No one writes a perfect first draft. Before you send it off to a publisher or to a hired editor, there’s a lot you can do with your manuscript, yourself. It will increase your chances with the publisher and decrease your fee with the editor. Here are some tips to that end.
Order of Editing
Before you start tweaking your word choices, make sure you have the right blocks of text on the page. That calls for editing in a specific order:
- First pass: developmental editing. Here you’ll edit for plot structure, plot holes, character development, scene structure and flow, and so on. Edits you make on this pass might cause you a lot of rewriting and/or reorganization of your novel or story.
- Second pass: line editing. Here you’ll make sure your voice comes across, and that you have sturdy and varying sentence structures. You’ll choose the best words to convey your meaning and tighten up the prose.
- Third pass: copyediting. Here you’ll eliminate any remaining spelling and grammar mistakes.
Sounds like a lot of work? True writing begins when the first draft is done, say many professional writers. Think of it as all part of the joys of literary labor.
First Crucial Step
In order to self-edit efficiently, the first thing you must do is to let your manuscript cool off. There’s no stressing this advice enough. You simply cannot edit a “hot” manuscript with objective eyes, because you’ll be reading what you think should be on the page instead of what is on the page.
Put it away for a couple of weeks, work on new pieces, and come back to it later with clearer eyes.
How-To: Developmental Editing
- Read through your story and divide it into scenes. Describe each scene in 1-2 short sentences, ignoring all but the critical essence of the scene.
- Read through the story outline you’ve created and make sure it makes sense. Are there any unanswered questions? Are there any scenes that add nothing to the story?
- For each scene, describe what has changed for the participants of that scene, especially your main character(s). Is a new piece of information revealed? Does a character change in circumstances, in beliefs, or in feelings? For example, if at the beginning of a given scene Greg is all on his own, and at the end of the scene he’s recruited his first ally, that’s a meaningful change.
- If you find any scenes where you can’t make out any change, double- and triple-think them. It’s possible they’re just filler material and do not belong to your story.
- Write a brief description of each major character at the beginning of your story and at the end of your story. Do you recognize a meaningful change in each major character? If not, their development arch might be faulty. Characters should change during the process of a story—otherwise you’re describing a status quo, and that’s boring.
How-To: Line Editing
- Time to get back to your full manuscript. Read through it and listen to the music of your sentences. Do their structure and length vary, or do they sound repetitive?
- Circle weak, general verbs and passive voice. Switch them for specific and powerful verbs and for active voice.
- Cut out all filter words (I thought, I heard, I saw). Cut out most adverbs. Cut out many adjectives. Cut out weak words such as “almost”, “nearly”, “very”, “could”, and so on.
- Read out your story. Does it sound uniform in terms of voice? Does it sound like a single person has written it? Mark off any strange passages or word-choices that don’t gel with the rest of the story and re-work them.
- Use a text-to-speech software to read out your story for you. Listen to it word-by-word. Does any word jump out as unfitting, mispronounced, or downright wrong? Pause the program and check your writing accordingly.
- If you don’t have access to a good text-to-speech software, read your story out loud. Don’t rush through it—pronounce each word clearly and pause in all the right places. Pretend you’re reading it out at a library to a group of fans. Again, if any word strikes you as weird or downright wrong, circle it for editing.
- Continuance: create a card for each character, and whenever you mention a piece of visual information about a characters, note it on the corresponding card. Make sure you don’t contradict yourself anywhere.
- The same can work for locations, dates, and so on.
All Done! Now What?
Congratulations! You have a second or even a third or fourth draft. Remember, there’s a limit to anyone’s ability to self-edit. You’ll still need a pair of objective eyes to go over your manuscript. This is the time to employ beta readers or a professional editor. If you feel your story is solid enough, and you want to go the trade-publishing route, go ahead and submit it—but expect to be edited some more by the publication.
On the bright side, the more you go through this grueling process, the better your first drafts will become, and the easier editing will become for you. Keep at it!