The secret to editing your work is simple: you need to become its reader instead of its writer. ~Anna Deavere Smith
Photo of Anna Deavere Smith by Wexner Center.
Now that I’ve published my first novel, To Hunt a Sub, I can say from experience that writing it and editing it took equally long periods of time (and marketing is just as involved). After finishing the final rough draft (yeah, sure) and before emailing it to an editor, I wanted it as clean possible. I searched through a wide collection of self-editing books like these:
The Novel Writer’s Toolkit by Bob Mayer
Self-editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Browne
The Marshall Plan for Novel Writing by Evan Marshall
…and came up with a list of fixes that I felt would not only clean up grammar and editing, but the voice and pacing that seemed to bog my story down.
Review your story’s time line. Could all the events have taken place during the time span? Although you don’t have to account for every minute (or even every day) of your characters’ time, help your readers get a sense of time’s passage with transition phrases like two weeks later or later that evening.
Craft a strong opening and a strong ending for every chapter. If each chapter starts with a beautifully-written sentence that sets up an intriguing situation, the reader will want to continue reading. The last sentence should compel him to turn the page (cliffhangers are good).
Did you follow through on ideas you presented in various chapters? Are there elements, like a meaningful symbol or talisman, that you want to carry throughout the whole book? Write them down, and check to see if you did carry them through. Are there characters you introduced who need to reappear, or who really don’t matter to the story? Add some scenes to develop them, or delete them altogether. Do all your threads tied up at the end?
Have you included enough detail? Be sure you have not assumed too much knowledge on your reader’s part. You’re immersed in the story; help them to also be. But give your reader credit for intelligence.
Take out the unnecessary routines that passed your characters’ time unless there’s a reason to detail them. Nobody wants to read about your protagonist flossing his teeth (unless you’re writing a dental thriller). However, sometimes routine material can add color to the time setting. My work-in-progress is set in 1967, when no one had an automatic ice maker in their fridge. I take the reader through a step-by-step account of filling an old-fashioned metal ice cube tray.
FINAL (MAYBE NOT LITERALLY) ROUND
Get rid of weenie words. Search your manuscript for is, was, were, and that, because they are often paired with weak, passive words. Replace them with strong, active words.
Eliminate clichés. Clichés are fine for first drafts, because they help you get your thoughts down. But unless you have a character whose quirk is always speaking in them, find a fresh way to make your point (maybe instead of her hair blowing in the wind, it whipped her shoulders), or twist the cliché. My protagonist recorded in her journal that it was raining “cats, dogs, zebras, and giraffes.”
Beautify your writing with poetic devices. Vivid writing heightens your readers’ enjoyment of your book. Alliteration, anaphora, onomatopoeia, metaphor—search poetic devices online for the full palette. Read these examples of picturesque sentences.
It goes without saying that spelling, grammar, and punctuation must be correct. I’m dismayed when I find errors in a book I’ve paid good money for. Even if you’re not, don’t alienate your readers (and potential agents and publishers) by turning in a sloppy manuscript.
When your manuscript is the best you can make it, send it out to a few (five?) beta readers. These should be trusted writer friends who are farther along in their careers than you. (You do have a group of trusted writer friends at various levels of proficiency, don’t you? If not, you need to cultivate some.) Ask your beta readers to look for: consistency; boring parts; coincidences or too-convenient solutions; and clarity. Have them write down any questions that occur to them as they read, and whatever suggestions they have for what you can do better. Give them time to work. Some might give you a forty-eight hour turn around, but most will require a couple of weeks, or longer if they’re busy.
Read through all the feedback once without making any decisions about changes, except for the most obvious corrections that you absolutely know must be made. Many of the suggestions you’ll receive may seem absolutely wrong, counter to what you’re trying to achieve with your book. You don’t have to change a thing. However, if four out of your five trial readers have a problem with the scene on page 175, you can be sure something’s wrong with it. Let the feedback sit for a couple of weeks, and then reread all the suggestions again. Consider them carefully, and implement the ones that will make your story stronger. Remember when I said above you were on your final round of revision? I lied. You may need to go back and redo some of those rounds. Put in the work to make your manuscript the best it can be.
Now, maybe you don’t need to do as many rounds of revisions as I’ve described in this article. Maybe your drafts aren’t as ugly as mine. I know lots of people who are so eager to get published that they send out their manuscripts after a couple of quick swipes. I’ve also seen self-published work that could have used additional edits. If you’re experienced, you can judge for yourself how deeply you need to redo. If you’re unpublished, err on the side of caution. But don’t let a desire for perfection keep you from ever submitting; that’s just counter-productive. Aim for excellence, not perfection.
Then send your baby out into the world.
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This is the second of a three-part series of articles. Part I is here.
Identify each of your subplots. Do they all have a complete arc (beginning, middle, and ending)? Do they have their own twists and complications? Can you think of a way to make them richer? Is there a thread that never fully developed? In your notebook, write down every idea that comes to mind.
Take a close look at each of your main characters: protagonist, antagonist, and the most important subordinate characters. Although it will be time consuming, go through the manuscript multiple times, zeroing in on one character’s story at a time. Have you identified their external needs and their internal needs? Do they each have their own arc (do they grow over the course of the book)? Does each have his or her own unique voice? (This is my biggest challenge. My daughters say all my characters talk just like me. Sigh.) Does your bad guy have at least one redeeming characteristic? (Maybe when he comes home from work, he shoots baskets with the neighbor kid for five minutes.) Make notes. Fix the easy stuff; think about any big changes.
