Revising and/or editing your writing might seem like a chore. But without it, there is little doubt that you are selling your writing (and yourself) short. The time and effort you invest in revising your work will be repaid five-fold when it comes to presenting your finished piece to the world, or an agent or editor. Unedited writing – whether poetry or prose – is very apparent to an editor. And not just because a few typos are kicking about the text. Unedited work often lacks the consistency of voice or point of view that is essential in most writing. It might simply contain too many words or rather words of little consequence to either character development or the story in fiction or the main thrust or theme of the poem if writing verse.
The question is, how do you edit your work to ensure it is the best it can be? Alas, there is no one-size-fits-all answer to that question and a big chunk of the editing process is figuring out what works best for you (and your stories or poems). That takes time and no little effort and also requires a desire to assess and reassess the process itself to ensure you not wasting your time or – worse – actually making your writing less powerful, effective or interesting than it was before you began revising it.
Of course, before you start revising and editing you’ll need to write something. We have various articles dotted around the site that might help with that including How to Write a Novel and our hubs for Short Fiction and Poetry.
Revising vs Editing: What’s the Difference?
Many writers, writing websites, and books and courses about the craft of writing will use the terms “revising” and “editing” more or less interchangeably. But others will be more specific, broadly splitting them into the micro tasks (editing) and macro tasks (revising). There is a large degree of crossover between the two, however, and deciding which is which is not an exact science… but it is also not really necessary as you will need to undertake both to create your best writing.
We could include lots more aspects of editing and revision, but the following are some of the key tasks of each as we view them:
- Seeking micro-level mistakes or things that could be improved including all spelling, grammar and punctuation errors.
- Scouring for point of view (POV) errors, for instance if written in third person limited, the POV character would not have access to the intentions, thoughts or feelings of another character.
- Looking for inconsistencies, such as a character wearing a red dress at the beginning of a scene and a leopard-print catsuit later on in the scene with no mention of her having changed. Can also include inconsistencies with the plot/characters and so on.
- Looking at the macro-level aspects of the story/poem including themes and overall structure.
- Assessing whether the POV you’ve chosen works effectively.
- Taking a big-picture view of the plot and overall story arc to ensure it makes sense and creates the desired effect in the reader (which can be easier said than done, but more on that later!).
How Do Famous Authors Edit and Revise?
There have been numerous books written and courses produced to help writers get to grips with the editing and revising process. It makes sense, though, to take a leaf out of the books of some of the most successful authors around to see how they approach refining their work. Here are some of our favourites in terms of how they communicate their processes.
There are few authors who have sold more books than Stephen King. So if you are seeking to emulate even the tiniest fraction of his success, it’s worth taking notice of his advice in relation to writing and editing. Luckily for us, he’s written a whole book about it. King’s One Writing: A Memoir of the Craft* is packed full of useful tips and information based on his writing process. And when it comes specifically to editing and revising he has plenty to say.
Among his many pointers, King suggests:
“Adverbs, like the passive voice, seem to have been created with the timid writer in mind.” (P. 139)
Indeed, he is a strong advocate of cutting as many adverbs as you can from your writing, especially when it comes to adverbs used in dialogue attribution. Of course, if you agree with King (and many other modern writers and editors) that adverbs cause more harm than good, you can simply not include them when you’re writing in the first place. But chances are, plenty will slip through while your mind is occupied by interesting things like what your character is doing in a particular scene. But you can certainly pick most of them up when editing (searching for the text for “ly” is a handy way to sweep for many adverbs!).
King suggests that once you have completed the first draft (of a novel in his case), it should be left for at least six weeks to “age and mellow” before attempting any kind of revision or editing. This could take some willpower – especially if you are writing towards any kind of deadline. But it is something King suggests is essential (and it’s sure worked for him).
He gives a lot more details about his process, covering various aspects of the writing craft, and we’d strongly (adverb alert!) recommend you read it, especially if you are writing or hoping to write a novel.
