Writing is an act of repetition. We do it, then we do it again and again and again, getting a little bit better, and a little bit closer to our goals, with each iteration. Don’t go into editing looking for perfection. Rather, go into editing with the plot clear in your head, a good feeling for your characters and a linear understanding of the story so you can identify scenes that help and scenes that don’t help the story progress.
All right, let’s get to the list.
- Trim the FatThe most important lesson in the writing trade is that any manuscript is improved if you cut away the fat. – Robert HeinleinIf you’ve ever had a conversation about editing with a professional editor, or author who has done a substantial amount of editing, or even just an English teacher, you’ve probably been told to trim the fat. It is one of the most important pieces of editing advice you’ll receive, so I repeat it not to drone on about trimming, but to emphasize just how important this exercise is for your book.
- Read aloudIf you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that. – Stephen King
Mr. King is referring to reading other writers (he claims to read upwards of 80 books a year!), but I’m going to re-purpose his comment and turn it on the author. Reading what you’ve written is a tough exercise for some. It might seem silly, but actually reading what you’ve written can be a chore. You’ve just poured all these words out, now they belong to other readers, don’t they?
All authors can benefit from hearing how their words sound. Spoken aloud, you might discover your dialog is stiff or doesn’t fit the character as well as you thought it did. Or that the snappy phrasing you’ve used is actually confusing. So much can come to the surface when you change up the way you’re interacting with your text.
In the context of editing, I suggest giving the manuscript a look for grammar and spelling before reading it aloud. I find that I can catch a majority of typos and the like on the first read, and this frees up my critical thinking faculties so I can concentrate on how the text sounds as I read it. Spelling errors will tend to really stand out when you’re reading aloud.
- Spelling & GrammarThe difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter. ’tis the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning. –
You should aim to correct 99% of all grammar and spelling errors. I won’t say 100%, because that would mean the book never gets released while you go over it again and again looking for that one typo or misused word. Catching almost all of the mistakes is enough so long as you are diligent about spelling on the pages that matter the most. Those pages being the cover, the blurb, and the front matter. Any piece of the book a customer will see while looking online at your work.
- Think Like an EditorThe artist, in this model, is like the optometrist, always asking: Is it better like this? Or like this? – George Saunders
You are thinking like an editor, right? That’s what this entire process is about!
True enough. But what I mean here is to think like a different person who also happens to be an editor. Detach yourself from your work, and look at it critically as an editor. Just as the optometrist tries different lens until the patience’s vision is clear, the editor (you) should look for the ways you can make the manuscript as clear and concise as possible.
As an editor, you must be willing to ruthlessly cut and alter your manuscript in service of the story. No line is safe. If you ever come to a line or even a single word you think “I can’t change that” then you’re not doing a fair job of editing. You might find in the long run that your awesome line doesn’t need to be cut, but you have to be willing to look at it with the red pen in hand and not be afraid to strike that line down.
To get in an editorial mind set, I like to read a style guide or two before I dive into editing. I recommend The Elements of Style by Strunk and White. If you don’t have a copy, I urge you to get one. Your local bookstore has a copy, I’m certain. This little handbook has seen more than it’s fair share of use and abuse on my writing desk. There are likely some great guides that are specific to your genre or form of writing as well. Just get something well written and sourced, to get your mind thinking like an editor.
Getting yourself out of the writing frame of mind and into the editing one can be tough. This is another good reason to leave some space between finishing the manuscript and starting the editing process.
- Befriend your CharactersWhen writing a novel a writer should create living people; people not characters. A character is a caricature. – Ernest Hemingway
People are not characters.
This last tip focuses heavily on fiction writers, but non-fiction writers may find it useful too. Basically, if the character dialog or tone is too mechanical or distant, the reader will not be held in the story. If characters converse in a way that does not ring true for them as a character or the way people actually converse, you risk loosing a reader’s attention.
I think this may be one of the most uniquely challenging aspects of writing good fiction. I’ve literally put down books because the dialog or characters don’t ring true.
So, how do you befriend your characters? Simple. Get to know them. I really like to use a character design sheet to create and document a variety of details about characters. This can be incredibly useful while writing a novel, because there’s a very real chance the nature of your important characters will change as the book develops.
Editing can be a chore. I’ve struggled with it for years. I still struggle with it. These tips are things I’ve found helpful for my own work, but that doesn’t mean they’ll work perfectly for you. Just remember that the purpose of editing is always to make the story better, to make it easier for readers to relate to, and to help you improve as a writer.
CREDIT: Lulu Blogpost