Philosophy of Writing – 7 – Skim Editing

Posted on March 14, 2012 by


This is the second and final post that will cover flavours of editing that I inflict on my own manuscripts but that I don’t see referenced anywhere else. My previous post dealt with how our perceptions of words will change dependent on what physical medium they’re presented on; in that post I suggest an editing step that controls for medium.

Skim editing is about perspective of a different breed, viz., that of a reader, someone who hasn’t any ego invested in the book. You want this kind of perspective; it says things that hurt, but that must be said if you’re out to write a good book (rather than feel accomplished or be famous). It’s essential to have before you start reworking dialogue, character, and plot.

I can nearly always spot manuscripts that have been held too close to the chest: the writing quality swings wildly because the writer can’t tell good sentences from favoured sentences, the prose aches with awkward longing, perhaps the writer stamps copyright notices on every page. I cannot cut a swathe through writing like this without offending — though I have a habit of doing it anyway and damn the consequences, because I don’t have the patience to mollycoddle adults.

I’ve learnt how to submit my writing to dispassionate scrutiny by turning off a little switch labeled “Ego” that sits right under my sternum. Off it goes (sounds like a faint, descending fwoop) and suddenly I can slash and hack my way through line editing. This isn’t enough: I find it vastly more difficult to see the places where bits of plot attach together, or the sweeping curves that make up character development and persona. This is where the skim editing step comes in.

During normal editing, every error is a stop sign. I have to stop, fix, get my bearings again, repeat. It means I can’t take a step back and view the whole picture. Skim editing forces a higher speed to artificially reduce persnickety-ness and neurotic writer-osity. It has two enormous benefits: helping you ignore small problems for the bigger picture, and helping you read without getting wrapped up in yourself.


~Here’s how to skim edit.~

1) Do a wordcount of your manuscript.
e.g.: Maybe is about 150,000 words. (N.B. from the future — in its current state, it’s less than 120k.)

2) Find a book you read recently.
e.g.: Tempted by His Kiss, 384 pages, about 110,000 words. (I write literary fiction, mag. real, and slipstream, but I don’t dare knock romance. Those authors can plot, by god.)

3) How long did it take you to read it?
e.g.: about 3 hours. Say 4 for charity’s sake.

4) Work out how fast you read.
e.g.: 27,500 words/hr

5) Control for genre.
e.g.: Maybe is not written in the same way as Tempted. Revise to 25,000.

6) Work out how long it will take you to read your book.
e.g.: 6 hours

7) That is how long you have to read your manuscript. Do not stop to make notes. Do not stop to correct spelling. Sit on your hands unless you have to turn a page.

8) Ask yourself:

  • Were you swept up in the story?
  • Did you stop noticing errors?
  • Did characters seem like conglomerates or committees rather than single personalities? (If yes, not good.)
  • How long before you looked up from the manuscript, even though you know it by heart?
  • Did you ever think, “Psh. No-one would talk like that,”?
  • Did you laugh inappropriately? (Not good either.)
  • Were the funny bits still funny?
  • Could you see the seams where chunks of plot were sewn together?
  • Did your tone match up in appropriate places (i.e., when you wanted the same particular emotional response from the reader in separate places in the manuscript, did you keep your authorial voice consistent)? This is a difficult one, but important.

9) Once you’re done reading, write a review of your own book. Note its weaknesses. Note any passages that moved you deeply. Note answers to the above questions. This information is what you’ll need to do content editing.