Five Key Steps to Editing Your Manuscript
Learning to effectively edit your own work is more important than ever. You're not only competing with other writers in a tight market, you're competing for an editor's valuable time. Good plotting and radiant talent won't mean much if it's obvious that your book needs a lot of copy editing. Publishing houses are relying less on in-house editors and more on freelance editors to edit books. (Translated: We don't want to spend a bunch of money on editing.) While becoming a better self-editor can certainly put you ahead in the publishing game, learning to proofread and copy edit your own work will accomplish an even greater task: Improve your skills as a writer. Five key steps can help you effectively edit your own work:
* Write first, edit later.
* After the book is completed, distance yourself from the work.
* Allow an objective third party to read the complete first draft.
* Concentrate on the "big" problems first (weaknesses in plot and characterization, consistency issues, pacing, dialogue) and work down to the "little" problems (grammar, awkward phrases, sentence structure, word choices).
* Use good reference materials.
Write first, edit later. Don't edit as you write or you'll drive yourself crazy. If you participate in critique groups, I recommend not correcting a chapter before writing the next one. Keep your notes for each chapter and, if you want, write as if you made the corrections. When it comes time to re-write the book, you'll be able to better judge the suggestions that will and won't work.
Distance yourself from the book. When you've finished the book, put it away. Don't look at it and try not to think about it. (Okay, if you think of some brilliant idea, make a note, but don't look at the work.) I recommend waiting at least two weeks before beginning edits. You'll be surprised what you notice about your own writing-and the book's structure-when you don't think about it for a while. Waiting two weeks to work on your book can be excruciating, so this is a good time to start on your next project. Working on something new will help you to not think about re-writing your finished novel.
Allow someone to read the whole manuscript. Give your book to someone you trust to be honest and fair about your work. The person reading your book doesn't necessarily have to be another writer. (Writers, no matter how hard they try, will always offer advice and criticism based on their own writing preferences. Well-meaning advice from your peers can sometimes interfere with your own style and voice.) Make sure the person you choose understands and likes the genre of your book. Don't talk to him about the book. Don't tell him about your concerns or your favorite scenes or your plot twists. Pretend he's a reader who bought the book right off the store shelves. You might be surprised at what you find out.
Start with the big picture and work down to the details. As your objective third party is reading the book, you should read the book, too. Read it straight through and make notes about everything that catches your attention. (Now's the time to decide what critique-group suggestions you want to include in your re-writes.) When you get the manuscript and comments from your reader, you're ready to start re-writing. Start with the big picture and work down to the details. Save nitpickiness (grammar, word choices, awkward phrases) for the last re-write. Fix your plot, characterization, pacing, and so forth before worrying about word choices and sentence structure. When you're ready to attack the little stuff, keep a dictionary, thesaurus, and style guide on hand. Read chapter one at a time and look for consistency, bad grammar, word usage, and so forth. After reading one chapter all the way through, go back and read one page at time. Read each page paragraph by paragraph then sentence by sentence.
Use good reference materials. An excellent online resource for both dictionary and thesaurus can be found at Reference.com. Get an online subscription to the ultimate writer's guide, The Chicago Manual of Style. (Sign up for the free trial.) Also, check out the grammar and punctuation guides written by Lynne Truss, especially Eats, Shoots & Leaves.