Jane Austen on Editing

It is a truth universally (if somewhat despairingly) acknowledged that a manuscript once written is no more fit for the eyes of a publisher or agent than a manuscript half written. One does not get to hit the send button simply because one has slogged it out until typing The End. The simple (and occasionally depressing) fact is that just because it is written, does not mean that it is finished. There are the edits.


What are these edits that everyone talks about with hushed voices and glazed stares? What makes them so daunting and universally loathed? Well, there is of course the structural edit, there might be something more after that, and then there is the line edit, see?

No? I didn’t either.

Since finishing my second draft (an almost complete re-write of the first) I’ve been trawling the internet and doing a bit of poking about in my various writing books to try and discover what is involved in this horrible task of editing that lies ahead of me.

I decided to start with the purpose of the edits. What exactly am I trying to achieve by reading my manuscript over and over and over until I’m heartily sick of the thing? In the introduction to the Wordsworth Classics edition of Jane Austen’s Lady Susan and Other Works Nicholas Seager describes Austen’s revision process as ‘the art of controlling readers’ responses to characters and situations’. He gives some examples of Austen’s edits to show the power of choosing the right words for a given situation. In an excerpt from The Watsons (an unfinished manuscript by Austen) there is a line in which a woman is shown ‘stifling her own angry feelings [mortification]’. There is a wealth of differing information in the two choices of phrasing. A woman who is mortified suggests and entirely different social situation than a woman who is angry. Nicholas Seager makes the point that you can be angered by your inferiors, but not your superiors. Which goes on to change our opinion, not only of the victim, but of the perpetrator as well. To anger someone is different, and perhaps more forgivable than to mortify them.


So, I had an aim: to control responses to the characters and situations I had created, but how to go about it exactly? I had lots of little scraps of information about things that needed to be cut from first (or second first) drafts, but the whole thing was still a terribly confusing mass of formless information that was as overwhelming as the edits I was supposed – somehow — to be doing.


That was when I stumbled upon a gem of a blog post by Zachery Petit on writersdigest.com called What to Look for When Editing Your Manuscript. In it he details a list of edits (and I mean details) that need to be considered before sending your work off to an agent or publisher. The list is not his own, he got it from the Crime Writer Patricia Gussin, and I am in turn stealing it from him. I won’t give the full details of the list here, for that you should check out the blog post, but I’ll give a brief overview of what is involved. The editing method is called the 5 Reread Program, in which you re-read your manuscript five separate times looking for specific flaws and doing specific edits each time.

Read 1: The content (I think this is what is also known as structural edit. Does your manuscript make sense? What can you cut out of it?)

Read 2: The enhancement (this will be the part where I’ll be cracking out the Thesaurus of Emotions so that my characters can show surprise by more than a lift of their eyebrows every second page)

Read 3: The sentence level (also known as a line edit. Do you really mean that sentence? Do you? Can it be said any better? Agonise over it… and repeat. For Every Sentence. Just like Jane did.)

Read 4: The little things (I have a Margaret who somehow became a Moira by the end of the book — stuff like that)

Read 5: Read out loud (my husband can’t wait for this one, although I suspect it will be my new little baby who will be the privileged recipient of most of this edit.)


The original list is much more extensive, there is a beautiful structure to it and I love having a game plan once more, rather the vague aim of ‘making this manuscript better’. I highly recommend checking it out if you’d like to demystify the editing process.


Today I started Read 1 in earnest. I have already completed bits and pieces of this one along the way, so I’m hoping it won’t be too painful. My aim is to cut a whole lot of words and iron out some time-line issues that have cropped up along the way. There are also quite a few notes peppered throughout my manuscript to the tune of ‘insert vital-yet-to-be-determined piece of information here’, so hopefully I work those out while I’m at it. I would like to get Read 1 finished by the end of January. Any fingers crossed on my behalf would be very much appreciated!


Next week on the blog is my very first Author Interview! I’ll be interviewing Carolyn Denman, the super talented author of Songlines, a YA novel, the first in the Sentinels of Eden series, and a cracking great read. To make sure you don’t miss it, or any of my posts, be sure to subscribe to my blog using the box at the bottom of the home page. If you’d like to get in touch between posts, or take a peek into the world of my writing, reading and mothering, then you can find me most days on Twitter, Facebook or Instagram. Happy New Year everyone, I’ll see you next week!


8 thoughts on “Jane Austen on Editing

  1. Sounds exhausting. How do you keep fresh eyes, not deleting 3/4 of the book during the editing process?Potentially may also explain the varying quality of books that are published, particularly the convoluted story lines, where I sometimes think the author got bored and wrapped it up. Gives you a new appreciation for all the work required to complete a book. 😀

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Sarah,
    Thankyou so much for sharing your agony and insights. Perfect timing for me. I was trying to finish my edit by end of Jan but will be happy to finish the structural edit by then. Happy, painfree editing. Regards, Lyndal

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Thanks for the useful information and providing the link to your source of editing information – I’ve ‘pocketed’ it for later because I’m planning on an extensive re-right and edit. It’s helpful, like you said, to have an actual game plan when editing. I didn’t have this for my first round of edits!

    Liked by 1 person

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