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Levels of Editing: When & Why

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Tips for WritersWriters, like it or not, you can’t multitask.

Like many who push a pen, I’ve had to find work to pay for the ink. Eons ago, I waited tables in a ridiculously short pink polyester dress. On Wednesday nights at the casino restaurant where I worked, it was regionally famous for beer and steak. Nevada buckaroos brought their wives to town; Navy (yes, there is a Navy base in Nevada) fly-boys arrived to eat, drink and play 21; and miners cleaned up to make it a date night.

What I had to do felt like multitasking at its most demanding–seat tables, bring beer, fetch water, take orders, prep salads, bring extra rolls, laugh at bad jokes, pick up hot plates, remember steak knives, refill beer, find steak sauce, clear plates, scoop sherbert, tally tab and earn a good tip. Times that by ten because it was how many tables we each had in our sections and on a Wednesday night we were packed from 5 to 10 p.m.

Later, as a manager I learned that multitasking is a myth. This NPR article on the topic even cites a restaurant line cook as an example–of not multitasking. Instead, we humans are expedient at changing from one task to the other, but we cannot do multiple tasks at once. It’s why you need to break down your tasks into chunks with breaks in between.

We break down writing into scenes, and we break down editing into levels. It’s how we make it manageable.

Before I launch into editing as a separate task from writing, let me offer you some ideas for time management. It’s getting to be that time of year when everyone is feeling pressed about time, uncertain which tasks to prioritize and overwhelmed by trying to do it all.

Tips for Efficiency in Time Management:

  1. Use a calendar to enter all important dates: deadlines, blog schedule, writing goals, personal time and appointments. Hint: your calendar should not be “full.” You need blank days.
  2. Make a to-do list weekly and prioritize tasks according to importance: A, B or C. Work your As off first. Studies show that we tend to do the easiest tasks first and often those are Cs.
  3. Organize tasks. I have outdoor chores, downstairs duties and office expectations. I take time for each “place,” giving it my full attention.
  4. Set a timer. Especially if you work for a client or have identified a distraction, you need to monitor your time.
  5. Embrace a distraction. When migrating birds kept me at the window with binoculars, I started a blog. It gave me an outlet for the distraction, and a way to practice my voice in writing. If you like a game, play it for 20 minutes as a reward for finishing an important task for the day. Use it; don’t let it use you.
  6. Take breaks after ending one task and starting another. You can learn more about the Pomodoro Technique, but suffice to say that you need to include regular breaks.
  7. Go easy on yourself. If you are scrambling for time, all the time, lighten up your load. It’s okay to take a break. It’s okay to post fewer times on your blog. It’s okay to cut your writing time back to 30 minutes a day if it means you’ll better be able to write every day.

So on to editing and why writers can’t multitask. When you write, write. Turn off the Grammar Tyrant in your head with the promise of, “we’ll edit later.” When you edit, break it down into manageable chunks. Don’t try to write and edit simultaneously. You’ll either frustrate your creativity or flow of ideas; or you’ll miss big mistakes and little ones, too.

For a client, I edit their bi-monthly newsletter. It’s a project management role that goes beyond editing–I plan, hire contractors, organize the layout, assign submissions, write copy, edit, monitor distribution and increase readership. Truly, editing is only part of that project. And I edit, when it’s time to edit.

Here’s how I break down editing a project:

  1. Content. For my client, I make sure each article supports the organization’s mission and messages and meets word count.
  2. Clarity. Next, I read as a reader. Does it flow, make sense, is clear? Are the facts substantiated? If it needs major revision it’s returned to the writer; minor changes I make without altering the voice of the writer or the approved content of the client.
  3. Correctness. Finally, the Grammar Tyrant can come out and go to work. It’s the last task of editing. Often, this is called proofing, although I do a final proof not for incorrect grammar, but for missed typos.

