You Don’t Write as Well as You Think (Or, It Takes a Village to Write a Book)

Red PenIn my Write for Magazines class (which is coming up on March 21, by the way!) one thing that seems to surprise writers is that the first ideas that come out of their head, and the first draft of the query they send me, usually need a lot of work. That can be a big blow to the ego.

Writing requires a thick skin, so I’m lucky that I have pretty much no ego when it comes to my writing. You think my jokes are lame? Hmm, maybe I should take them out. You say I use too many em-dashes? Good point!

That’s probably because, having been a magazine writer for the last 20 years, I’ve been through more editing and revising than you want to know about. Especially with the newsstand women’s and health magazines, multiple rounds of revision are par for the course. Also common is what we call gang editing: That’s when you’ll have one editor ask for 50 changes, and then another editor asks for 50 changes that directly contradict the requests of the first editor. Lots of fun.

Although at times I considered my editors’ requests ridiculous, I’ve learned from this experience that editors are vital, as they give us a perspective we writers don’t have. We think our work is sparkling and perfect, and then an editor asks a question that makes us realize that the reader isn’t getting everything out of our writing that we had hoped.

To make you feel less bad about the edits and revision requests you may be getting from your editors and clients, I’d like to tell you about the 11-week process of writing and editing my upcoming book How to Do It All: The Revolutionary Plan to Create a Full, Meaningful Life — While Only Occasionally Wanting to Poke Your Eyes out with a Sharpie. This book went through so many editors, and so many revisions, it’s not even funny…and it proved to me once again that I don’t write as well as I think.

I’m also hoping this post will show you how much work goes into writing and editing a book, so you won’t fall into the common trap of whipping out a first draft, tossing it up onto Amazon, and crossing your fingers for a bestseller.

A Bit About the Book

A few pieces of info you’ll need in order for all this to make sense:

  • I abbreviated the adjective Do-It-All as D-I-A
  • The D-I-A Plan is divided into 12 Desires, which include Travel, Create an Amazing Home, Cross a Finish Line, Volunteer, Become Well-Read, and Grow Your Spiritual Practice.
  • Readers will choose a Goal for each Desire. They can go after whatever Goals they want, but if they’re stuck, I offer suggestions for three Levels of Goals they can pursue. For example, for the Desire Cross a Finish Line, the three suggested Goals are to complete a 5k, a half-marathon, or a marathon.
  • This book comes with a free downloadable packet of printable Worksheets.

Now, let’s talk about the writing and editing process. Take a deep breath!

The First Draft

It took me about four weeks to write the first draft of this book and I was pretty darn proud of it. It was well written! It was witty! The advice in this book would totally blow readers away!

Except that it didn’t. I ran the first draft by my business partner Diana, and she was, to put it mildly, not impressed.

Diana told me that when she read the book I published last year, Commit: How to Blast Through Problems & Reach Your Goals Through Massive Action, she actually got a thrill of excitement and a feeling that she couldn’t believe she knew the author of this book. When she read my the draft of How to Do It All, she didn’t feel that way at all.

Diana had many suggestions about:

  • Re-organizing the order of the chapters.
  • Including more advice that wouldn’t cost money to implement.
  • Completely redoing the Do-It-All Plan with more concrete Goals instead of leaving readers to figure out good Goals on their own.
  • Offering advice on exactly how I get it all done, instead of relying basic motivational and time-management tips.
  • Using fewer em-dashes, ellipses, and parentheses.

So I printed the draft out, edited it based on Diana’s feedback, entered the edits into the Word document, and sent the new draft along to my 20 beta readers.

(One thing to keep in mind is that every time I revised the manuscript, I would print out all 200 pages and go over the draft once more with a red pen. This happened four times.)

The Beta Reader Draft

After a week, my 20 readers had sent back my beta reader form, and their feedback and suggestions were spot-on. Here’s what I changed based on their insights:

  • The original three Goals for each Desire were a non-optional part of the Plan, but my readers didn’t like being told what to do. So I made the three Goals for each Desire “Suggested” goals and moved them down lower in each D-I-A Desire section, and added in advice on how to choose a Goal of your own.
  • Moved the Say Yes to Stress chapter from the front of the book to the beginning of Part 2.
  • Moved the Give Your Values Center Stage and Fight the Resistance chapters to the beginning of Part 2 as well. My beta readers said these two chapters were among the most important and should be moved up.
  • Removed a few lame jokes referring to movies a lot of women haven’t seen, like Fight Club, The Lego Movie, and Wayne’s World.
  • I wanted the book to be relevant to all women, so I used the word “partner” instead of “husband.” One beta reader mentioned that this got a bit repetitive, so I changed some instances of “partner” to “spouse” or “significant other.”
  • Expanded the “housekeeping notes” section at the beginning of the book.
  • In the chapter Love Your Looks , deleted the mention of a research study about how looking good gets you better jobs, higher pay, etc. A beta reader pointed out that this copy undermined the purpose of the chapter, which is about taking care of your looks so you feel good about yourself, not to meet some external standards.
  • Renamed several of the chapters.
  • Added in suggestions for types of writing you may want to try for the Write Desire.
  • Suggested that if readers didn’t like one of the Desires in the Plan, that they instead select a Desire of their own related to Health, Romance, Parenting, or Career.
  • Took our almost every swear word.
  • Got rid of most instances of the phrase “you need.” There were a lot of them!
  • Revised the Do-It-All Manifesto to sound less braggy.
  • Combined the chapters What This Book Is and What This Book Isn’t into one chapter.
  • Made the “Ditch Normal” chapter part of the “D-I-A Manifesto.”
  • Created an Appendix with a list of every worksheet plus the questions/prompts, for those readers who would like to journal their D-I-A Plan or create their own worksheets.
  • Moved together the chapters on TV, social media, and email.

