How Long Does it Take to Edit a Novel?

If you have an editor, the editor pretty much decides how long it takes to edit a novel, but if you’re self-editing, it takes as long as it takes for you to get it right, But more than that, it depends on what you’re editing for. Are you editing it for content, to make sure that every scene, every character, every bit of dialogue is the ablsolute best you can do? Are you editing for story flow? Or are you simply copyediting to remove typos? Each of my books took a year to write, then I set it aside for several months. When I went back to the book, I could read it as if I hadn’t written it and so could find many areas where the story bogged down. Then I re-edited it again in another few months, and then another few months later, and ended up spending as much time editing as writing. This was especially true of my first novel, More Deaths Than One because I had to learn to write as I went along. Each deskediting session was more of a rewrite session — the published novel is completely different from the first draft, and yet it’s exactly what I was aiming for. In the end, it took about four years from first draft to finished manuscript. (In the interim periods, I wrote other books, so More Deaths Than One was the first novel I wrote, also the third, fifth, and seventh.)

I start out editing my books for content and flow, making sure that every scene, every character, every bit of dialog is the best I can do, and that every word, paragraph, chapter flows seamlessy one into the other without taking the reader out of the story, then I edit for individual words. Each of us has pet words and phrases, and the overuse of these constructions echo in readers ears, so I search for such duplication, and rewrite the appropriate passages. I also look for wishy-washy words and qualifiers that take the authority from my writing such as “I guess,” “a little,” “quite.” (In case you’re interested, here is the list of words I seek and destroy: Self-Editing — The List From Hell.) I do one final copy-editing session, then send the book to my editor, and finally my publisher.

The problem with most books on the market is that people rush to publish without giving themselves time to let the book rest before editing it with fresh eyes. Of course, this is a different market from the one I was writing for. Even as early as ten or twelve years ago, there were only a certain number of books on the market, and each had to be as good as possible to compete with the demands of the profession. Things have changed radically since then. With millions of people self-publishing, the key is quantity, not quality. Many authors publish three to four books a year just to keep their names fresh, and in such a disposable book world, editing is the first casualty.

I was appalled the first time I heard that someone had spent a week or so polishing the book they wrote during November’s National Novel Writing Month — how can anything written so fast have any depth? Such writers do find massive followings, though, so perhaps my way of “thinking” my books into reality (I spend way more time thinking about what to write than I do writing) is more out of step with today’s book world than those who simply dash off a book, do a slapdash job of editing, and then foist it on the reading public.

So, in the end, how long it takes to edit a novel depends on what you are looking for — quantity or quality. And before you start arguing that you can have both — the truth is you can’t have both unless you have a good editor on call who will do the editing for you. Writing is like driving. Everyone thinks they are a good driver, but all the bad drivers on the road show that a lot of those “good drivers” are mistaken.

***

Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I. Bertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.” Connect with Pat on Google+

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7 Responses to “How Long Does it Take to Edit a Novel?”

  1. rami ungar the writer Says:

    Nice post, Pat. I hope my demand for writing is never so bad that I have to sacrifice editing to put stuff out.

  2. Phyllis Ring Says:

    Wonderfully thoughtful post. Appreciated.

  3. Phyllis Ring Says:

    This was the sort of thought I couldn’t crystallize before — just read on Twitter: “Writing without revising is the literary equivalent of waltzing gaily out of the house in your underwear.” ― Patricia Fuller

  4. alisonbav Says:

    A thoughtful post, although I am tempted to question whether it’s possible to self-edit? My recent research into self-publishing implied that many s-p authors are in fact working in teams, bringing in additional support for their efforts, and 59% of my cohort had used an external editor. Whereas the well connected author can self-market via social media, I think editing still benefits from an external contribution. And if you can’t afford to pay for it, you could consider setting up a swap arrangement.

    • Pat Bertram Says:

      My post wasn’t directed to self-published writers (contrary to popular belief, not all authors are self-published) but to authors in general. Even if one is traditionally published and has an editor as I do, one needs to self-edit to get the book as perfect as possible before turning it over to others to edit. It’s not fair to expect anyone to find zillions of typos or hundreds of overused words or dozens of poorly phrased passages or several unnecessary scenes.


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