Note: Even though I wrote this with writers in mind, I think readers can benefit from reading this, too. By reading this, it will help you, the reader, understand how complex the whole business of writing fiction can be. I appreciate my readers and want to make your reading experience as pleasurable as I can possibly make it!
The other day a new author asked others on a Facebook group how they edited their manuscript. What was the most important issues to edit? she asked. The answer is not simple. There are so many issues to consider. I have been writing for years. When I first started writing in the nineties, I was in a critique group called the Vicious Circle, led by an author who had over fifty books published with Avon and Harlequin. Strict in her teachings, she hammered into my brain that before I showed my work to anybody, especially a publisher or editor, that I must make the manuscript as clean as I could possibly make it.
Even though publishing has changed, and authors now have the ability to self-publish, I still think it’s important to self-edit before I send my manuscript to a professional editor I’ve hired. So these are the things I do.
Structural Editing/Developmental Editing
The structural edit is the process that comes first, after a manuscript is completed. This is the most complicated edit and needs to be done before line editing. It involves looking at the ‘big picture’ elements of the narrative and characters, and examining which of these elements are working and which could be improved, cut or changed altogether.
A structural edit focuses on literary devices such as:
- Pacing: For example, is the narrative always moving forward?
- What parts of the story lag and slow the reader down? If it bores you, it will bore your reader! I had a scene once where the characters were introducing themselves. Incredibly boring! I ended up having an eccentric second character giving the scene some spark by adding tidbits about the other characters that were embarrassing or snarky.
- In every scene you must be developing either the characters’ goal, motivation or conflict. If the scene doesn’t have GMC, throw it out.
- Consider the scene’s content. What is revealed? What has happened between the protagonist and antagonist? Are they in the best possible order? Should one scene be moved to another part of the book?
- Character Development/Characterization: Are the characters authentic? Do they have realistic motivations and relationships with one another? Is each character’s motivation clear? Goal clear? Conflict?
- Plot: Is the plot plausible? Does it make sense? Are there any gaping plot holes that need fixing? Do you need to add a scene that will fix the plot holes, or clear up a goal, motivation or conflict?
- Hook Your Reader: Make sure you start at the Inciting Incident; whatever happens that alters or changes the protagonist’s Ordinary World.
- Start with Ordinary World? Some authors like to start by showing some of the Ordinary World. I think this is chancy because of the absence of the strongest hook. If you do this, remember to make it short, and still try to come up with a strong hook. I skip the Ordinary World.
- Inciting Incident: I start with a hook for the Inciting Incident, and I usually change that first sentence umpteen times because I know I’m competing with other entertainment like TV shows, movies, etc. Many times I rewrite the beginning after I’ve finished the book to make the beginning match the ending better.
- Starting Book with the Right Character? Look at who the POV character is in the inciting incident. Is this the protagonist or main character, the character who is going to grow the most? The character who is going to have the Crisis Decision? Who experiences the Big Black Moment? The character who has the biggest reward in the Resolution or Dénouement?
- Hook in Chapters. Make sure each chapter starts, and ends in a hook. See if you can make better hooks by ending a chapter in the middle of action or a scene.
- Writing Style: Does the style of writing suit the genre? Consider your audience.
- Voice/Tense: Are the voice and tense authentic and consistent throughout the manuscript? If you start out with a humorous voice, you must keep that voice going throughout the book. If you suddenly have bodies dropping and blood is everywhere, (because you’re describing the gore), and the story becomes grim, you haven’t kept your promise to the reader–a promise that the story is fun. If you do have murders pop up, don’t describe the gore; keep it light. Same with the other way around; if your story starts out edgy and grim, don’t change to comedic and humorous part way through the manuscript.
- Setting: Is there enough scene setting and world building for the reader to place themselves within the story?
Acronyms I Use
- POV=Point of view.
- GMC=Goal, Motivation, Conflict.
- HEA=Happily Ever After.
Suggestion Before Editing
Fresh Eyes: Set aside the manuscript for at least one week, possibly two. This way, I can distance myself from my work, almost forget some of it, and look at it with fresh eyes.
Line Editing is what happens next. Here are the steps I take:
- POV and Transitions:
- If you are writing in third person, and you have both the hero and heroine’s point of view, make sure you have transition sentences to warn the reader that you are switching view points. I can write a whole article on this topic!
- Make sure the action in your scenes is clear and your transitions are precise.
- Example of a transition: She wondered what he was thinking [end of paragraph]. Joe was thinking her tendency to speak without thinking would get her into trouble.
