.

I've now now moved on to the business side of pitching a book which is like and extension of my business-like day job and I'm not too excited about that. But I'll be an expert soon enough right?! I'll tell ya all about it sometime soon...

Check out my post on How I Wrote My Book Part 1 here.