Editing, My point of view, Tips, Writing

Write the Novel – First Editing Pass – Backup & Format

This week I begin a five-part blog on editing with likely the dullest things, backups and formatting. Best to get the dull things out of the way first.


Whether we’ve been doing backups or not on a regular basis; whether we’ve stored material in the cloud, thumb drives, DVDs, or other options, the gap between finishing content and beginning editing is the absolutely essential backup point.

Editing can muck up or even irretrievably erase everything we’ve worked on so far. We need a copy we can easily get our hands on; a copy that we can use when the computer has eaten everything, including our ability to read the copy we can easily get our hands on; and a worst-case copy that we can use when we had to flee for our lives from some natural or man-made disaster. One of the top three reasons small businesses fail is that they don’t have duplicate business records in multiple, widely scattered locations.

Collect everything — research, notes, every saved version, the final working version — everything in one folder.

  • Use as many DVDs as needed to make 3 complete copies.
  • Copy #1 is our at-home backup copy. Put it in a place we can find it. This is for when the computer eats our files.
  • Copy #2 is our local backup copy. Give it to a family member or friend who lives nearby.
  • Copy #3 is our flee-for-our-life copy. Give it to a family member or friend who lives at least 500 miles away.

Now that our files are in one place anyway, sort them into three categories: absolutely need for editing, likely need for editing; and not likely to need for editing.

  • Absolutely need for editing: a complete copy of the last rewrite.
  • Likely need for editing: some notes and background information and our style sheet and glossary. If we’ve put off starting a style sheet and glossary because we really don’t need those silly things, start them now. Yes, we’ve reached the point that we absolutely need them. To brush up on what a style sheet and glossary are, go here.
  • Not likely needed for editing: everything else.
  • It helps to make three folders and divide material into those folders. Why have a lot of things we aren’t going to look at get in the way when editing?

There are two ways to edit: by chapters or some other divisions of the author’s choosing, or the entire document in one file. Some writing assist programs, like Scrivener, make it possible to edit in smaller units, and then combine the edited work into one document. Yes, we can do this in Word, but we run the very real risk of leaving out one or more chapters when compiling and submitting the completed work. This is personal experience speaking, and it was hugely embarrassing.

My preference is to edit chapter by chapter. I simply can’t find things in a 300+ page manuscript. I also live in fear of losing everything all at once. Other people are quite comfortable working in the entire manuscript. Go for it. Whatever we choose, we need to be consistent throughout the editing process.


Before twirly ball Selectric typewriters came along in the summer of 1961, there was one font: courier. Words could be in all caps, all lowercase or a mixture; they could be underlined, or not. Line spacing could be set for a limited number of options, but unless the setting was changed manually, it was the same for each line in a document. Because of the machine’s limitations, formatting rules were universal and sacrosanct.

If we only get one thing out of this blog, make it this. The computer is not a typewriter.

Formatting Rule #1

If we are writing for a particular publisher, we must use the formatting that publisher wants. Go to their website and look for formatting guidelines. If there are none, or they seem to have been posted more than 6 months ago, send e-mail to the publisher and ask for a copy of their current guidelines.

Formatting Rule #2

In all likelihood, we have no idea who our publisher will be. We need to write a list of the rules we plan to use, or pick someone else’s list and stick to those. Yes, our formatting rules need to be written because we won’t remember on page 68 or 249 what we did on page 12. Here’s a link to the format I use, and why I use it.  Feel free to use it if it meets your needs. If it doesn’t meet your needs, use it as an outline to develop your own style.

Formatting Rule #3

What drives me absolutely crazy critiquing or editing other writers is that they use their word processing program for tons of other stuff. Either they have never set up personal styles or they have dozens of different styles that they’ve used for other fiction and non-fiction documents. As a rule, the first thing I do when editing is spend a half a day deleting unnecessary styles and setting up clean styles for their document.

Do ourselves and our editors a favor and set up a limited number of simple styles. Delete everything else we can from the styles palette. And yes, the less than helpful people who put word processing software together, won’t let us delete everything. They’ve done us a favor by protecting a whole raft of useless formats from deletion.

These are the essential styles needed for a work of fiction

  • Normal – for 99.9% of the words in the novel.
  • First paragraph normal – some publishers require that the first paragraph in a chapter not be indented, while the rest of the chapters are indented.
  • Chapter Title – used for the first line in each chapter.
  • Quote – for material that the characters are reading, such as notes, newspaper articles, etc. All quotes should be double spaced, just like text.
  • Heading – for headers
  • Footer – for footers

That’s it, the only styles needed.

To those of you in the States, Happy Thanksgiving.

Next week, Tuesday, December 2, I’ll be doing Editing – Second Pass – The General Clean-Up. Remember all those things we were going to do later. Later has arrived.


2 thoughts on “Write the Novel – First Editing Pass – Backup & Format

  1. For writers using Pages (and an Apple eco-system) there is an automatic back up of each draft for each day, set to the time of day. That is available if it is necessary, electricity goes out and other disasters like that.


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