Revising & Editing: How Sharp is Your Pencil?

This past weekend I was deep into a line edit of one of my client’s manuscripts. This is my third time reading it and my first marking it up. The first read was a “Do I want to represent this person and this manuscript?” The second read was  a “Where is this manuscript working and not working so I can tell the client the direction I think it needs to go.” This last pass is with a razor sharp red pencil (ok, it’s really with Track Changes, but…). I’m looking for any word that shouldn’t be in there or isn’t working; dialogue that needs smoothing; faulty sentence construction; plot inconsistencies; pacing problems; difficulties maintaining voice or perspective; anything that isn’t working even a little bit.

Although I have moments when I get self-conscious as I’m editing (after all, who the hell am I to tell another writer to change a single word?!) I’ve found that a. I’m actually pretty damn good at it and, b. my authors are usually grateful. I’m a hands-on agent. My grimy little fingers are all over these manuscripts, pushing and pulling and poking and prodding and plotting and primping them, in partnership with my clients. When editors get my clients’ manuscripts I like to know there was nothing else I personally could do to help make that manuscript the best it could be.

But let me tell you something, editing is extremely draining. I put so much brain power into it I’m exhausted when I stop. But you already knew that, right? Because you are doing the same thing when you are revising your manuscript, right? Before you send it out with a query to agents, right? I thought so. I knew you were looking at every word. Every sentence. Every angle and point of view and piece of dialogue.

Who reads your work for you? Do you have people you can trust to be brutally honest?


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14 responses to “Revising & Editing: How Sharp is Your Pencil?

  1. T. P. Jagger

    Although I’m not in a critique group, I’ve found it useful to have a number of folks who will read my manuscripts with varying points of focus. And contrary to what some people say, I even use feedback from (gasp!) family. My typical set of beta readers looks like this:

    Dad: Thinks everything I’ve written since elementary school is worthy of being published, but . . . he’s also a detail-oriented person capable of finding the fly poop in the pepper. If I mention the point value of a word in Scrabble, I can count on my dad to double check it for accuracy.

    Wife: Thinks most of what I’ve written in the past few years is worthy of being published (eventually), but . . . she’s not afraid to tell me when something doesn’t make sense or to question a story element that seems too farfetched.

    Fellow-writer friend: Thinks I may actually get published someday and provides terrific feedback regarding overall story arc and plotting.

    With these three sources of feedback, I’ve found I can get a pretty good polish on any manuscript because I get useful input regarding both grammatical minutiae and big picture issues (and everything in between). Ultimately, I think the key take-away point is to get at least SOME form of honest, outside feedback on your writing before you even consider sending it to a publisher or agent. Then put the feedback to use to create the best story possible.

  2. For me, editing involves the whole spectrum of emotions. When I first get feedback, I get angry: How could they not have LOVED my work? Then I get miserable: I’m the worst writer in the world, why am I wasting my time? Then I get intrigued: Hmm, maybe there’s something to what they said. And then I get energIzed: Yes, I can do it!

  3. Editing can be draining but so can writing. If our eyes and our brain hurts from all the writing and editing, at least we know we worked hard and did our best. No pain, no gain, right?

    As a writer, I do a lot of editing as I write. I feel it goes hand in hand. And then just when I think I’m done writing a book, I edit again and then again. I guess that’s why it’s so draining. Sometimes I don’t know when to stop.

  4. Editing/revising is where I’m at with my novel now, and it’s exhausting. A lot more so than writing the book was, since you turn off that editor part of yourself and just let everything flow onto the page, good or bad.

  5. Katherine Amabel

    I absolutely love it. I’ve compiled an enormous editing checklist from blogs/articles of all the editors I follow and work through that, and I get more of a feeling of progress through fixing two sentences than drafting 1000 words. My favorites are dangling participles (sneaky little things). Editing = best part of my day 🙂

  6. Editing is hard work. Having been both an editor and a writer, though, I find it a lot easier to go over a piece and figure out how to make it better than to put the words down on the blank page.

    I’m also a big fan of track changes, especially when I’m going over someone else’s work. But when I’m revising my own piece, nothing pulls me into the project as much as a print out of the prose and a super sharp pencil. #2 Dixon Ticonderoga with a soft, clean eraser. And few things are more satisfying to me than setting the marked-up pages beside the computer, opening the document, and keying in the corrections.

    • Sarah

      I’m a fan of Ruth’s method. I copy the ms onto a thumb drive and have my local office store (Staples) print it. For an extra $2 they put it in a spiral binding so the pages stay together and it reads like a book (so satisfying, even if it’s just a tease!) I spot repetitions, typos, and run on scenes that just don’t pop out on the screen.

  7. I go through several stages of editing/rewriting and then a couple of times I will read through just to check for typos, grammar mistakes etc.

    Thankfully, my wife has a fantastic eye for detail. She is also honest about my writing, which is exactly what I want and more importantly, what I need.

    I’m making my way through a second draft of my novel at the moment and I will try and get people I trust to give me an honest opinion. Without that I cannot make improvements and move forward as a writer. We all need that to grow.

  8. Great minds, I just wrote a post about getting involved in critiquing. It’s scary but worth it! (

  9. I’m busy drip feeding more information. As I’m reading my m/s I’m adding flora at the moment. Checking that the seaons follow helps me pick up on other discrepancies and polish. It works for me and makes life less tedious.

  10. And that’s why we think you’re great. Why I read your blog.

  11. Wow! I’m impressed with how much work you put in for your writers! I was told that unless your manuscript is 95%+ accurate [just in terms of grammar etc.] no one will even give it the time of day.

    I found a great crit group that tears apart my chapters and leaves me crying every time. Okay, maybe I haven’t shed too many tears, but they definitely make me look at my characters and plot development and ask the hard questions, like, “Why the heck would you make her do that? That’s stupid!” Not that I’m stupid. You have to have thick skin to be a writer. Fo sho!

    My best editor is still my best friend, because she is so different from me; she challenges me left and right, and causes serious changes in my plot with her detailed questions. In the end, I can’t lie, sometimes I walk away grinding my teeth and muttering under my breath, “You’re entitled to your opinion.” Gosh darnit! I’m leaving that part in!! 😛

  12. Editing is indeed hard work. I use a knife and a stony heart…so much better that way.
    Thank you for a great post!