How does that equate to editing a book? Consider these same levels:

  1. Content. Enlist beta-readers, volunteer editors or writing peers for feedback on early drafts. Use caution and go with your gut. You don’t want divergent opinions, but you want to know if the story in your head is coming out on the page. Is the message coming through?
  2. Clarity. Depending upon your genre, clarity could include fact-checking or deepening a character. You want a professional who knows the business of books. You can hire an editor to assess your manuscript’s strengths and weaknesses.
  3. Correctness. By the time you’ve revised your draft to sharpen the story, you’ll need to edit again for correctness. Mistakes happen in re-writing. If your revision was major, consider copy edits. If you are just in need of polishing, then proofreading should suffice. If this is your first book, consider content editing which is a deeper service, but worth the extra cost if you want to go the traditional publishing route.

Not only is multitasking a myth, but I also believe that writers can be their worst own editors. We worry; we over-think; we over-correct; we under-correct; we get attached; we delude ourselves into thinking the story is clear; we delude ourselves into thinking the story is crap. There’s nothing objective in that scenario.

However, as a writer, you do need to learn how to self-edit, but we’ll talk more about that next time. Consider self-editing to be the clean up you do in between the revisions when working with an editor. We’ll also talk more about beta-readers which serve a different role from professional editors.

And do correct those mistakes! If you don’t, and the reader is the next set of eyes, they might not be kind. Angering a reader’s inner Grammar Tyrant is not what you want to do.


19 Comments

  1. Great tips! Couldn’t come at a better time, when I’m drowning figuring out what to edit first LOL.

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  2. Great post Charli. A timely reminder that I was going to try the pomodoro technique but had forgotten about it. I’m looking forward to your post on beta readers as this is an area I don’t know much about. You are quite right that we can’t multitask but I still keep trying….

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  3. Lisa Reiter says:

    Wow! A great post for so many reasons but how have I never heard of the Pomodoro technique before!? The whole synchronicity thing with you Charli is spooky!

    One blog item I have yet to come back to edit is Pt III of my Chemo Brain series – ironically delayed because I forget I’m supposed to be solving my memory and organisational problems before I report on them!!

    One thing I have already implemented is using a timer to enforce concentration for a specific period and ‘allow’ a distraction after the beeper goes off – works a treat but I’ve been using 50 minutes which has been too challenging lately. So, a big Thank You – have just ordered the book and ticking tomato!

    Meanwhile some sage advice on editing I can see and a very valuable reminder for a newbie like me to just stick one ‘head’ on at a time! I tend to get all critical and edit whilst I write which takes a lot of fun and productivity out of it sometimes.

    Thank you ! Lisa x

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    • Charli Mills says:

      Love it when we synchronize! I use my tomato timer more for client work, but the downside is my clever dogs who think they then need attention or outside every 20 minutes!

      When you read the technique, you’ll find that you can do larger chunks of time with a quickie mental break or stretch every 20 minutes and a longer break after 80 minutes. It’s amazing how my brain focuses sharply once that timer gets going. I’m easily distracted–look, a chicken–but the ticking means business, and I can set aside the distraction for those 20 minute increments.

      Perhaps your Part III on Chemo Brain is something to treat as a gap. Do you need to collect more information before editing? If so, mark it but set aside some time to work on it. Oh, but that is an ironic delay!

      Yes! One head at a time. 🙂 And I’m a newbie to the whole book thing, too. Just trying to apply experience elsewhere to the new-in-progress process! So these discussion benefit all of us. We each have experiences to add!

      Always, take joy in it!

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      • Lisa Reiter says:

        I feel Pt III will wrap up all I’m learning about managing myself (some of which are hardwired traits unfortunately!) – so some further checking and experimentation first, for sure. – Standing back is helping me see some wood for trees already which is a joy! And we don’t want any more ‘look, there’s a headless chicken’ coming from my family, do we?!

