Those first words we write can be pretty awful no matter how much we’ve learned about the writing craft. But that’s okay because while we can fix bad, we can’t fix blank. So get those words out there, then start shaping them into something good…then great. It’s time to edit your manuscript to perfection.
Tool #1: Get a big picture view. I think of this as climbing into a helicopter and getting enough distance from my book to see the complete story objectively. Practically speaking, I wait a few days after writing “The End” and spend that time re-reading a few of my favorite writing craft books or soaking in other great stories. A few classic helps to review might be Self-Editing For Fiction Writers by Renni Browne and Dave King or The Elements of Style by William Strunk and E. B. White. Then, I either send the entire manuscript to my Kindle app or format it into a landscape, two column, single-spaced layout and print it out so it resembles an open book.
Block out some time to simply read the manuscript from beginning to end and keep a notepad handy. During this “macro” edit, you’re looking for the big things that run from beginning to end. The logical flow of a non-fiction argument. Consistent characterization and a smooth internal change arc. Realistic plot development with the right set-ups and pay-offs. Is the story believable? Does it drag? Are there gaps to fill? Or repetitious spots to cut? Are all those sub-plot threads woven in neatly and tied up satisfactorily?
If you notice little things that bug you, feel free to circle or highlight them in order to keep them from nagging at your subconscious, but this is the time to fix the big issues. After all, why wrestle to fix an individual sentence that could (or should) get completely cut? Plus, if you add new paragraphs or scenes at this stage, you’ll still need to edit those too.
Tool #2: Look closer. Once the big picture elements are in place and the story threads solidly woven, it’s time for a “micro” edit where you zoom in to individual chapters, paragraphs, and sentences. Again, I find it helpful to print out a fresh copy, get away from a computer screen, and make notes on the actual page before touching the keyboard. I’ve often thought a sentence sounded wrong, tried to fix it, ended up with a bigger mess, and wished I could go back to what it was before. The paper copy lets me scribble ideas while maintaining the original. (Track changes within the Word software does the same thing. You can also use the snapshot feature inside of Scrivener to record a picture of the “before” version.)
At this stage, I pay special attention to those opening lines, ending hooks, sentence clarity, and word choice. In fiction, I also watch for consistent quirks to make each character unique. Of course, I’m prone to find that everyone is winking or shrugging or frowning. I once wrote a story about a waitress at a diner and could not believe how many times she picked up a coffee pot. Of course, in real life she probably would have, but in fiction that repetition diminishes the story. Which brings me to the next tool I love.
Tool #3: Find and eliminate the weasel words. I’m not sure who came up with this nickname, but we all have our favorite words to fall back on when writing and that repetition weasels in to dilute the power of our prose. During these last few times reading through the manuscript, you may have already discovered words that showed up often enough to notice and started a list. There are also numerous lists online of boring overused words like that, so, thought, felt, was, or said. Some of these are trigger words to spotlight places where a more active verb might be appropriate while others might simply be eliminated without changing the meaning. These aren’t bad words, but there might be a better word to use in that sentence instead.
But what about the overused words you’re not aware of? Years ago, I discovered NoteTab Light. Using this simple and totally free program downloaded to my computer, I would paste a chunk of my manuscript into a new window, click on the “Text Statistics” button, then select the “Word Frequency” button. The quick result is a list of every word I used and how many times it appeared. By scanning that list, I easily found more words to add to my weasel list to investigate.
Armed with my list of words, I head back into my manuscript and activate the “Find” feature. You might prefer to find individual instances with the “Find Next” command and see if an easy rewording fix presents itself. Or you might use the “Highlight” option to identify all of them at once and see where over usage should be thinned. However, keep in mind that even weasel words can be the best word for a particular sentence and that changing every wink to a grin creates a new problem.
The last stage of editing is proofreading where you comb through the manuscript again word by word to find all those misplaced commas, smart quotes that are pointed the wrong way, and inadvertent misspellings. However, that’s not the end of the editing process.
Tool #4: Get fresh eyes on your project. We’ll talk more later about the ways other people are a tool to help build your book, but now is the perfect time to mention professional editors. While it’s important to get your words as polished as you can, others can often see what we can’t. If you are seeking publication with a traditional publisher, they will take your book through additional rounds of macro and micro edits to shape your words to their company standards and customer expectations. Not to mention there will be multiple sets of eyes involved when proofreading the galleys.
If you are going the self-publishing route, you should still hire a freelance professional to edit the book before you have it formatted for publication. Individual editors may call their scope either a content or line edit but the idea is the same: big picture view and close-up. When hiring an editor, shop around and get recommendations from your writing friends. Also, be very clear about what things they will be looking for during the edit as well as the pricing. Some charge by the hour and others by the word or page. If your book needs a lot of help, paying by the hour can get expensive fast.
One last tip when hiring an editor is to request a sample or pay for only a few pages first. This way you can see if their advice is helpful and if their style is cutting your unique voice from the pages. Some are flexible enough to make your words sparkle and teach you write stronger while others have been known to rewrite entire sections into their voice or make you doubt your ability in the first place.
Editors aren’t the only ones who can help (or hurt) your writing. There are also critique partners with their built-in accountability.