Work through the entire manuscript a few more times, fleshing out the weak parts, and implementing the best of your notes. When you’re satisfied you’ve done the best you can, print out the entire manuscript, double-spaced, in all its glory. And buy a set of different colored highlighters (pink, blue, yellow, orange, and green), and a red pen.
Analyze your manuscript. I like Margie Lawson’s EDITS system. (Margie Lawson is a phenomenal writing instructor and the founder of Lawson Writer’s Academy, which offers online courses—or you can order a packet of course notes—well worth it!) The linked article gives the process, but start by highlighting all the dialogue in blue. After you finish all the steps, you’re ready for round three.
Shrink large, unbroken expanses of green (description). Gone are the days when you could spend a page describing your character’s eyes (although, maybe you still can in a Victorian romance novel). Include just enough details to make it real for the reader. What is out-of-the-ordinary about your characters or your settings? What is likely to be unfamiliar to your readers, requiring explanation? Use words that activate the senses, pulling the reader in to experience the person or place on the page.
Break up pages of yellow (narrative) with action, dialogue, and emotion. Action implies motion. Your character’s thoughts do not constitute action or dialog. Maybe while your protagonist paces in his hotel room processing the arson of his home, he can hurl a lamp across the room. And if you need help inserting more pink (visceral responses), I recommend you acquire The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Expression by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi. The book lists physical manifestations of every emotion. (If you want, you can try out the abbreviated version, Emotional Amplifiers, for free.)
By the time you finish round three, you might be sick of your story, or you may be super excited about it. Either way, set your manuscript aside for a couple of weeks and work on something else.
You’re not done yet. But don’t worry; I’ll post the rest of the process next Tuesday. See you then. If you found this post useful, please click the “like” button below, and share on your favorite social media.
First drafts are ugly.
They’re supposed to be ugly. The function of the first draft is just to get the words down. Much of the first draft will not even appear in the final copy.
But how do you get from the first draft to something that is publish-worthy?
Disclaimer: As an as-yet unpublished novelist, I don’t have the credentials to say I’ve found the definitive process that will guarantee a best-seller. However, I’ve spent many years rewriting, revising, and editing my work, and I know the strategies that follow can help you improve your manuscript.
When you finish that first draft, put it in a drawer and don’t look at it for at least six weeks. Fall out of love with that beautiful baby. Work on other projects in the meantime.
After six weeks, read the manuscript from beginning to end with a notebook at your side (preferably the one you started with your planning notes for this book). Don’t worry if some parts of that baby aren’t as beautiful as you originally thought. Write down everything you see that needs re-thinking.
Consider the big picture. If you outlined your book during your pre-writing process, check it to see if you adequately addressed every section of the outline. If you think of addition points not included, write them down in your notebook. Maybe even rewrite your outline.
If you didn’t outline your book already, do it now. Outlining at this late date may reveal plot holes. If you hate outlines, at least make a list of every scene. Some authors like to do this on index cards, so they can change the order of scenes easily. (The Scrivener software has a virtual index card function.) Note the characters who appear, the setting, the action, and the purpose of each scene.
Write a summary of your story—the one you are trying to tell. Reread your manuscript and see if it does, in fact, tell your story, in the clearest way possible, with the greatest potential impact. Does the way you’ve structured your story make sense? Does your plot include complications and twists? Did you leave anything out? Could a change in the order or length of your chapters improve the novel’s readability? Keep your mind open, and write down any possible changes that occur to you. (Writing them down doesn’t obligate you to make the changes, it just saves your ideas for future reference, so you can remember and ponder them.)
Read through the manuscript again, this time looking for two things: plot holes in the main plot, and any inconsistencies. As you read, write down any plot questions that come to mind, such as, what would have happened if your character had chosen a different path at a pivotal moment? Look for solutions that come too easily, or events that are too implausible. Does the plot have a full arc, with a set-up, an inciting event, action rising to a climax, action leading to resolution?
Also, hunt out details that contradict each other. Did the grandmother have salt-and-pepper hair in chapter one and platinum hair in chapter two? Was the antagonist writing with his left hand at one moment and firing a gun with his right hand later on? Either fix these inconsistencies as you find them, or make a note so you don’t forget to rectify them soon.
Reread the story again, examining each event. Is everything predictable? If so, rethink each scene, and look for places your characters (or external forces) can do something unforeseen (but plausible). Changes might require major rewriting of large sections of your manuscript, but if it makes your book stronger, it’s well worth the effort.
Reread all your notes and give them serious consideration. Simmer them while you walk the dog, fold the laundry, wash the dishes. Go for a few long walks with notebook and pen in hand. (I know it sounds counterintuitive, but some of my best ideas come to me while my body is in motion.)
Go through your manuscript with your notebook open, and implement as many improvements as you can, while noting new ideas. This is ROUND ONE of your revising (or, if you’re making truly big changes, rewriting). If you’re uncomfortable with the thought of making changes, save the original draft, make a copy, rename it Your Novel’s Name 2.0, and make your changes in this new document, knowing you can always go back to the original. (In my experience, after I’ve spent several weeks in my latest draft, I go back and delete my previous version. I never regret the changes.)
You’re not done yet. But don’t worry; I’ll post the rest of the process this Saturday and next Tuesday. See you then. If you found this post useful, please click the “like” button below, and share on your favorite social media.