        (Shouldn’t that read ‘goat’ in your case..? :D)

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      • Charli Mills says:

        I’m fascinated by your process as you are part of your own research and experimentation. At some point, I hope you can write about how you pulled Part III together. Ha, ha! Headless chickens in your case has me worried for Jack! And yes, goat might be better. 😀

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  4. Annecdotist says:

    Thanks for this post, Charli, and helpful to make the distinction between the fantasy of multitasking and the reality of flitting from one task to another.
    Not sure the Pomodoro works for me – I’d be thinking I need to get out of the garden and attend to my tomatoes and I’d be distracted by the ticking – but I thought the video made a good point about trying to estimate how long each task will need and planning around that. I’m sure I won’t be the only one who underestimates the time requirements, even for simple tasks like reading and responding to this post.
    I think editing is the main skill that makes you a writer, although agree you can’t do it all yourself. You’re also right about separating out the creative flow from editing although, for me, some basic editing is essential as I go along since, using voice-activated software, I need at least to check the mistakes at the time as, coming back to it later, I might not recognise what I meant to say!
    Great discussion here also.

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    • Charli Mills says:

      Reading (and listening to links) at Norah’s post on creativity, Sir Ken references his wife’s ability to multitask. I believe what he describes is that his wife can flit faster between left and right brain tasks. Interesting how our posts can sometimes intersect ideas!

      I agree that there are tasks you need to do from start to finish, like watering or harvesting. And we do tend to underestimate time or how much time it takes when we flit. The ticking helps in some situations.

      My maternal grandfather was a dictator–he used a tape recorder to express his thoughts for his writing and had a secretary who then typed it all up. But I think that’s a bit different from using a program that is essentially both recorder and secretary. My supposed “smart” phone vexes me with its auto-correct and makes me wonder how it could misinterpret so. When I wrote copy or articles on deadline I always edited as I wrote, but my copy was for business–not much creativity there! Have you written about your process? I’d be interested in knowing how it impacts your flow, and what you do to balance your need for accurate recording with what you are creating.

      I agree that self-editing is what sets apart a quality writer. Creativity without clarity and correctness does not communicate as powerfully, or at least that’s my opinion!

      Thanks for taking the time to read and respond! 🙂

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  5. Yes, another good post here. The psychology prof I live with has been saying for years that mulit-tasking is simply impossible. Our brains are not wired for that. (That observation went over like a brick at the college where we worked.) And on editing….I taught ESL for 18 years and have edited all my husband/author’s work for a decade. I consider myself a grammar totalitarian. About a week ago, a famous reader of the memoir I have written for my client wrote a nice note back, commenting positively on the style but noting that he hoped it was going in for another round of edits since he had caught some grammatical errors. I was abashed, chagrined, mortified…Happily, this gracious celebrity doc/author/TV personality responded to my response, in which I apologized and noted that the manuscript he received was indeed going into another round of edits soon, (“manuscript control” deserves more attention in another post) assuring me that he missed errors in his own books and that all writers get too close to their writing. Bottom line for me is that I will still pick over my work like a helicopter mom who can’t let go, but at some point I must recognize my limits and expect that others will ferret out any mistake that manages to evade my wrathful “pen.” Thanks Charli for some great tips!

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    • Charli Mills says:

      What a great image of editor as helicopter mom hovering over words! I know your type, Jeanne, the writer with the wrathful pen. And I hold you in high regard because that level of editing is my weakest. Yet, as you say, even the grammar totalitarian will miss mistakes when the editor is also writer. I agree that we get to close to our work. Levels can bring us out of that close proximity somewhat, but an extra set of eyes can help. For client work that I project manage, I still employ a proofreader to back up my editing. She’s never returned a draft with zero errors! And I always do a final printer proof and find at least five more mistakes. It seems endless!

      When it comes to purchases of books I have mixed expectations. If I know it is a debut book by an emerging author, I tend to be gracious with errors if the story is compelling. More so than with a book that is so scrubbed clean that the story is flat, but the grammar perfect. A good writer will find balance. Recently I purchased a biography of Wild Bill Hickok by Charles Rivers Editors who profess to be founded by Harvard and MIT alumni to “provide superior editing.” In that case (not to mention that I paid full price for the print copy) my expectations of correctness are high. The book is dubiously edited. It is only 36 pages and yet I took my own wrathful pen to it after reading four mistakes on the opening page! Seriously? Superior editing? One line humorously reads that Hickok “hilled” someone. Another passage opens with reference to his wife “Agnes” and two sentences later refers to her as “Alice.” The opening quote has a double quote: “…famous scout on the Plains.”” It’s hard to find the book credible when editing is sloppy or non-existent, yet bragged about beneath a bold logo.

