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The Faint-Hearted Author’s Guide to Self-Editing


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How To Meet The Challenge of Editing Your Manuscript

As a novel writer, the editing process seems mysterious, daunting, and unmanageable when you view it through your creative writer lens. You are right, manuscript editing requires a different mindset and separate skills.

If you approach editing with a perspective that aims to make your story the best it can be and arrange the editing process into manageable chunks, you will find that editing is a skill you can learn to make your story ready to go out into the world so you can be a successful published author.

Create Your Editing Mindset

Creating a critical mindset is the first step in the editing process. As an editor, you will examine every part of your story to make it seamless and engaging from the first sentence to the last.

You need to establish a distance to apply your critical eye to your novel.  You can build your critical distance with a few simple steps.

  • Put your manuscript away for at least a week. Several weeks are even better. You’ll want to apply fresh eyes to your story.
  • In the meantime, read for excellence in your genre. Pick three writers you consider masters of your genre and then choose what you consider each writer’s best work. While your novel is set away, read each of these three books while practicing your critical approach. You already know these stories, so practice being an editor for your favorite professional author. Make notes. What improvements would you make? What are the writer’s strengths?
  • After rereading these works, without looking at your manuscript, make a list of the ways you would like to improve your story and your writing based on the positive discoveries you’ve made in your reading.

When you take off time from your own story and practice critically examining other stories in your genre, you get your mind in gear to examine your own story with the same critical distance.
Gather your notes, take a deep breath, and pull out your novel manuscript. You’ll work through the editing process from the big picture down to the tiniest details.

Start with The Big Picture – The Content Edit

As you prepare to reread your story after your break and critical exercises, plan on making changes. As wonderful as your story is, you can make it better. Your aim is to make your novel as professional as possible.

You’ll be going through your story at least three times. The first pass at editing focuses on the story elements. There’ll be time enough for details like punctuation, spelling, and grammar after you make your changes. The story editing, often called the content or development edit, looks at your story structure, character arcs, dialogue, and scene sequence. Keep asking yourself, does this work in the story?

You’ve just read three great novels in your genre, compare your story to these examples. Know those professional authors, went through this very process before they sent their manuscript off to their professional editor.

Print out your manuscript formatted for lots of white space—wide margins, double spaced. You will hold it in your hands, make marks, and read it as a book. You’ll be entering “track changes” in your word processing software later.

Now you will use your personal editor’s blue pencil. Yours may be red or purple or green or any color that shows up against the black print. Some authors use different colors for different editorial changes—grammar and spelling, character arc, plot, scene changes. If this is your first time editing, pick a contrast color like red and start reading your story. You can refine your system later as you become familiar with the editing process.

Questions to Ask As You Read

In this first editorial read you’ll be scrutinizing your story. If you find smaller issues like grammar or spelling mark them knowing they may disappear as you make editorial changes. Be looking for ways to make your story as crisp as possible.

Does the first page hook you? Does it plunge you into the story? Does it clearly reflect the genre? Do your protagonist’s words and actions introduce his or her character?

Notice pacing like chapters or scenes that rush the story or get bogged down with detail or long descriptions.
Does each scene move the story forward? If not, mark it for deletion. If you need an element from the scene, think about where you can include it in a different scene.

Does the story have a clear three-act structure? Is your protagonist confused and thwarted in the first part of Act 2? Does she take the reins after the midpoint?  Once the story reaches the climax, does it take too long to wind down?

Is the story predictable? How could you improve the twists, turns, and reversals to challenge your protagonist?

Do two characters have names that start with the same letter? If so, find a new name for one character.

If your story feels overpopulated, combine two characters with similar motivations to keep your reader from being confused.

Do your subplots integrate with the overall story? Are the spaced throughout the storyline?

Is the voice consistent throughout the story? Is one passage in a different tone?

Do you need to research a location or an object to give it more punch?

Does each character speak in a recognizable voice? Would your reader know who is speaking by the way the character speaks? Does the dialogue reflect subtext rather than always being on point?

Is the point of view consistent throughout? Is each scene told from only one point of view? If your story is told from multiple points of view, is it clear who is “speaking” in each scene?

