Running Spell Check and saying, “That’s it,” is like putting on nothing but lipstick when you’re getting ready for a professional photo. What about foundation, blush, eye-shadow, mascara - maybe even eye liner. Your hair must be just so. And, oh yes, you plan your clothing with care, have your nails done, maybe even a pedicure, just in case the photographer wants full-length and you’re wearing sandals. You consider every last little detail.
The same approach applies to your manuscript. You’re attempting to create a professional submission. You want a publisher to pay you money for it. Well, duh . . . did you go to your last job interview in jeans and T-shirt, or maybe something as skimpy as a bathing suit? Did you throw on any old thing and charge out the door with no more than a glance in the mirror? Well, in this case, your manuscript is your clothing. Presentation is important. Remember, most editors were English majors in college. Mistakes stand out like a sore thumb. And if it looks like you cared so little you didn’t bother to proofread or edit your manuscript, then it looks as if you’re not serious about your writing career.
WHY ALL THE FUSS? Surely editors are going to see how brilliant my work is, even if I’ve made a mistake here and there. And there and here, and . . .
There are a very few authors who do it right the first time. My mother, the children’s book author, Wilma Pitchford Hays, was one of those - but then she wasn’t dealing with 100,000-word manuscripts. Most successful authors do, indeed, edit their work three or four times. That’s being professional. That’s presenting a manuscript that makes sense and won’t cost the publishing company a bundle for hours of editing and copy editing. And in this tight economy, that means a lot.
The methods listed below are the ones I use. Obviously, we are not all alike and do not approach problems in the same fashion. It’s perfectly all right to devise your own editing method, as long as you actually do it! What I’m trying to emphasize is that some form of self-editing is absolutely essential. All successful authors do it. Some of us go through our manuscripts three or more times before we feel it is ready for submission. Basically, if you’re not totally sick of it, you probably haven’t read it over enough times!
Special Note: Why I edit after each chapter.
1. Each chapter builds on the one before it. If I add a character, add some new bit of information, etc., I need to know that before I forge ahead.
2. Leaving editing until the end of a book turns the editing process into Mount Everest. Change one thing back near the beginning and you may have a colossal fix-it job to change the domino effect that follows. I can’t even imagine tackling first edits for an entire book in one fell swoop. If you edit as you go along, the read-through of the entire manuscript will not be as daunting.
Self-Editing, Step by Step
AFTER EACH CHAPTER (and sometimes even after a long scene, if it was particularly tricky to write):
1. Run Spell Check carefully, making sure the program doesn’t substitute something you never intended.
2. Read the entire chapter, looking for the easy stuff:
a. Typos, misused words, missing words, double words (the the)
b. Awkward sentences. (It might have made sense when you wrote it, but will it make sense to someone reading it cold?) Or maybe you just messed up the dialogue punctuation or substituted a totally ridiculous word for the one you intended. (Happens to the best of us.)
c. Too-long sentences. Run-on sentences are hard to read, and today’s reader wants to be able to absorb things fast, fast, fast. Run-on sentences also tend to slow down your story.
d. Too-long paragraphs. Same as above. They’re harder to read and slow the story down.
e. Continuity. Is the hero’s hair brown on page 4 and black on page 124?
f. Poor transitions. The action leaps too fast from one paragraph to the next, causing the reader to go, “Huh?”
Grace Note: Unfortunately, the above are merely the easy stuff. You also need to keep an eye out for things that are a bit harder to spot. Hopefully, you will find some of these on the first read-through, but this is why several more reads are necessary. It takes a while to find all the bits and pieces that need improvement.
3. The harder stuff:
a. Opening Hook. We’ve all heard about that marvelous hook needed to close your first chapter, or maybe the third. But the first line, the first paragraph, the first page of your manuscript are all-important. They must capture the reader’s attention immediately. Just like the horse that stumbles coming out of the gate is not going to be a winner (Secretariat excluded), you have to get it right from the very first sentence. This includes those historical prologues that tend toward vague and mystical meanderings that make readers grind their teeth. I’m not anti-prologue; I just think they should have meaning.
b. Less is more. Keep an eye out for places where you used twenty words when you could have used ten, making the sentence clearer and the story move forward at a more energetic clip.
Example: You wrote a lot of chatter in a tea shop, which was cute but did not move the story forward. Like a lot of girl talk, you had your characters saying everything twice.
c. Writing isn’t a race. Also look for the opposite of too many words—places where you moved too fast, not giving enough attention to significant events. This is surprisingly common as an author is always looking ahead, thinking of what comes next and sometimes doesn’t make the most of the marvelous moment directly in front of her/him.
Example: You tossed off a shooting with two sentences. You show the heroine running, but not how she felt about getting shot at - or her worry about other people who might have been with her.
d. Point of View. Look for places where you might have slipped into the Point of View of a character other than the Hero or Heroine. Villain POV is also okay, but newbies are cautioned against multiple POVs. And head-hopping - jumping from one person’s POV to another’s after only a paragraph or so - is very much frowned on.
Example: You are in the heroine’s Point of View, and suddenly you mention what her girlfriend is thinking. Definitely a no-no.
e. Tense. Tense has only recently become a problem. Traditionally, fiction is written in Past tense, Synopses in Present tense. But novels written in Present tense are becoming more common, so writers need to check that as well. Do you slip back and forth, some sentences in Present, some in Past? (I saw a contest entry just this week where that happened.)
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Next Writing 101 blog: Self-editing the “hard stuff”—Plot, Characterization, Active/Passive, Setting + what happens after that. And, yes, there is an “after that”!
Thanks for stopping by, and please let me know if you found this blog helpful. If “Comments” doesn’t work for you, you can find me at BlairGAK@aol.com.