So You Want to Edit A Book Part 3: The Paper Project


There comes a time in every author's life when she picks up a printed copy of what, so far, she's only seen in pixels — a hard copy of the words she's worked so long and hard to craft.

It can be a beautiful moment — it really can — but it's also a moment that leads to more work. So much more work. So much work, I forget, each time, exactly how much more work this step can be.

My first time holding a paper copy of my own book came several months after I wrote the first draft of what would become the first book in my Undead America zombie series. I'd been hacking away at the story (it was about 70,000 words at the time) on various computer screens for months, and I was stuck. The story was suddenly as good as I could get it, but I knew, even then: it wasn't good enough. It finally occurred to me that I needed to see it on paper. I needed to hold it. I needed to see all the words in a form that I could attack with a pen. That I could draw all over. Dog-ear pages. Shake things up!

For me, the paper edit is all about making things pretty. By the end of the paper edit, I want my words to look like rainbows pooped by unicorns.

I had to print it out.

I remember holding it for the first time. I remember being blown away by it. "I wrote this?" I thought, staring at the neatly stacked pages. "But it's so big."

It was a really cool, really exciting feeling, and it happens (like new again) every time I print a book. 

Of course, that gorgeous, clean, crisp sheaf of papers never lasts long in its pristine state. Within moments of picking it up, I'm off to the races, marking up my pages, often rewriting entire chapters as I go. Those lovely, white, crispy sheaves are soon folded over, marked up, with doodles and arrows and notes. It gets very ugly, very quickly, but the process of editing on paper is something I can't do without. Not if I want to be any sort of decent author. So that process is what we're talking about today — the great big Paper Project, as our next step in editing our books. 

But first...hey you guys! How's it going? To those of you who've been working with me all through this crazy column: how are your books coming?

Me? Well, let's just say the last month has been a little hectic. A little crazy. A little....slow going, in terms of editing. Though I started my paper-edit with a bang, the day after my last editing column went live, well...since then life has intervened. It's the end of the school year, and my classroom volunteer/soccer mom jobs have taken precedence over my authorial work. I've taken entire weeks off as I've had to prepare for travel, for birthday parties (my little one turned seven), and for various other stuff.

In other words...I'm not done. Not even close.

BUT! Have no fear. I'm here to share what I've already done, what I've learned, and to hopefully tell you something or other that will help you to move forward, too! And this time...I have pictures!!

First do you best print a manuscript, anyway?

This is actually a relevant question! You see, my printer and I....we're not friends. Not at all. Every time (every single time) I try to print something, be it photo or document, it tells me I'm out of a specific type of ink. Maybe it's the crimson one. Maybe it's the black one. It always gives me a specific ink type that I need to replace.

So what do I do? I go buy ink, of course. Then I come home, take out the old cartridge and replace it with the new one, all excited that this time, my document will print. I get back on my computer. I click the little printer icon.

And then? Well, then it tells me to replace another cartridge. I kid you not. My printer is always out of ink, no matter what I do. No matter how many times I replace it.

So when it comes time to print out a manuscript, I beat the system. I send that bad boy out to a printer.

I use FedEx Office (or FedEx Kinkos, or whatever they're calling it this month — it's changed a couple times since I created my account with them). It's a little spendy (averaging about $35.00 per printing), and their online UI for uploading can be pretty slow, but it's reliable, and I'm loyal. I upload my document, select my local store, and usually within an hour, I can go pick it up. It comes in a pretty little cardboard box, perfect for toting around during the editorial process. See?

One tip: not every printer uses a pretty little box, or even an envelope, so be sure to protect your personal data if you're sending your document out for printing. Once I printed via UPS Store, as it was a couple bucks cheaper than FedEx. As per my usual, I had my cover page in the document, which included my name. My address. My phone number. So imagine my fury when I showed up at the UPS Store and there was my document, sitting out on the counter, ready for pickup, with absolutely nothing protecting it from the world. There it sat, cover page on top, address and phone number plain as day for anyone who wanted to steal my info.

I wasn't happy. I lodged a complaint with their corporate office and everything. Since then I stick with the little cardboard box of FedEx. It's the sensible choice, as far as I'm concerned.

Now that I have the document, what the heck am I looking for?

For me, the paper edit is all about making things pretty. During prior writes and rewrites, I'm looking for structural changes...character flaws...major plot holes. But now? On paper? I'm looking at all the ways I can polish my writing to make it sparkly. Shiny. Beautiful. By the end of the paper edit, I want my words to look like rainbows pooped by unicorns. 

On the paper edit, I care about word choice. Word order. I care about sentence structure, and finding my "crutch words" and crossing them ALL OUT. (Crutch words = those words you rely on, over and over again. For me, it's "toward" and "moment." If I see them on paper, I cross them out. All of them. Every single time. There's always at least fifty instances, on each paper edit I've done.)

On paper, you'll find me crossing out words and picking better ones. You'll find me drawing arrows from one paragraph to another, linking them together, helping the words find their flow. You'll find me adding notes in the margins, using asterisks to tell me where those words go, and using all those old editing symbols I learned somewhere back in middle school.

