Friday, 15 April 2011

All About Editing - Mike Shevdon

I approach editing with mixed emotions. It's a chance to get the exact nuance of meaning I want onto the page, to resolve unwanted conflicts, eliminate mistakes and polish what I've written so that it is worthy of publication. My early drafts are definitely not worthy - they're messy things with trailing threads and sticky blurry edges. Taking those and polishing them so that they shine is rewarding but also frustrating because it's a task you can never complete. There is always, always more that you could do, and deciding when to stop tinkering is part of the skill.

My interest in writing began as a critical reader, so I already knew that it wasn't a one-pass process. The idea that some elements wouldn't quite work or didn't evoke the atmosphere I wanted was already there, but even so I had a lot to learn. I learned by doing, highlighting the problems I perceived in other people's work before I started on my own. Finding other writer's issues and mistakes helped me to learn to identify my own. Even so my early edits were full of flaws.

So it's a love-hate relationship. I prevaricate before editing, but then when I get started I can't stop. I'll edit many thousands of words in a session to the exclusion of everything around me. If I'm lucky, sympathetic family members will bring tea at regular intervals. 

As I said, for me it's a multi-pass process and I edit for different things in different passes. I edit as I write, partly to make sure I know where I'm going and what I've written makes sense in terms of what's happened and what's going to happen. For me writing can be like time travel - I can zip back and forth along the time-line, changing things that will have repercussions in the future or will bring into new significance things in the past. Even simple things like changing a character's name can have surprising consequences. You find new resonance, an alternate twist that sparks new insight.

So I write forward, then I edit back through what I've written when I reach a natural break. Stories are complex to me. Any person, any event, can influence the world and change what happens. Small things can snowball and before long I'm dumping whole chapters of work because they no longer fit. I keep the fragments (that's what I call them) because sometimes I can re-use pieces of things, but I've learned not to force that. If it happens, great. If not then I leave them.

I tried going for a full first draft, which some authors can do, but found that the impact of changes were too disheartening. Rewriting a chapter is not so bad. You have the foundations to work from and you know where you need to be so you can go ahead and write. If you have to scrap half a book, though, it brings you down to earth with a bump. There's a lot emotionally invested in the writing and there will be pieces you love that have to be binned. This is what is meant, perhaps, by killing your babies. It takes a surprising amount of courage and faith to write well.

By limiting the edit horizon I can work through the impact of changes as I go. I still trip over my own shoe-laces, but the fall isn't so far. Of course, I can still find the flaw in the plot many chapters later, but that's life. You just have to be philosophical and start again.
Once I have a draft, though, the game changes. Hopefully, by that time, I have a working plot and everything ties together. A full read-through comes next, and I'm looking for a number of things - characters out of voice, phrases that jar, the inevitable spelling and grammar mistakes, clichés and gotchas - pieces that don't quite work. In this pass I'll be deleting more than I'm adding, and that can be hard. It feels like I'm going backwards, but at this point less is more. It's a quick process and I can edit five thousand words at a time, so it's a few weeks work at most.

Speaking of backwards, I've also gone through chapters backwards looking for mistakes, which are easier to spot if you're not following the narrative, but that's a painful way and with practice you get better at not making mistakes in the first place. I also do automated checks - I do a word search for certain words - 'form' for instance, which I seem destined to type when I want the word 'from'. I do a consistency check for capitalisation of certain words and spelling of names and places, plus usage and style consistency checks.

Then I leave it alone for a bit and work on something else. It's very easy to get word-blind when editing - and your own mistakes are the hardest to see. An external viewpoint is good, but I'm not quite ready for beta readers at this point. It isn't polished enough and there's no point wasting a reader's time on things you can do for yourself. I step away and get some perspective.

When I get back to it I do another full read-through, this time out loud. Reading out loud is a skill in itself and one that's practiced much less in school these days, which is a shame. It engages different parts of the brain and allows you to discover things that are otherwise invisible to you. Also, if you can't read it, there's a fair chance no-one else can either. It engages rhythm, tone and timbre which are missing in a silent read-through. I'm looking for an immersive reading experience, so anything which throws the reader out of the story is challenged. 

At this stage I'm still finding mistakes and non-sequiturs but I simply note them to be dealt with later and keep reading - I'm looking at the big picture, not the detail, and I'm watching myself for the emotional response, breathing and reaction. This is hard because I get drawn into the story, but then I lose perspective and have to do it again - this is good and bad. If I get drawn in then there's a good chance the reader will too, but if I lose myself then I'm not editing, I'm reading.

Once these changes have been rolled in, I ask myself if I'm happy with what I have. If not I'll go look for the thing I'm not happy with, which can be a nuance of character interpretation or a complete change of a plot-thread. I can still be making quite large changes, even at this stage, but I have to remember that once it's published I can't change anything, so it's worth getting it right. If I change anything then I need to read through again. By this time I have all the versions of all the plot threads that have been included or deleted in my head. I'm no longer seeing things and the edit process is starting to break down.