      I’d love to hear more about manuscript control from you. My editing experience is not with manuscripts, thus the acceptance of hiring an editor who does have such experience. And glad that you and your husband stuck to your guns on multitasking despite it being a brick! Thanks for adding to the discussion!

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  6. TanGental says:

    Lots of fascinating stuff here and in the comments. I too had not heard of the Pomedoro Technique and, while I like the concept, I spent my working career in a tyrannous business of deadlines and discipline. One of the joys of no longer being a commercial lawyer is not to have to worry about the who and what and especially, the when. Of course I now waste time, currently on writing blog posts that I spread like confetti on an unsuspecting on line world rather than working on my books. I will do better! I will try the tyranny of the tomato.
    As for busting the myth of multi-tasking, well thank you so much. I get so much grief for my inability to multi task (‘but you’re a man; of course you can’t multi task’). I think what people mean is my thinking tends along linear not lateral lines – another lawyerly trait, given you need to look at a strand of thought, see it through to its end and then go back and look at the next strand, rather that, intuitively jump between strands – which in cetin circumstances makes my thought processes seem cumbersome. This mental ability to ‘see’ solutions quickly – to flit from one strand to another – can be a real skill, of course, as it is often the case that, if you spend precious time on what turns out to be a redundant strand you become frustrated. It helps with editing and plotting too, as well as resolving a blockage in a commercial negotiation. But it can also lead to confusion f multiple strands are considered too soon.
    The best lawyers could do both, as the situation suited and, of course, as with any profession, the more experience you have the easier it is to recognise when linear is slow and self defeating, just as much as recognising when lateral is an expensive distraction and luxury.
    Does that make any sense to you? Does it have any sort of echo or am I calling out in dark cave of my own imagination?

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    • Charli Mills says:

      You are not alone, echoing in a cave! Shedding the tyranny of work is both liberating and debilitating. It felt so good to be on my own schedule, but then I found it more difficult to activate certain goals. I’m striving for balance; maybe “strive” is too strong of a word–I’m strolling for balance. Writing is never a waste if you are a writer! I understand how you feel, though. I was just thinking as I was buried in my books and notes and giddiness over Hickok, does anyone really care to read about this? But I think that’s just the voice of writer’s doubt which seems to be universal. The voice we need to follow is the one that is our own and hey–if it wants to blather about Hickok, let it. There will be a seed of something in the output that is yours to own. So blog on Besides, I’m a Geoff Le Pard fan and feel transported every time I read your posts. How much better your books will be for the blogging stretches. Ah–but perhaps a daily tick or two from the tomato wouldn’t hurt if you have other writing goals. I need ticks or I’d be wandering in rabbit holes daily.

      Then, what you say about linear thinking is fascinating (for a hopelessly non-linear thinker). But here’s what I like about writing–it allows us to be self-reflective. You understand how you think and you’ve reflected enough on it to even understand how it serves a purpose and when it needs to be reined in. This thinking will serve you well in the capacity of book writing. Obviously you see connections so you do allow your mind to consider other possibilities, but you follow each thought through. This is why I often “change my mind” because I jump as soon as I see a connection. Eventually I do come to a conclusion, but not before leaving a track that looks like wandering!

      I think a good future topic is that of knowing your strengths and leveraging them, but also knowing the strengths of your friends. I was always fascinated by how teams are motivated and work together using different strengths. Thank you for adding to this discussion!

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  7. […] week we discussed a few time management ideas and broke down editing into levels. When it is time to edit, edit with tools. This will help steady you if you feel like […]

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