Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Self-Editing, Elizabeth George Style


Are you shaking in your boots?

One of my all-time favorite writing books is Write Away by Elizabeth George. If you're looking for a craft book where the author lays out her process in a clear and easy way, I recommend George's work. Of course, it could be I love it because it's similar to what I have bumblingly put together on my own. However, because I want you to get something out of this post, I'll go with George's detail, not mine. She's much clearer because she's done it some twenty-five times. Me? Um . . . twice.

George does an incredible amount of prep work before she begins. Because of the preliminary work, when she's finally ready to settle down and create her first draft, she doesn't have to worry about what's going to happen next or how her characters should respond. She's able to focus on the best words and use them to create a compelling story.

That doesn't mean things don't change and new ideas don't surface, it just means she's free to allow them to do so without concern about how they fit into the story she is telling.

When she's finished with her first draft, she prints out a hard copy and tries to read it through in a couple of days. She makes no changes to the book. Let me repeat that, because—at least for me—this is the hardest thing to do. She makes no changes to the book during this read through. On a separate piece of paper, she makes notes of where the story needs some kind of work: clarification; delete areas of repetition; delete purple-prose; improve sub-plots; etc. She's simply looking for ways to make the story better, in an editorly way.

Then she writes herself an editorial letter as a guide for her second draft. She doesn't say this in Write Away, but I hope she gives herself a few pats on the back while she points out the weaknesses of the manuscript.

Her second draft is done pen-to-that-untouched hard copy. She goes through and deletes, adds and moves things around with the real cut and paste concept. If she needs to create something longer than three handwritten pages, she'll consider typing it up. Otherwise, this is where she literally gets her hands dirty, uses a bright red pen to slash through paragraphs, and scissors and tape to move paragraphs or scenes around.

This second draft is done at the rate of about fifty pages per day. When she's finished with her marked-up, cut-up and pasted draft, she types all of the changes into the computer, prints out a new copy and gives it to one cold reader. She includes two documents. The first one contains questions her reader should know about prior to the cold read, the second one is sealed and contains questions George didn't want her reader to be influenced by beforehand.

If there are further changes that need to be made, she makes them. Then it's off to her editor.

Have you read Write Away? Does this process appeal to you?

CR: Seed by Ania Ahlborn.

It's all better with friends.


  1. I have more writing books than Writer's Digest but crud! I don't have this one. If I did, I might not be struggling. This was a super post. Thanks for the details. I can see where this would work. And oddly enough, I just printed out my entire manuscript two days ago...just haven't sat down to read through it. Thanks to your instructions I feel better equipt! And the book is now on my Christmas list. :)

  2. As I read through this post again just now, I realize there are more little things, but the gist is here. And you'll get tons more from WRITE AWAY when you work your way through it.

    I'm like you though, Jess. I've got cookbooks with enough recipes to last two lifetimes without ever repeating a meal, and enough writing books to open a bookstore dedicated only to the writing of fiction.

    It's a sickness.

    Unfortunately, neither make me a better cook or writer unless I take the time to work my way through them.

  3. Thanks for the "revising post". After NaNoWriMo, I'll need all the help I can get.

  4. I'm listening to my third audiobook by Elizabeth George in the car each day. It's her characters that blow me away. They are so three dimensional. She makes you care enough to wade through all the minutie of the English police procedural. The last audiobook was 21 CDs. Took me weeks to finish. Today I was sitting in traffic bawling over Helen's death. Great story and great craft.

  5. Kay, are you Greek? Are you a yaya (sorry if I'm spelling that wrong). I love being a yaya. Great good luck to you with NaNo. It's an exciting, challenging event.

    Kelly, Elizabeth George is a master, plain and simple. And in her book, WRITE AWAY, she goes into her character development and everything else. I have not read a better book on craft.

  6. I have more writing books than I count. I love them! I read the Elizabeth George book about a month ago and was blown away. You're right, Peg. It's one of the most useful books on writing and editing I've ever read.

  7. Same with me! I've gone from cookbooks to writing books. Can't have too many.