- Notice how I mentioned his name. When you change POV’s it’s always important to start with the POV character’s name.
- Omniscient POV: Look for God’s POV.
- You’ll want to stay firmly in the character’s POV, which is usually either the heroine’s or the hero’s (at least in romances).
- Omniscient POV distances the reader from the viewpoint character, and we don’t want that.
- Examples of slipping out of, say, the Uma’s POV is when you say something like, “Uma’s dark hair gleamed in the dim lighting.” She wouldn’t think of her hair being dark, or that her hair is gleaming in the light; that is, not unless she is staring in a mirror looking at her hair.
- Repeated Words or Ideas. For instance, I use the word “just” too much. “Even” is another wasted word that doesn’t add to what’s happening. Discover your speaking habits and throwaway words. Then look for them in your ms. Make your sentences tight. Get rid of “In order to….” Instead simply use “To….” Now, if the character talks a lot and uses long sentences with throwaway words, that’s okay as long as you don’t lose the reader. Use your judgment. If you say something in a previous paragraph or close by, don’t repeat the same idea.
- Tighten Sentences: This is a lot like the repeated words bullet above, but what I mean here is that when needed, make sure you get to the point. See how long the previous sentence is? I can make it better by saying: “Similar to repeated words, get to the point.” OR simply: “Get to the point!” 🙂
- Consistent Action/Position: In a scene, make sure that you keep track of the characters and what they are doing. For example, if a character sits down at the beginning of the scene, and then later in the scene sits down when he or she hasn’t left the chair … well, you need to fix that.
- Set the Scene: That means to give a description of the scene. What is around the character/s? Tell the reader the location and give some visuals that help the reader experience what the characters are going through.
- For instance, if the character is standing in a library, have her touch a globe and spin it. Have her run her fingers over the polished mahogany desk.
- Mix this in with dialog if she is with somebody.
- This is mentioned in the Structural Editing part. But I think it’s easier to watch for proper scene setting during line edits. Every new scene must be firmly set at the beginning.
- Texturing: Use as many of the POV character’s five senses that apply to the scene–sight, hearing, touch, smell, taste. Texturing a scene can add another dimension and really draw in the reader.
- Vary Sentences: This means to start the sentences with different words, and vary the structure. Don’t make sentences in the same paragraph the same length. Also, look at the first word in each paragraph. Be sure they are different.
- Passive Sentences: I think it’s okay to use a passive sentence here and there. But very sparingly. However, if a passive sentence is used in dialog, that’s okay. The character speaking might talk like that. And you want dialog to sound normal, not stiff or formal.
- Show, Don’t Tell: Now, you can’t show everything because you’d end up with a very long book. And some action will happen off-stage. But. Make sure this is the most effective way to reveal said action. If you aren’t sure, go ahead and write out the scene that you previously merely told in narrative or dialog. See if the scene shows a character’s deeper GMC … fleshes out the GMC.
- Talking Heads: No, we don’t want that. We don’t want our characters to be in a vacuum during dialog. Is dialog mixed with action? Is the POV character’s introspection mixed in with the dialog? Can the reader “see” the scene while the dialog is going on?
- Adverbs: Use them sparingly. Try to think of a stronger verb and get rid of the adverb. Example: She boldly walked toward him. Change to: She marched toward him or She strode toward him.
- Consistent Character Traits: Make sure that whatever your character’s eyes or hair color is that it stays that way … unless she dyes her hair or wears different contact lenses! I use Pinterest to keep track of character traits. (I haven’t publicized it yet; but once I release my other Cryptic Cove Mysteries, I will).
- Flesh Out: Look for places to “flesh out” your characters, or clarify how they feel or better describe a scene. Add a scene if you think your manuscript needs it.
- Limit To Be Verbs: You must use some “to be” words. But see if you can get rid of some of them.
- Past Perfect: Writing in third POV means you are already writing in the past. If something happened in the story’s past, and the character is thinking about it, make sure the sentence is past perfect. Instead of “She was in the library when he was killed,” say “She’d been in the library when he was killed.”
- As If She Was Versus As If She Were: This is something I learned a while back that I was surprised I hadn’t learned in college. Use “as if she was” when it’s possible she could become that. Use “as if she were” when it’s impossible to become that.
- Example: “She panted as if she were a dog.” Unless you are writing about a character who can shift into a dog, use the word “were” instead of “was.” Or, “If I were you, I’d live in Cryptic Cove.” I could never become you. So that is why were is used.