George Saunders is not only a Booker Prize-winning novelist, but he’s renowned as one of the greatest short story writers of the last couple of decades. His exceptional book, A Swim in a Pond in the Rain*, gives a brilliant insight into why stories by some of the Russian greats (including Chekhov, Turgenev and Tolstoy) were so effective. Within the book, Saunders also gives numerous insights into his own writing and editing process.
He explains how he uses an imaginary meter or dial that goes from positive to negative and when he re-reads his work, if the pointer of the meter goes to the positive end of the scale, keep that part. If it goes in the negative, cut it or change it. The trick, he suggests, is to read your work as if reading it for the first time (which is easier said than done, but if you can achieve that, editing your work becomes a whole lot easier!).
Okay, Emma Darwin is not quite as well known as King or Saunders, but she is a brilliant author and has produced some of the best free resources for writers we’ve come across (check out her brilliant Tool Kit on her writing blog).
Among the many pearls of wisdom Darwin presents, one of her top concise tips is the following:
“Write your first draft for yourself, your second draft for your reader, and your third draft for the person you want to persuade.”
And by the “person you want to persuade” she means primary editors or agents who might consider purchasing your writing but it could also apply to anyone who might be in a position to promote your book, story or poetry collection in the future.
Her website is full of loads of useful information, including in-depth sections on revising, so be sure to check it out.
Seek Help to Improve
Writing, by its nature, tends to be a lonely occupation, but for a book – whether a novel or a collection of poems or short stories – to make it to market, the writer in question will almost certainly have sought and received the help of others at some point. If you happen to land a publishing contract with the likes of Penguin, there would be lots of people helping out with the production, marketing and everything else. But before you’ve got yourself a publisher, there are many ways to seek help to ensure your writing reaches its full potential.
Writing and Editing Buddies
One of the best ways to gain valuable editorial feedback on your work in progress is to team up with writing and/or editing buddies. This can be a (hopefully) free way of getting feedback in exchange for giving your feedback to others. This quid pro quo approach is mutually beneficial, and you might well find you win twice over: firstly from the feedback you receive, but secondly from the lessons you learn while assessing and giving feedback on someone else’s work in progress (which in turn should help improve you as a writer).
If you have – or build up – a good network of excellent editors and readers who can give you feedback for free or in exchange for your feedback, it can save you a lot of cash, as professional editors are not cheap.
Professional Beta Readers and Editors
There are numerous professional beta readers and editors out there who offer their services. Many well-known authors offer such services (including Emma Darwin, who we mentioned earlier, and the head judge of our 2024 Flash Fiction Competition, the author Stephanie Carty.
Whether you choose to pay for the services of a professional editor or beta reader will depend on your available budget (as many will cost hundreds of pounds to assess a full novel manuscript, though of course that is a lot of work). But there are potential advantages to splashing a bit of cash on your novel/collection before sending it to an agent or publishers. Namely, a professional is likely to have a lot of editorial experience and will generally be able to pinpoint things in your work that could do with improving or overhauling, and they will almost certainly be able to help steer you in the right direction. Also, as you’re paying them, they won’t expect you to return the favour by reading and commenting on their work, thus giving you more time to concentrate on writing and editing your own novel or collection.
Final Thoughts on Revising and Editing
Ultimately, when it comes to editing and revising, some things will work better for certain writers than others. Reading some of the books that are specifically related to editing can open your eyes to some of the many techniques employed by successful writers and thus you can cherrypick the ideas that might work for you.
The important thing, however, is not to think that your first draft is the final draft… or indeed your second (and probably, for most people, your third or fourth either!). Creating something worth publishing and therefore that people want to read and (ideally!) pay for takes a lot of work. And writing the first draft is just the beginning. Refine, edit, revise, polish and make your story, novel or poem as good as it can possibly be. Because if you plan to send it to an agent, publisher, literary journal or writing competition, chances are you’ll have one chance to impress, so make it count.
*Note that if you would like to purchase any of the books we mentioned above, either click the Amazon links above or check out our list at bookshop.org. It also features several other books we recommend for aspiring authors and those seeking to improve their craft. (Disclosure: we are an affiliate of Bookshop.org and Amazon and will earn a small commission if you click through and make a purchase.)