At this point, I also wrote the front matter and back matter (acknowledgements, dedication, copyright page, about the author, etc.), and also added the chapter numbers, which I didn’t want to do earlier in case the order of the chapters changed. Then, I had to scan through the book and make sure that every time I mentioned a chapter in the copy, it had the correct chapter number.

Then, I printed out the whole manuscript again, edited it, and sent it along to my proofreader.

The Proofreader Draft

The proofreader I hired, Vince, ended up being more like a developmental editor, which was great. He noticed several places where I repeated myself; called out risky statements and suggestions I might want to rethink; developed a better way to handle headings and subheads; pointed out areas where I came off as less than an expert; and suggested additional copy and tips.

One big thing Vince noticed was that I had something 150 asides, by which he meant parenthetical statements or little additions like “You go girl!” and “Yeah, right.” I got rid of most of those, but some I couldn’t bear to lose.

Once I went through the manuscript and accepted or rejected each change Vince suggested, I printed out the whole thing again and out came the red pen.

The Almost-Final Draft

At this stage I meant to simply do a final proofread to make sure no typos slipped in due to the mess Track Changes makes in Word, but I ended up doing a whole new edit. And this time I was even more ruthless than Vince!

I ended up killing the rest of those asides, and deleting just about every personal anecdote that didn’t forward the point of the book. For example, when I suggested inviting a family of refugees to your home for Thanksgiving, I mentioned that we have friends in Berlin who do this. Delete! I mentioned my husband’s medical problems, a friend in Belgium who does walking tours, and how often I’ve hired cleaning services and landscapers. Delete, delete, delete!

In addition, I suddenly noticed that I started a lot of sentences with “Well,” as in, “Well, they’re wrong.” I did a search and destroy on that flabby word. I also deleted a heck of a lot of exclamation points that made my writing seem breathless and overly chipper.

Because the book is going to be published in both e-book and print format, I needed two versions: One with hyperlinks and one without. The original manuscript had a ton of links, but I realized I could make the book more complete if, instead of linking to studies or articles, I included the attributions right in the copy. For example, instead of writing “A recent study says X,” with a link on the word “study,” I deleted the link and wrote, “A 2014 study in the Journal of Happiness says X.”

Also, instead of linking to sites like Airbnb and BabysittingCoOp, I unlinked them and made sure to give the full web address with the .com so interested readers would know where to find these resources.

All this unlinking, and rewriting my attributions, took a while but made the book much more comprehensive—and also obviated the need for me to create two separate versions of the manuscript.

By now, the book was much stronger and more authoritative, but was still a reflection of my friendly writing style. I realized I had been using jokey language and an edgy tone as a crutch. Though I really do enjoy reading writers who swear and insert double-entendres into their work, I discovered I don’t need to do that myself…especially in a book meant for women of all ages and in all different walks of life, many of whom may not appreciate seeing the words “ass” and “bullshit” on every page. For the blog, I think that’s fine. For a personal development book I’m hoping will reach women all over the world, not so much.

The Final Draft

Since I had made a bunch more changes, I printed out the whole manuscript again and gave it a final look. Truthfully, at this point my eyes were about to fall out of my head, so I admit I may have skimmed some parts. I sent the final manuscript to the Kindle designer and CreateSpace interior layout designer—and of course, at that point I noticed a few more typos, which I fixed. Then I had to re-send the manuscript to the designers.

Now that the book is out of my hands, I would sit back and relax—except that now I’m going to get the wraparound cover for the print book designed; look into how to get the book into libraries; write the guest posts and articles I owe bloggers and editors who were kind enough to ask for them; have the Worksheets designed; go into promotion mode; and more.

Don’t get me wrong—I’ve enjoyed every step of this process so far! I’m running an amazing Facebook Group full of supportive readers, dealing with talented designers and other professionals, holding phone meetings with the wonderful account manager at my launch company, and…writing!

The Tally

Last week, I wrote a 5,000-word post on the expenses I’ve incurred writing and producing this book. The total at that time was $9,139. However, I budgeted $600 for the proofreading and the bill was actually $426.75. Also, I just found out that the CreateSpace interior design will set me back at least $599. So now we’re at $9,564.75. I still need to get a Worksheet template designed, and the CreateSpace design may cost more if I decide I want any special elements like columns—so How to Do It All may crack $10,000 in expenses soon!

As I mentioned in last week’s post, I’m doing very little paid work during this process. In fact, I’ll admit that for the first time in almost 20 years of freelancing, this quarter so far I’ve spent more than I’ve earned! I’m just crossing my fingers that when the book launches on April 18, readers will love it as much as I do, will leave good reviews, and will spread the word to their friends—so I can earn back the expenses and move on to the next book I’m itching to write!

If you haven’t already, please join the early notification list for How to Do It All. Once you join, you’ll automatically get an invite to the secret Facebook Group, which is full of amazing people and great conversations. Please send your friends, too…and if you’re a writer, blogger, or podcaster (or you know someone who is), please consider interviewing me or covering the book! Thanks so much for being with me on this journey.

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...
photo by:

Comments on this entry are closed.