How To Master the Editing Process for Writers Barbara Rogan header

Barbara Rogan has worked in almost every area of the publishing industry over the last 30 years. She’s published nine novels, founded a literary agency, and a highly esteemed professional editor. Barbara has taught fiction writing at SUNY Farmingdale and Hofstra and also teaches online courses for writers.

Barbara knew that she wanted to be a published author from a very early age. She remembers reading a lot of books when she was young. One of the books that stands out to her is A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle.

Realizing that authors have day jobs, Barbara quickly got a job with a publishing company after college. When she moved to Israel, she also worked in the publishing industry there.

In today’s episode, we talk about the best practices for becoming a better writer, mastering the editing process, and choosing the right editor for you. Whether you’re a brand-new novelist, a nonfiction writer, or an experienced bestselling author, Barbara’s wealth of information and experience in the publishing industry can help you become even better.

Note: I’m sorry the sound quality is pretty poor in this episode! There was a problem with Barbara’s mic. But trust me, this interview is a gem, so hang in there because there’s a lot of wisdom shared by this wonderful woman!


How the Publishing Industry Has Changed since 2004

In 2004, very few authors had websites. Facebook had just come online for non-students and there was no way for authors to directly connect with their fans through Facebook.

At that time, there was no easy way to have direct contact between authors and fans. Back then, if someone read your book and liked it, they’d have to write a letter to the publisher, who would then forward that letter on to you as the author.

There were also book signings as there have been for decades, but the kind of direct intimate contact that authors and fans can have today wasn’t possible back in 2004.

It was much more difficult to be a writer back in 2004 because after a book was published, you could go weeks without getting any sort of feedback from readers. Today, you can get immediate feedback from your fans, which makes being an author much less lonely.

How Authors Can Take Advantage of the Changes in the Publishing Industry in 2014 and Beyond

There are three paths an author can take in this new world.

  1. Self-publish. Barbara recommends this path to people who just want to get their book out there so people can buy it. She says:

“If you’re okay publishing a book and just having your family and friends read it, self-publishing your book is probably the way to go.”
– Barbara Rogan

  1. Work on your book and submit it to agents. Once an agent accepts your book, they will try to sell it to publishers.

This is the path Barbara recommends if you want to have a career as a writer. The main advantage of selling your book to a publisher is that they do the work to get your books into bookstores and libraries. Unfortunately, bookstore owners typically won’t put your books on their shelves unless they’re working with a publisher.

Listen to our interview with Amy Collins about how to get your books into bookstores and libraries for ways to get around this problem.

  1. Pursue a contract with a small press. Small presses generally give small advances, if there’s an advance at all, but they have the advantage of being a publisher that bookstores and libraries will deal with.

After You Finish Your First Draft, the Real Work Begins

There’s a tendency for beginning writers to feel like when they’ve finished the first draft, they’re done with the book. If you finish a first draft of your story or novel, you’ve probably gotten further than 98% of people who say they want to write fiction, start a story, and never finish.

When you finish the first draft of your story, your words often feel like they’re carved in stone because you’ve read them at least 70 times in the process of creating your art.

The problem is, if all you do is write one draft of your story without going back to edit it, your story will probably never be published. And if you self-publish, it won’t sell many copies.

Your first draft is an important first step in the process. You have a finished story. You’ve written a story down. It’s out of you and it’s not going anywhere.

Now you have to be willing to shape the story into something better than it currently is. A story is like a sculpture. You have to be willing to smooth out the edges to make it the best story you can.

What You Need to Do after You Finish the First Draft

What you want to do after you finish your first draft is to look at your book with a much more analytical eye than you did when you were writing your draft. Ideally, when you’re writing your first draft, you’re writing in creative voice, and you should feel comfortable taking chances and going crazy places when you’re writing creatively.

When you move into the editing phase of your publishing journey, you want to make sure that your story is a cohesive whole, and that your reader can follow it from beginning to end.

Don’t go looking for things to change in your story after you finish your first draft. That will lead to a search for perfection that will keep your book from ever being published.

Self-Editing: Things to Look for When Revising Your First Draft

But while you shouldn’t go looking for things to change, you do need to have a critical eye when editing a first draft. Here are some things to look for:

  • Look at the pace of your novel.
  • Look at the structure of your novel.
  • Look at the beginning of your story and the end of your story. Do they have a relationship to each other?
  • Look at your protagonist.
  • Does your protagonist have a character arc?
  • Look at the small things too.
  • Do you have any sentences that are unwieldy?
  • Does your dialogue read and sound like it should?
  • Look at the characters in your novel.
  • Look at the scenes in your novel.
  • Does every scene in your novel move the story forward?
  • Does every scene in your novel reveal or evolve the characters in the scenes in some way?

“All great dialogue is edited dialogue.”
– Barbara Rogan

Barbara has found the best way to self-edit is to go through your manuscript multiple times, focusing on a different aspect each time.