- Another example: “She spoke to the crowd as if she was the governor.” No, she isn’t the governor … not now. But yes, she could really be a governor someday if she decided to run for the office, and got voted in!
- Use Contractions: Especially if you’re writing a contemporary. When I write Regency or Medieval, sometimes I use contractions, especially when I’m writing narrative. But people living in Regency and Medieval times didn’t use contractions, so I have the characters speak accordingly.
- Who Versus That: I look for places I can replace “that” with “who.” Example: She was a musician that liked to wear bells on her skirts. Instead write: She was a musician who liked to wear bells on her skirts.
- Body Parts: I look for roaming body parts. For instance:
- “He took her arm,” instead of “He took her by the arm.” He took her arm sounds as if he liter.ally took her arm off her body.
- “His eyes found her sitting on a rocker,” instead of “His gaze found her sitting on a rocker.” Again, it sounds like his eyes are roaming around out of their sockets.
- Silly, I know. But that is how traditionally published authors, with multiple books released, taught me. But I do wonder if the writing rules have changed because I see roaming eyes and arms all over the place in books now. Sticking to this rule is my preference. You can break it if you want! But I don’t want to do anything that stops the reader and makes her have to reread because she got a visual of eyes floating in the air. 😉
- Laugh, Gasp, Groan Words: Characters can’t laugh words. Neither can the gasp or groan words. Try to do it. It doesn’t work. When you speak, you expel air; when you gasp you inhale air. It’s impossible to do both at the same time. And speaking while you try to laugh–the words sound weird and quavery! Another lesson that was hammered into me. Something I see all the time in other published novels. Maybe it’s acceptable now. But I notice what I think is an error every time I see it and it does stop me because I get a weird sound with the dialog. Too, my multiple-published traditional author said that was a lazy way to write. I don’t know if I agree. So I usually don’t want to write that way, unless I purposely break the rule for effect? For instance if there’s a lot of action and I want fast dialog? Still considering if that would be a good reason. But there is usually a more efficient way to write the scene without breaking this rule.
- Incorrect Way: “I give in,” she laughed.
- Correct Way: “I give in,” she said with a laugh.
- Commas: Nothing is worse than a misplaced comma, in my opinion. A misplaced comma really stops the reader. Here is an article about the eight rules on commas: https://medium.com/@carlymaedee/8-simple-comma-rules-remember-them-like-your-own-birthday-2bd1f182a894
Methods to edit:
- Audio: Read the chapters out loud. Many times I will find errors by doing so. Admittedly I don’t do this as much as I did in the beginning, when I was first learning, but it is a good technique.
- Print out your manuscript. This is after you do the Structural Edits.
Clean and Crisp Writing
Again, I think it’s important for you to do Structural and Line Edits before you hire an editor. Make your manuscript as clean as you possibly can. Find as many mistakes as you can. Why? you ask. Why not give a rough draft to the editor and let them earn their money? This is why:
- You can cut down on the cost for a professional editor.
- Editing it yourself to the best of your ability will only make the manuscript better.
- The editor will better understand what you’re going for. If my manuscript is too rough, I worry the editor won’t be in the mindset I intended. So her comments could be way off-base and I’ve wasted my money.
- Going through these edits will familiarize you with your faults, help you see where strengths are, and make you a better writer.
- Mistakes are distracting. The editor can concentrate on bigger things, if you hired her/him for Structural (or Developmental) Edits and line edits.
- If you have a critique group or a critique partner, that helps. But again, edit until your eyes bulge and your mind turns to mush.
- Remember that it’s easier to revise/rewrite than it is to fill a blank page.
- If your group is reading your manuscript from the beginning, and you submit a chapter at a time, you should still do the line edits and make it as clean as you can. Otherwise, I’ve found that the critique group gets too bogged down on stuff that I could have fixed and they don’t concentrate on the bigger picture–like if my book is moving in the right direction–which is something I would rather discuss.
Once you’ve edited the heck out of your manuscript, and it’s been outsourced to your professional paid editor, I would still go over it one more time. Use beta readers–like your mom or other family relatives. I have a few cousins and nieces who read mine. They can look for punctuation errors, missing words, or convoluted sentences that the paid editor might have missed. That way you can see how well your editor did. Beta readers will give you an overall idea as to how the story works for them.
I hope this helps! Let me know if there is anything I’ve missed that you like to do when editing.
Thanks for reading.