Content editing is a long process. Plan to spend at least a week going through your story looking for every way you can tighten your story to give your reader the best experience in your genre.

Before you go to the next stage of editing, rewrite your story making the changes you noted during your critical editorial reading. Take as long as necessary to make your changes. Remember you are doing the hard work of becoming a professional writer.

The Language – The Line Edit

Once you’ve made your story changes, it’s time to look at the language you use to convey your story. Now you are looking to refine the language in the text. You are not looking so much for mistakes as the best way to structure your sentences and paragraphs to improve the readability.

You want the language to be fluid, clear, and pleasurable for your reader.

Language Questions to Ask
Are your words precise rather than general? Have you avoided clichés?

Do you repeatedly use the same words or sentences?

Are there run-on sentences? Sentence fragments?

Is the same information repeated more than once?

Does the tone shift?

Is the phrasing natural?

Is the language bland causing readers to skip a passage?

Do you use strong verbs rather than describing an action with adverbs?

After you read through to line edit your manuscript, you can use software tools to help you with your language editing.  Hemingway app helps you with sentence structure to make your writing bold and clear to improve your story’s readability. ProWritingAid examines text for several writing style elements including readability, grammar, clichés, diction, and dialogue. The premium version integrates with Microsoft Word and Google Docs so you can edit in your document.
Other People
Once you have performed your content and line editing, is a good time to get feedback from other people. It is easy to get lost in your own story. Feedback from other people who read in your genre can help you spot content and language gaps you may miss. The more readers the better at this point. You want as much feedback as possible to catch any places that detract from the flow of your story.

If you are a member of a writing group, you can present your new passages for feedback and comments from members of the group.

This is a good time to get beta readers involved in your story. These are non professionals who read in your genre and will give you honest feedback about your story. You want these readers to share anything that gives them pause while reading your story from a passage that isn’t clear to a typo.

The Proofread – The Copy Edit

This final editing process and takes a fine eye for detail. You’ll want to do this in small batches because it is easy to overlook details if you spend hours working through the manuscript. You’ll be looking for consistency as well as grammar, spelling, punctuation, and syntax.

The copy edit is what many people consider is editing a manuscript. But, as you have learned, this is the last step in editing your book.

A copy of The Chicago Manual of Style is your guideline for editing a professional book manuscript. Don’t guess. Look up questions you have.

What To Spot in Your Proofreading
Double check spelling, grammar, and sentence construction (syntax).

Make sure your usage is consistent. Throughout your book hyphenation, numbers, capitalization, and fonts appear in the same manner.

Check for ambiguous statements or incorrect facts. Remember how you checked your research during the line edit?

Internal consistency. Is your blonde always blonde? Does your stutterer lose his stutter? Is your setting consistent when it shows up in various places in the story?

Mark your printed copy and then go to your writing software to make changes. The search and replace function will help you spot every use of a word to make it consistent throughout your manuscript.

One Last Check – Read Aloud

However diligent you are throughout your editing process, hearing your story read aloud can help you find awkward sentences, repeated words, and typographical errors.

There are several options to help you hear your story. Text to Speech Reader has a Chrome extension that will read your text. Natural Reader provides several voices so you can hear your text read by male and female voices with different tones and inflections.

Open your manuscript so you can make edits as you listen.

From Writer to Professional Author

Taking the time to edit your novel before you send it out sets you apart as a writer who takes the publishing process as a professional. Every step in the editing process refines your story to appeal to your target audience. They are the readers who love your story and become your fans.

As excited as you are to get your story out there, taking the time to go through the editing process not only improves your story, it gives you a better understanding of what it takes to make yourself a professional.

Keep in mind that bestselling authors take these editing steps and then work with a professional editor to find the spots they missed. Publishing houses assign a professional editor to your book. Using professional book editing services works in the same way as beta readers but with a trained professional focus to give your book the best readability and flow.

The result is a professional book that can lead to you becoming a bestselling author.

Zara Altair
Zara Altair writes traditional mysteries set in the time of Ostrogoth Rule in Italy in The Argolicus Mysteries. Argolicus uses his observation and reason, with help from his tutor Nikolaos, to provide justice in a province far from the King’s court.

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