For example, you might use one editing pass to look at the arc of a particular character in your story. During that pass, you’d read only the scenes that that character appears in.

In your next pass you might focus only on the dialogue. You’d look at the dialogue and consider how you might be able to change it to make the story clearer and better. You should try to make your dialogue tighter if possible.

By focusing on one thing per editing pass, you give yourself the best shot at fixing your story without getting overwhelmed by how all the elements fit together.

Another way to break down the editing process is to look at one scene at a time and make sure that each scene that you look at is important to the story and moves it forward.

It’s important that you go to the trouble of editing your rough draft before you hand it to an editor. As the writer and creator of your story, you’re going to put a lot more into editing your first draft than any editor will. You also have the ability to rewrite sections of your draft.

Editors don’t rewrite. They fix as much as they can of what’s already there.

Nine times out of 10, giving the first draft of your manuscript to an editor without editing it yourself is a waste of money.

How Do You Know if Your First Novel Is Ready for an Editor?

If you’re writing your first novel, realize that every writer you know has been in your shoes. A lot of authors don’t publish their first attempts at writing a novel.

If you’ve written your first novel and want to publish it, the first thing you should do is get some critical eyes that you trust to look at your current draft.

If you’re a member of a writers group, you can ask the members of that group to be your first readers.

If you gone as far as you can on your own, it might be worth it to pay somebody to take a look at it—not to edit, but to give you an idea of how close the manuscript is to being publishable. You don’t have to take this step. Many successful authors don’t. But you should consider it if you’re writing your first novel.

“Revising your own work is as much a part of writing as getting that first draft done. You’re shortchanging yourself as a writer if you don’t revise your own work.”
– Barbara Rogan

Most professional writers Barbara knows spend as much time editing their work as they do writing it.

Read Like a Writer

Another way writers can improve their craft without spending a dime is to read widely and read well. Read like a writer.

Study the stories that you like. Study the stories that move you. Figure out how the writer was able to accomplish a dramatic effect.

Published writers are your best teachers of what works.

Here’s a way to practice writing: If there is a particular part of the story that you like, try typing that section of the book into your word processor program as if you were the author writing it. This will help move the technique from your conscious into your subconscious mind, and the technique will be more readily available to you when you need it for your own work.

How to Draw the Reader into Your Book from the Beginning

If you don’t pull the reader into your story within the first few pages, chances are they aren’t going to stick with your book till the end.

It’s important to do something in your story to interest readers quickly.

  • You have to give your readers a voice worth listening to.
  • You have to introduce your main character in a way that makes them immediately sympathetic to the reader, or immediately interesting to the reader.
  • It’s possible to start your story with an interesting villain.
  • Another common tactic is to give the reader a scene where they feel empathy for your hero.
  • Remember, the first scene of your story usually takes place during your protagonist’s status quo (that is, before the inciting incident sends them on an adventure).

Language matters. Language is the tool. Saying language doesn’t matter to a writer is like saying paint doesn’t matter to a painter. Of course it does.
– Barbara Rogan

“If you don’t enjoy a well-crafted sentence, you probably shouldn’t be writing.”
– Barbara Rogan

How To Master the Editing Process for Writers Barbara Rogan quote image

Invest in Yourself and Learn the Craft of Writing

If you want to make writing your career, take some classes and learn something about it. Put your money where your mouth is.

Barbara doesn’t recommend getting an English degree, necessarily. But you should find somebody who knows more about writing than you do and learn from them.

Columbia has an advanced publishing degree. And the University of Iowa has a writers’ workshop program. (You’ll find links to more info for both of those programs at the bottom of this page.)

If a traditional college setting doesn’t appeal to you, there are many different people offering online courses on writing, publishing, and marketing. Do your research and make sure the people you choose to invest your time and money in have proven results in the areas that they’re teaching you.

Reputable editors and teachers will critique a small portion of your work (usually up to 5,000 words) either for free, or for a small nominal fee. This allows you as the client to get a sense of what they have to offer.

“The most effective route to becoming a better writer is all about your work ethic, practice, and willingness to learn, make mistakes, and correct as you go.”
– Barbara Rogan

Links and Resources Mentioned in This Interview – Barbara Rogan’s website

A Wrinkle in Time

Barbara Rogan’s author page – Learn about Barbara’s workshops and editorial services

A Dangerous Fiction: A Mystery – Barbara’s new novel. It’s a mystery set in the world of New York publishing.

Columbia’s Advanced Publishing Degree – an intensive six-week introduction to all aspects of book, magazine, and digital publishing.

The University of Iowa writers workshop – the Iowa writers’ workshop is a two-year residency program that culminates in the submission of a creative thesis (a novel, a collection of stories, or a book of poetry) and the awarding of a Master of Fine Arts degree.