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Editing Manuscriptsby C.E. Murphy
So far today I've cleaned the kitchen thoroughly, made bread, folded laundry in order to recover the kitchen table so I could work there, cleared off the coffee table so I could work there, and printed out eleven hundred pages worth of manuscripts. This is more or less what editing a manuscript looks like.
Because obviously, you can't edit if the living room hasn't been rescued from itself, or if the kitchen table is sagging under the weight of clean laundry, or if there's no fresh bread with homemade apricot jam to eat. You certainly can't edit the one book that's most immediately up on your list if you've gotten the revision letter for the next, but haven't got a printout of the next. And while you're at that, you'd better print out the third book that's coming up--not for editing, but for writing, because you haven't read it on paper in longer than you care to remember and not even on screen in several months.
But you are not procrastinating by printing out that upcoming book, or the one you just got a revision letter on, because if you print it out now, you will have it on hand and will have no excuse later to avoid printing it when it's time to actually work on it.
You have not yet cleaned the kitty litter. You have discovered you would rather work than clean the kitty litter today. This is a good sign. It means that later this afternoon, when you're falling asleep from sitting still and reading with a pen in hand, you'll have something to get up and do. You haven't walked the dog, either, so you've got two things to do, and you really need to make yourself do the second one, because otherwise you won't leave the house today.
The only thing left is to make dinner, but it's not yet two in the afternoon, so you really can't justify getting it started. Besides, you're hoping you can get your husband start it before he leaves for work.
You sit down on the couch, worn out from getting ready to edit. The cursed manuscript is right there. In arm's reach. Just like you planned. Since it's there, you reach out and grab the first forty pages. That's a safe number, especially since you know you've rewritten the first hundred and thirty pages three times already, so you're pretty confident this is going to be at least readable.
And now the serious business of editing begins. I have no idea what other people's editing processes look like; this is what mine is like.
I read the entire manuscript, and it's critical I do this on paper. Something about reading on screen makes my eyes fall off pages. Typically I have a pen in hand and strike out words, sentences, phrases, re-arranging them on a superficial level when they catch my eye as being unwieldy or somehow wrong. I've learned, by now, not to try to do more than 50 pages without getting up to move around, because otherwise I just start to fall asleep. I don't think it's the story putting me to sleep. It's just the not moving and the focused concentration. I'm not reading for enjoyment, here. I'm reading to see where I went wrong.
The first pass is for the obvious flaws, the sentences and the repeated words and the chunky stuff I can catch easily. The second pass is more grueling. For one thing, by that time, I've read the book once already and it's a rare story indeed that I want to read twice in a row, back to back (even if I wrote it. Possibly especially if I wrote it). I'm also looking for deeper problems this time through, starting to think about how to fix structural flaws and whether I've gotten the kind of impact I want in specific scenes.
This stage usually takes two readings, once from the front of the manuscript and once from the middle or back, because by the time I get to the end the first time through, my brain is numb and I'm no judge of what's been going on. By the time I've gone through it twice, I've left a lot of notes to myself, usually in a nigh-indecipherable scrawl. If I'm doing heavy revisions, I might need to go through it a third time before I'm willing to move on to the next step.
The third step is where things actually get done. I start making my changes on the document file, struggling to interpret my own handwriting and gritting my teeth through it all. I spend a lot of time sighing heavily and feeling exhausted at this point, because I'm holding three books in my head at once right now: One, the book as it was. Two, the book as it is, all marked up, and three, the book as it's supposed to be. This is maybe the absolute least fun part of writing for me, because it's damned hard to keep all three of those books in my head at once and keep them all in their right places and not let exhaustion allow version one or two to slide into version three. It takes repeated passes through the manuscript to start to feel like I've gotten it somewhere close to right. It's a constantly moving target: going back and forth, making sure things meet up, making sure I haven't left scenes in or out (I've done both; it's frustrating and embarrassing), stitching, ripping stitches, trying to make the whole mess into a cohesive whole.
And when I think I've done it, I print it out and read it again. Because once more, the eyes do not see on screen what they see on paper, and flaws I never dreamed were there pop up as glaring errors. I read with a pen in hand. I mark out awkward sentences and smooth them; I do all of the same initial steps once, twice, and then bring it back to the document file and try one more time to get it right. I try hard to remember to do a spell check. I read the final version, and by that time I can't see it anymore at all, so I submit it to my agent and my editor...
...and wait to hear their feedback so I can do it all again.
C.E. Murphy is a writer with a rejection folder and several acceptance letters, too.
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