How Many Edits Does It Take?
Posted on October 9, 2017
Category: Zeedub Inkwell
Zachry Wheeler, Science Fiction Novelist

Ah, the age old question. How many edits does it take to get to the center of a good manuscript? As with everything else in writing, the answer is crisp, clear, and concise:

It depends.

I hope you enjoyed this useless post and look forward to your hate mail.

But seriously, it’s a difficult question to answer because it hinges on a host of factors. I lost count of the editing rounds with my debut novel Transient. But when it came time to edit my second novel Max and the Multiverse, I had graduated from complete hack to competent writer and knocked it out in a dozen passes. Several books later, I edit down my manuscripts with a tried and true strategy. For me, and I cannot stress the me part enough, I have learned that it takes four major editing passes: Content, Format, Verbal, and Polish.

Content editing should be self-explanatory. You edit for content. This includes fleshing out detail, adjusting pace, fixing structural issues, deleting anything that doesn’t make sense or push the story forward, whatever gives your narrative a clear direction. Typically, my first draft is about 3/4 the word count of the finished product. I add the other 1/4 during content editing. In fact, I sometimes add notes in the first draft like [need more detail about the pickle] and come back to it after completion.

Content editing should take about as much time as writing the first draft.

After this round, my story is complete.

Format editing is when I dump the content into a file that I will use for publication (usually a tricked-out Word document). I set margins, select fonts, add titles, copyrights, headers, page numbers, all that tedious stuff. Once I have everything in place (and technically ready to print), I start a fresh round of editing and adjust anything that is not pleasing to the eye. Sometimes it’s a simple word choice. Other times it’s a complete rearrangement of a paragraph or scene.

Format editing should take about half the time of content editing.

After this round, my narrative is complete.

Verbal editing is when I read the entire novel aloud and adjust anything that is not pleasing to the ear. You would be amazed at how many errors you uncover by simply vocalizing the words you have written. Your ears have a way of uncovering linguistic quirks that don’t sound right. It might look good on paper, but your ears will tell you things like “no human speaks that way” or “this phrase makes you sound like a pirate.”

Verbal editing should take about half the time of format editing.

After this round, my manuscript is complete.

Polish editing is quick and easy. This is when you and your find/replace become best friends. You search for all the dumb little mistakes that manage to slip through committee, things like double spaces, inverted quotes, and there/their/they’re. I keep a running list of common typos that I search and destroy in every final draft. One of my common failings is using “sunk” when I mean “sank.” At least one of those bastards will make it through to the end.

Polish editing should only take a day or two.

After this round, my novel is complete.

Now it’s off to the races. I hand it over to my copy editor for a final nit-pick while I concentrate on cover design, back blurb, and all the other fun stuff that goes into getting a completed book into the hands of readers. It’s a daunting process, but I enjoy every second.

Hopefully this post helped to answer that annoying question, or at the very least, give you an expectation of things to come. Best of luck and happy editing.

Read more:
Rethinking Content Editors and Critique Groups
Let’s Talk About Writer’s Burnout: No Tips, Just Talk

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