The edit game

Between January 10th and April 10th, I wrote the complete first draft of ♥My Book♥Next comes the editing.

If you’ve noticed in the sidebar, I’ve had  a little tracking bar giving information about my word count. I’d set myself a goal of 1000 words a day (hoping for more but being realistic) and I found that to be doable, unlike NaNoWriMo’s 1700 words per day. Ninety days, a hundred thousand words, with a one-week literary pause in the middle and three days of “gathering energy for the end” before the finale.

On days I didn’t want to write, I forced myself because a thousand words isn’t that much (it’s about three pages in a paperback) and because I knew I’d look stupid if I didn’t feed the word count bar. The fact that no one was paying attention to it is beside the point: I had to feed the metrics. 

Here’s my new dilemma: there’s no metric for editing.

I’ve got goals, of course. I want to edit the thing back down to 95,000 words at the most (and I’d prefer less) and so far, I’ve stripped 1500 useless words out of the first 30,000. For non-writers, that’s things like this:

She climbed up the stairs.

walked to the fridge and took a container of yogurt.

And then something happened.

That’s just tightening, and there’s always room for a bit of that. You the reader will never notice when they’re gone (which is the point of removing them) but it takes time weeding them out. The happy result is that no one will read this manuscript screaming “Stage directions should not be narrated!” and “Of course she looked up at the roof! You haven’t mentioned that she’s in an airplane, have you?”

I could try tracking word-removal as my metric, but there’s another issue: word replacement. Removing a generic word in exchange for a specific one:

He took a container of yogurt


He grabbed any container of yogurt or He selected a container of yogurt.

Or if it’s important, “After three minutes in front of the case, he settled on a mango yogurt with a container of granola on the side.”

Which inadvertently adds words, but tells you more about the character.

I also can’t use a metric based on where I am in the manuscript. I might adjust something in Chapter Two that has implications in Chapter Twenty-one, so I jump ahead to take care of that now, and that also requires adjustments in Chapter Thirty, and then I realize there’s an issue in Chapter Seven. See?

I’m not really one for measuring the immeasurable, but since the metrics kept me steaming along so nicely on the first draft, I’m reluctant to relinquish them now.

Any ideas? Writers, how do you measure progress on your editing?


  1. David Eric Tomlinson

    If you have the means, hire a professional editor to give you high-level feedback first: on plot, characterization, pacing, structure. I agree that tightening and rephrasing can be done forever, but the bigger-picture items often cause extensive rework and deletion of entire sections.

    Of course, good editors are like good shrinks – hard to find 😉

  2. Conrad Rice

    I have to admit I don’t really have a metric when I edit. That’s more because I don’t go through the manuscript from beginning to end when I edit. I edit by sections of problems. If I know one of my characters is weak, I work on that. If I know I need a new scene added, I work on that next. And after that comes fixing continuity errors. That’s only an example, but you get the idea. I’m a little more free flow, I guess.

  3. philangelus

    David, usually I am the person people give their novels to in order to get high-level feedback on plot, characterization, pacing, etc. I’ve found a few people in the world who give awesome critiques (in fact, they generally show up in the reply box here!) and I’ll assault one, two or three of them with the manuscript at some point.

    I need to keep motivated, but it’s tough to keep track. Conrad, I do a lot of what you do too. But that’s like spot-cleaning and I’m not sure how to keep going on those days when I’d rather just surf the web. 😉 (I have the attention span of a magpie.)

  4. Ken Rolph

    “The fact that no one was paying attention to it is beside the point: I had to feed the metrics.”

    I was, with some fascination as to what it all meant.

    In the olden days, copy editors and proof readers were paid by the page. Progress was the number of pages that could be signed off as complete. Editing on screen makes the work a lot more rubbery. If you are going to add or remove stuff, it changes the page count. But that’s still probably the only gross measure that’s available for editing. How you keep count of which pages are complete can be tricky, but if you need to do that sort of thing you usually can find a way.

    Anyway, Americans don’t use metric systems. So I do understand that you are looking for an editing customary.

  5. AnotherFaceintheCrowd

    Not a writer, but I would say, take one development at a time as a metric. Given that a novel generally has several actions, scenes, etc develop over time, following one through (and then editing around what it changes) would be one way to approach it.

    Not my two cents.

  6. philangelus

    Ken, you’re making me nervous now with the watching. 😉 But at least you’d have been able to harass me if I hadn’t kept at it!

    It’s hard to know when a page is completely edited, it the problem. It’s like cleaning a room: you put away something and when you come back, something else looks out of place because the things that previously were blocking it are gone now. That’s on the nitpicky revision side of things. Other parts, like structural rearrangement, are done at the start and don’t have to be redone again.

    It’s mostly a process of banging down things that seem out of place, to me, and that’s tricky to quantify.

    Dei, I don’t really notice the development areas so much. It’s like kneading bread dough: you don’t knead the flour first, then the yeast, etc. 🙂 Maybe that’s a sign of my messy brain, though.

  7. AnotherFaceintheCrowd

    That’s an interesting visualisation: I consider bread to be one of the most technically demanding things to assemble with good timings and proportions required for success — though it’s not as bad as pastry. 🙂

    i see it more as a net of interwoven threads. There’s a central thread without which the whole falls apart: work on that and as the relative tensions between threads change, adjust them too until the whole comes together into a coherent whole.

  8. Ken Rolph

    I’m old enough to remember writing with a typewriter. You then went over the pages with a red pen VERY carefully, because then you had to retype the whole lot again. I had a hard time coming to terms with editing on screen, because it turned into a never ending process. Also I lost a sense of the whole work. I find it like body surfing. You just can’t catch one wave and then stand there saying, “That was nice”. The next wave and the wave after that just keep coming. To stop you actually have to leave the ocean. I don’t know how many times I’ve changed something then changed it back again trying to decide which was better. There’s no cost to editing on the screen which would help to focus your mind and make it up.

    I still find the a dual editing process works best for me. At some point I print out the work and edit the pages. If it is short enough I pin the whole thing up on a strawboard so I can view the overall structure.

    I don’t give up the plasticity of the screen. Another thing I find helpful is to put each sentence on its own line and view it that way. It helps to get a sense of the rhythm of the long and short sentences. Readers don’t notice this sort of stuff, but they are affected by it.

    Editing used to have a natural end point. Now we have to impose artificial end points on ourselves. Perhaps that’s what you are feeling.

  9. Patient Husband

    In software, we have the same problem when we try to measure programs by lines of code. A friend at my old job used to go in and apologize to our boss when he had removed a hundred lines of useless code, because it would mess up the productivity metrics (lines of code per day). Our boss of course was savvy enough to accept the apology with a smile.

    Can you count the number of major events or scenes that you feel you’ve finished, or have yet to finish, within the story? This is analogous to something that software metrics people call “function points.” I’ll spare you the details…

  10. cricketB

    Well, you could program with C formatting. A separate line for each half of the braces. Forget all those nifty tricks that produce super-short code that even the programmer can’t read.