Note to Self – Useful Editing Notes

After a scorching Christmas break, I must admit I’ve been struggling to slot back into my writing routine. We’ve had a run of visitors, and with two very active children on their summer holiday there’s been nary a moment to sit down – let alone give the WIP any attention. Picking up a story after a break is never easy, but this time things have been much easier because of a new habit I’ve developed over the past year: Making editing notes to myself while I’m writing.

Why make editing notes?

1. Protecting the Flow.

One of the most difficult things about editing as you go, is that it slows you down. For years I was hobbled by a tendency to go back and re-work (and re-work and re-work) the early chapters of my novel.  The problem was, the more I worked at them, the worse they became. Stiff, stilted and in need of more work. It was a vicious cycle.

Yet when I tried writing without editing at all, I’d become frustrated and disillusioned with any progress I’d made – because secretly I thought it was all terrible.

So after trying a number of different approaches, I started jotting down editing notes in the margin while I was writing. This allowed me to keep pressing ahead in flow, but still have the confidence that I could follow-up my train of thought at a later time.

The result was a much smoother story, greater (and more useable) word count, and good notes for future edits.

2. Clarity.

Sometimes the first draft in all its rawness fails to capture the original vision for the scene. For me, a note recording my goal at the time of writing helps me to reconnect at a later stage and to evaluate whether it works or not. There’s nothing worse than reading an old scene and wondering why you wrote it in the first place.

What makes a good Editing Note?

1. It’s succinct.

A good editing note contains just enough information to jog your memory. It’s like playing the boardgame Pictionary (think charades with pictures) when you’re competing against another group. It’s fast, it’s furious and it’s unlikely to be pretty. It never ceases to amaze me how quickly you can convey something with a few squiggly lines –  especially if you know your partner well. With editing notes you also have the added bonus of being able to understand your own shorthand…

2. Purpose.

  • Throat-clearing: Sometimes I will only write ‘clunk’ or ‘info-dump’ next to a passage. Acknowledging it silences the inner-editor, and helps me to stop worrying about the writing being less than perfect.
  • Detail checks. They say the devil is in the detail – but sometimes you just don’t have the time to check when you’re writing. Place names, eye colour, physical descriptions, was Calaban actually at the meeting? Most of these things won’t affect the outcome of the story, but it’s important they’re right. If they are game changers, you’ll need time to evaluate anyway, so for now just leave a note.
  • Placeholders. There are a number of reasons to use a placeholder. Maybe you have another storyline that’s fresh in your mind, or maybe you just don’t know quite how to put the scene together. So you make yourself a note to give it attention later. My favourite placeholder was one Patrick Rothfuss shared when he was writing Wise Man’s Fear:

    ‘Chapter 31: [need title]
    (Something happens with Ambrose here.)’

    And he’s a best-selling author!

  • Inserts. These are often my favourite to re-read because the references will often make sense only to you. Just recently I stumbled across one of mine that read:

‘add that in earlier when it happens’

Yeah, well I know what it meant… Inserts could be scenes you’ve written earlier that would work better here. Or things you need to go back and add so your later scene makes sense.

  • Direction.  For those times when you don’t quite hit the right note and you want the characters to come across a certain way.

‘Marcus not likeable enough’

I find this particularly true when writing dialogue / interactions between characters. As long as I’ve identified the main emotional tone I know I can always go back and strengthen it later.

  • Chapter Notes. Because I write multiple POVs, I tend to leave a note at the end of a chapter describing where this character might be heading next and what their frame of mind is.

‘Will try to set aside fears and give Marcus benefit of the doubt – but will catch him in lie. Nathaniel?’

Managing the Notes.

I used to wait until I’d printed out my draft before making editing notes. Now I use the Comment Function on MS Word. It collates and numbers the comments out to the side of the page, which makes for an easier edit, and isn’t as distracting when I’m drafting. It’s also useful when I’m detail checking or am looking for information to add to a character or plot summary.

For example I recently realised I didn’t have Marcus’s eye colour in his character profile, so I’d written him with blue eyes – with a note to check. Later on I came across a passage I’d written for book 3, where it was really important his eyes were brown. I updated Marcus’s character profile and was able to reference the few places where his eye colour was mentioned or needed to be.

‘Prologue of Legend: Marcus has brown eyes. Celeste needs specific memory / contrast with Roan. Reference in Ch 2 of Kings – first scene with Celeste? When Josiah challenges Marcus – Ch 6?’

Ultimately, editing notes are as unique and as personal as the writer. At best they help me keep track of a huge story, and at the least they provide a record of what I was thinking while I was writing.

How about you? Do you write yourself editing notes or do you prefer to edit with a clean slate and fresh eyes? Can you always understand the notes you’ve left yourself? I love to hear your thoughts!

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5 thoughts on “Note to Self – Useful Editing Notes

  1. Because I use a Neo for most of my first draft, I put a — and then start typing my note. I use all capitals when a person or place needs a name. For example: WAITRESS And I tack a zzz onto the end of a word I might want to change so the spell-check will point it out to me. =0)

  2. It’s nice to have you back with great tips! 🙂 When I write, I take notes on a separate sheet but not on the actual MS… Now I wonder if I’m the only one who does that 😉

    1. That’s what I love about talking with other writers about how their process works. I used to make myself notes (on paper), but kept losing them. Although that probably says more about me and my organisational skills!

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