On this edit so far, some pages have barely gotten touched. Those are the pages I enjoy reading, where I sit back for a few minutes and think, "Hey, I can do this writing thing." They look like this:

Other pages...well, more on those in a sec...

Because first we need to talk about...

Starting at the end — a first for me

I don't know if you remember this, but last month when I talked about the Dreadful First Rewrite, I mentioned that I'd made a big mistake: I spent so much time re-writing the first half of my book that by the time I hit the end, I flew through the final chapters, making so few changes I knew I must be missing something. I made myself a promise: on the paper edit, I'd start at the end, and see what I found.

What I found, when I followed through on that promise, starting at the final few chapters of my paper copy, was a mess. A ginormous mess. A mess that was so messy, I had to fight the urge to say "Forget it! This book is terrible and I never want to look at it again."

Yes. It was that bad.

But part of the fun of editing on paper is you can get a little creative in how you re-do your words, and on those final pages of my book....well, here's what two pages looked like when I was done with them:

Nice, huh? But that's what I needed to do here, and that's what I did.

This is what I love about paper edits. Not only do you get to draw and scribble and doodle, but you get to see, at a glance, where you trouble spots are. There's accountability inherent in paper edits that doesn't exist on a computer screen (unless you use Track Changes, but who wants to do that? Because then you have to accept ALL the changes! UGH!). You get to flip through page after page, long after you're done, and re-live your mistakes. And by re-living them, you can finally learn how to fix them, hopefully in earlier drafts moving forward. It's a great way to advance your skills, and to keep learning how to be a better writer.

Because isn't that what we all want? To be better writers? I know I do! For me, editing on paper is always a huge step toward (crutch word!!) getting there.

Of course, after all these pages are hacked up, you get the fun job of translating your notes and inputting them into your manuscript. That job is tedious. Mindless. It kills me every time, but it's a necessary evil. So remember to write legibly enough that, when it's a month down the road and you're finally on the page again, you can figure out exactly what you meant to say. If you can't, all that time spent drawing arrows and adding notes was wasted, and you have to do it all over again.

But really, why am I not done yet? It's been a month for God's sake! least the good kind of takes time. As much as I'd love to be done with this book by now, as my husband always reminds me: some people take years to write a single book. The fact that I can write a book in just a few months is great, but sometimes, slowing down and really digging in makes all the difference in the world. 

Or at least in the world of the book.

So I'm taking my time. I'm forcing myself to be patient. To care about each word, each sentence. If I don't, I know the story will suffer, and that's unacceptable. 

What's next for this story?

After this edit is finally complete, I'll send my story out to a few betas. From them, I hope to hear where additional changes are needed. Where plot points aren't clear. Where characters aren't being true to themselves. Betas are another hugely important part of the editorial process, invaluable and imperative.

Then there will be another rewrite..and another...until, at some point, I send this story out into the world. Maybe someone will want to publish this weird little supernatural tale set during the Holocaust, and maybe not. But no matter what happens, it's all part of the process now, isn't it? Maybe I'll talk about that stuff when the time comes...but maybe I won't. Maybe you're tired of hearing me babble about process, month after month.

But enough about me...

Now it's your turn. For real this time. Fill me in! Tell me how you're doing! I'm dying to know! What are some things you've learned through editing on paper? What can you share?

Leah Rhyne

Column by Leah Rhyne

Leah Rhyne is a Jersey girl who's lived in the South so long she's lost her accent...but never her attitude. After spending most of her childhood watching movies like Star Wars, Aliens, and A Nightmare On Elm Street, and reading books like Stephen King's The Shining or It, Leah now writes horror and science-fiction. She lives with her husband, daughter, and a small menagerie of pets.

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L.W. Flouisa's picture
L.W. Flouisa from Tennessee is reading More Murakami June 1, 2015 - 7:21pm

Actually in printing off the first expansion of Song Of Lost Youth which became Voreth's Promise Saga, one thing I noted (I had just began to start writing poetry again from break from 2007 if you can believe it) that I find write two page self-contained stories, and then maybe write ten stories I could learn how to do novels, while keeping the essential essence of what I love about reading short stories. (Has a lot to do with immediacy.)

The other thing I learn later on after writing 89 poems, was that the more I tried to improve my poetry the reverse ended up happening instead of expanding. Rather I figured out how to say more in less. That's when I tackled draft two, where I removed chapters where it largely felt like I was writing edgy content for edginess sake--without going into detail, a problem with a lot of current books these days.

So after I had finished the sequel Uploaded Fairy, I alread knew of better practices going in than I would have otherwise if I had just rushed into writing novels--what I was originally wanting to do. So I don't consider that gap in writing both novelettes a waste.

And now writing my kids books--turns out I prefer middle grade dark fantasy--I know some things I'm more likely to try to avoid going in, even if I need to revise later.

Actually on the printing thing you mentioned, I was thinking about how it kind of makes me glad me chapters are short. Without asking how expensive that was when you did print it, I was thinking ouch! Whether someone's poor or not, that's gotta hurt.

But your book will be awesome for it!:D

Yea rambling in comments, and not chapters. I don't get it. Sorry about that.