This is when I send out to beta readers. For me it's a finished work and I can't make it any better. I am expecting that they will enjoy the read, but at the same time I want them to critique. Anything that throws them out of the story, any factual error, any personal knowledge or insight - I want all of it, so it's not like reading a book for pleasure, and my beta readers know that. Their reward? Well, you 'd have to ask them that. I regard it as a personal favour to me and hopefully they get something out of it.

When the reading copies come back in I go through each one separately. I note every comment, but I don't always change things. Sometimes I place it on the concerns list - which I keep for things that aren't wrong, but might be clearer or may simply be addressed in a later comment. "I didn't understand this" can be followed four pages later by "Oh, NOW is see where you're going," which can be fine. Hanging questions can't be left hanging, though, and some quite big issues can come out at this stage hat you just didn;t see before.

Beta readers can take anything from three weeks to three months to come back. Each copy has to be worked through and then they all have to be taken as a whole. I've never scrapped a book at that point, but I suppose it is possible to have to go back to the beginning. The earlier work should mean that can't happen, but there are loads of things in the world that can't happen and then unaccountably do.

Depending how confident I feel, I may phase beta readers into two passes, one to get the early comments and ask specific questions and then a general read to get the full picture. On The Road to Bedlam I also had readers who had not read book one, so that I could check that the book worked for readers who picked up the second book first. That's a new challenge.

I do a last consistency grammar and spell-check and then it's submitted to the publisher who may request their own revisions, but assuming it's all okay (and mostly it is) it goes to copy edit, final changes and print. That can take three months on its own.

If you're thinking this takes a lot of time then you're right. It takes me more than a year to write a book. We haven't even touched on plotting, characterisation, research or any of the other aspects of writing a book, but that all has to happen too, so if you're wondering why the next book isn't on the shelves yet then you have some explanation right there. For me, though, it's part of the creative process to challenge your own work and have other people challenge it too. It means that when a book does hit the shelves I know it's the best book I could write at that moment. 

Each time I go through this I learn more and develop as a writer - each time I get better. Hopefully the books get better too. If you ask me whether this is the process I'll be using in ten year's time, then the answer is that I don't know - ask me in ten years. I do know that it helps me get what I want on the page so that when my readers pick up my books they know they'll have a reading experience to remember and want more when they're finished. It's that experience that is my ultimate goal and the prize I try and keep in mind when I'm knee deep in edits and changes.


Mike Shevdon lives in Bedfordshire, England with his wife and son, where he combines his various interests of writing, cookery and technology with the study of martial arts, particularly archery.

His blend of real history and folklore was launched on an unsuspecting world with his debut novel, Sixty-One Nails, published by Angry Robot Books.  It interleaves forgotten legends and faerie tales with real history and ancient rituals that are still performed at the core of the realm to this day.

A refreshingly different take on Urban Fantasy, The Courts of the Feyre is a series exploring humanity's relationship with the creatures that inspired the oldest of stories, weaving a modern faerie-tale into the fabric of reality. The sequel, The Road to Bedlam, was published in Autumn 2010, revealing more of the relationship between the everyday world and the secret world of magic and darkness beneath. Book three is in progress, with book four planned to complete the series

Mike's books are available in good bookshops around the world as well as online and as eBooks. You can visit Mike's website at where he shares tips and insights into writing, thoughts on life, and articles about interesting bits of history and folklore. You can also find Mike on Facebook and on Twitter as @shevdon.


  1. Wow! That's quite a process ;o) Sounds like you have it down though! I find I do my best writing when editing! Great post!

  2. Mike,

    Thank you again for sharing this very helpful post. It's made me reconsider my current approach. Usually I've gone for a fast first draft, then edit. But as you said, that meant practically rewriting.

    When I started a new book few months ago, I tried editing as I write, but I thought it didn't work for me, because I found that if I was editing what I wrote every day, I simply didn't have enough time to write new words. But then I expected to write every day, meet the word count, and edit. It's just not possible with only few hours in the evening free.

    However, I think I will give this approach a proper shot. Take my time. Logically it makes more sense, if it saves huge rewrites later.

  3. I've just restored my internet connection, and look what I was about to miss!
    Thanks Mike for sharing all this, great post indeed. And encouraging for me. First draft in one go doesn’t seem to work for me either. I edit as I go because I can't help it, so it's good to know that it works so well for you and that you find it actually saves you time.
    I was about to think it was just a big mistake I needed to correct (one day...) so thanks for reminding me that there really is no right way, but many different ways to write, as long as they work for us.
    Now I'm even more curious to read your books!

  4. Michela,

    I'm going to give Mike's method a try as well. See how it works for me.

    By the way, I've just got both of his books. Going to read them on my trip next week. Can't wait :-)

  5. What a great post! Editing is one of the most time-consuming parts of the writing process. It's so wonderful that you went through your process in such detail.

    This is an amazing series, Dolly. I'm really enjoying it.