Editing is a Labor… of Love













I tweeted the picture above last week, and a ton of people liked it, and I even had a few questions about it, so I thought I would give a description here of what the flags mean.

I’m hot and heavy in the middle of editing this novel, and I’ve developed a new system using colored flags.

I write with a combination of a “pantser” and a plotter method. I know where I’m going, but my characters tell me how to get there. There are often changes along the way that I have to track backwards. As I write the first draft, I keep a notebook listing the changes that need to happen, or how I think things should change as I go forward. I don’t always make the changes right away, but as I do, I mark through them. (physically marking them off gives me a sense of accomplishment)

Once of the things that i have noticed is that if I edit on screen, particularly toward the end of the editing process, there is no way to check whether the changes were made correctly. This draft is 320 pages 1.5 -spaced, right now coming in at 111k words. It is the longest I have done by far. There is no way that I could re-read the whole thing constantly. It would take forever.

I print it out at 1.5 line spacing. (2 is just too much for me and way too long) I handwrite all of the changes that I make, and I flag the page. Yellow is a minor change (maybe a comma was dropped, or a word is missing, not more than one or two on the page. I ran out of yellow so I also used green for that.

Red is a major change/rewrite. A red flag means that I either added additional text (handwritten behind the typed page) or I deleted massive text, or reworked sentences to the point that the page needs serious work. At this stage, red happens when I have to backtrack and make the changes consistent (as noticed above) or I feel like the scene needs more development. One improvement to my writing in the past three years that I have noticed is that my scenes are longer and fuller.

Blue means it’s something that needs more thought. For example, did a character’s dad die of a heart attack or cancer? I was toying with both and wasn’t sure which I wanted. So I flagged it with blue to come back to it. It was in the past, so just briefly referenced, but it became an issue as to whether it was a quick sudden death or drawn-out illness. I had to make sure and change it everywhere. I also use blue when my editor makes suggestions and I either haven’t decided whether to make her change, or her change would take to long to address at that moment.

I reuse all the flags as I pull them off. After I make all the changes, I reprint it and go back and re-read everything that I changed and compare it to the draft that I marked up. Often a red flag goes to yellow for the first cut because I rarely get edits right the first time. (For example, I may change a word and then when I reprint it, notice that I used the exact same phrase or word a little higher on the page, which means I have to change something.)

This is the first book that I have been so diligent about edits, and I have a greater confidence that i won’t miss something crucial this time. I still may—and my husband is my final proof-reader when he has the time–but with the flags at least I know what I have ahead. When I look at the front part of the printout and see very few red flags, and just a smattering of yellow, then I feel like that’s progress. That’s progress. There is actually something soothing about handwriting additions. It helps keep me in the zone.

When I do spellcheck/grammar check, I do it with track changes in Word and then I print out the file with the track changes. That part of it is still a little bit cumbersome, but I still try to have something that I can check it against.

Editing is exhausting, but it’s fulfilling because I can see it come alive and how all of the pieces fit together. I add pieces all along the way to flesh out characters better and issues.
With my next book I will try fewer iterations, which means I need to spend more time adding sensory and character detail into the first draft. That’s usually something I focus on in the second draft.

Since I took this picture, I decided to put all the yellow flags at the top of the page on the right, all the blue in the middle, and all the red at the bottom. It’s easier to see where I am that way. Now if I only had time to finish the edits. My deadline is calling.

Do you have a particular quirk about how you edit your novel once you have a first draft? I have had several writers tell me that they send their first or second draft to their editor and move on, and that idea gives me the shakes.