Edit: Also I'm finding that in doing a shared MC structure of a story collection like novella, I'm finding not only is it better for the printer (you can print 2-4 pages at a time), but it's also easier to edit this way as well.

Benjamin Martin's picture
Benjamin Martin from Portland, OR is reading ... June 1, 2015 - 8:25pm

I finished my second novel in Janurary. My main concern was flow, and I needed to forget about the story (I wrote the final 13,000 words in one 9 hour marathon session), so I printed out a few copies and gave them out to betas. The feedback was generally positive, and they said it flowed rather well, and read quickly.
I've only got about 300 pages left in the final Dark Tower book, so once I finish that (should be by the end of the week), I'm going to sit down and go over my book with a fine toothed comb and incinerate it. The actual pages that it's printed on will be mired in puddles of red ink, and I'll rewrite the entirety of the book, probably, and go on from there. After it's finished, I'm sending it off to a friend of mine who is a freelance writer and has about 15 years as a professional editor (I refer to him regularly as my mentor), and listen to any notes or suggestions he has for me. That whole process will probably take me about 3 weeks.
Then it's on to novel #3!

leah_beth's picture
leah_beth from New Jersey - now in Charleston, SC is reading five different books at once. June 2, 2015 - 4:16am

@L.W. - That's awesome, what you say about learning to say more with less, and cutting out the edge that's only in there for edginess sake! I do agree that I see a LOT of that in contemporary lit, and I'm always glad when people are able to recognize (and repair) this in their own work. It sounds like you and I are both still learning - every day, learning - which is how I know we'll eventually succeed, right? :) We HAVE to keep learning. :)

@Benjamin - That's also awesome. "mired in puddles of red ink" sounds like what I do on paper, too...although I use a blue pen because it's less startling. Ha! Good luck taking the step with the editor friend. I did that recently, and was a nervous wreck waiting for her changes! But it made for a better book, so I was SO glad I did it! Nervousness notwithstanding. :)


L.W. Flouisa's picture
L.W. Flouisa from Tennessee is reading More Murakami June 2, 2015 - 8:25pm

Actually question, when you edit your short stories, is it similar to how you do novels? I'm finding like my mindset for writing, my approach to editing short stories is different from editing novellas. Like I prefer leaving readers something they don't know that while would be nice if there was an answer, the lack of it adds to the mistique.

leah_beth's picture
leah_beth from New Jersey - now in Charleston, SC is reading five different books at once. June 3, 2015 - 4:29am

Good question! I think the process is similarly structured for me. A couple computer rewrites, then an edit on paper. Then have people read it. But I do agree that I'm looking for/at different things, if only because shorts are set up SO differently from novels. I try to remind myself that every word counts in both, but it's so much easier to DO in a short. :D

Deets999's picture
Deets999 from Connecticut is reading Adjustment Day June 3, 2015 - 6:47am

Nice article, Leah! I just finished editing the fourth draft of my novel literally last night - at the kitchen table with the red pen for sure! I certainly agree it all has to be printed out and mangled with red if you want a better product. Fortunatley for me, I work for a company with lots of print rooms, so I just fire off a fresh copy when I need to (which I did this morning - so I have a nice, shiney new draft four without a mark on it). So after 4 drafts, I'm probably at the point where I need other people to review and provide feedback, which leads me to my question - how do you choose who your betas will be? I have some ideas for myself, but I'd be curious what thought you put into it? Thanks, Deets999

leah_beth's picture
leah_beth from New Jersey - now in Charleston, SC is reading five different books at once. June 3, 2015 - 11:15am

Hey Deets! Thanks for the comments, and that's awesome re: your novel and your printing setup. I have to say: I'm jealous. :D

As for betas, I have a few writer friends with whom I go back and forth with beta-ing - they read my stuff, I read theirs. I've found them through the years via twitter and also real life - most of my betas are real world friends, if that makes sense.

For this particular novel, I've had several friends who don't normally beta my stuff reach out and tell me they're interested. I think it's the fact that it's Holocaust-based, and these people know how much it means to me. This is HUGE to me- I think beta readers are sooooo important, and I value them so much! Their feedback really is priceless.

If you're in the market for betas, this is a great place to start - post a community thread, offering to trade. But you've got to find someone you think you'll have rapport, with, you know? I also have met dozens of writers via Twitter, many of whom have become aweome friends and have beta-d other projects. 

There's no one answer (is there ever??), but remember: betas need to be people you trust, not only to tell you the good, but also point out the bad (albeit in a kind way...nobody likes a mean-spirited beta!!).

Hope that helps!

voodoo_em's picture
voodoo_em from England is reading All the books by Ira Levin June 4, 2015 - 2:12am

Leah, even though I'm not working on a novel with you (I've been stuck on a novella for months now gahhhh!) And I often don't comment on this column because of that, I want you to know I'll never tire of hearing you babble about the process :)

Awesome column, thanks for sharing them with us.

leah_beth's picture
leah_beth from New Jersey - now in Charleston, SC is reading five different books at once. June 4, 2015 - 6:13am

Aw, Em! Thanks! That means so much to me!! <3 <3 <3