In honor of #NaNoEdMo (National Novel Editing Month), I'm sharing some advice from You Can Write for Children: A Guide to Writing Great Stories, Articles, and Books for Kids and Teenagers. Last week I offered advice on “big picture” editing. Once you're comfortable with the overall structure and content of your novel, it's time to consider the details.
Once you are confident that your characters, plot, structure, and pacing are working, you can dig into the smaller details. At this stage, make sure that your timeline works and your setting hangs together. Create calendars and maps to keep track of when things happen and where people go.
Then polish, polish, polish.
Bill Peschel, author of Sherlock Holmes parodies and other books for adults, and a former newspaper copy editor, says, “Reading with a critical eye reveals weak spots in grammar, consistently misspelled words, and a reliance on ‘crutch words’ [unnecessary and overused words] such as simply, basically, or just. While it can be disheartening to make the same mistakes over and over again, self-editing can boost your ego when you become aware that you’re capable of eliminating them from your work. It takes self-awareness, some education, and a willingness to admit to making mistakes.”
This stage of editing can be time-consuming, especially if you are prone to spelling or grammatical errors. “Be systematic,” Peschel says. “Despite all the advice on how to multi-task, the brain operates most efficiently when it’s focusing on one problem at a time. This applies to proofing. You can look for spelling mistakes, incorrect grammar, and your particular weaknesses, just not at the same time. So for effective proofing, make several passes, each time focusing on a different aspects.”
One pass might focus only on dialogue. “Read just the dialogue out loud,” editor Jodie Renner suggests, “maybe role-playing with a buddy or two. Do the conversations sound natural or stilted? Does each character sound different, or do they all sound like the author?”
Wordiness (using more words than necessary) is a big problem for many writers, so make at least one pass focused exclusively on tightening. “Make every word count,” Renner advises. “Take out whole sentences and paragraphs that don’t add anything new or drive the story forward. Take out unnecessary little words, most adverbs and many adjectives, and eliminate clichés.” Words you can almost always cut include very, really, just, sort of, kind of, a little, rather, started to, began to, then. To pick up the pace in your manuscript, try to cut 20% of the text on every page, simply by looking for unnecessary words or longer phrases that can be changed to shorter ones.
Make additional passes looking for grammar errors, missing words, and your personal weak areas. For example, if you know you tend to overuse “just,” use the “Find” option in a program like Microsoft Word to locate that word and eliminate it when possible.
Even if you’re not an expert editor, you may be able to sense when something is wrong. “Trust your inner voice,” when you get an uneasy feeling, Peschel says. “It can be something missing, something wrong, something clunky, and if you stick to it – read it out loud, read it backwards, look at it from a distance – the mistake should declare itself.”
Fool Your Brain
By this point, you’ve read your manuscript dozens of times. This can make it hard to spot errors, since you know what is supposed to be there. Several tricks can help you see your work with fresh eyes.
Peschel says, “Reading the same prose in the same font can cause the eye to skate over mistakes, so change it up. Boost the size or change the color of the text or try a different font. Use free programs such as Calibre or Scrivener to create an EPUB or MOBI file that can be read on an ebook reader.”
Renner also recommends changing your font. Print your manuscript on paper if you are used to working on the computer screen. Finally, move away from your normal working place to review your manuscript. “These little tricks will help you see the manuscript as a reader instead of as a writer,” she says.
“An effective way to check the flow of your story is to read it aloud or have someone read it to you,” freelance editor Linda Lane notes. “Better yet, record your story so you can play it back multiple times if necessary. Recruiting another person to do this will give you a better idea of what a reader will see.” Some software, such as MS Word 2010, has a text-to-voice feature to provide a read aloud.
Lane adds, “If recording your story yourself, run your finger just below each line as you read to catch omitted or misspelled words and missing commas, quote marks, and periods. Also, enunciate clearly and ‘punctuate’ as you read, pausing slightly at each comma and a bit longer at end punctuation. While this won’t catch every error, it will give you a good sense of flow, highlight many shortcomings, and test whether your dialogue is smooth and realistic.”
Some people even recommend reading your manuscript backwards, sentence by sentence. While this won’t help you track the flow of the story, it focuses attention on the sentence level. Finally, certain computer programs and web platforms are designed to identify spelling and grammar errors, and in some cases even identify clichés. While these programs are not recommended for developmental editing (when you’re shaping the story), they can be an option for later polishing. (They can also make mistakes, though, so don’t trust Microsoft Word’s spelling & grammar check to be right about everything.)
How Much Is Enough?
How much editing you need to do depends on your goals for the story. If you simply want to write down the bedtime stories you tell your children as a family record, a spelling error or two doesn’t matter too much. If you are going to submit work to a publisher, you need to be more careful. Some editors and agents say they will stop reading if they find errors in the first few pages, or more than one typo every few pages. If you plan to self-publish, most experts advise hiring a professional editor to help you shape the story and a professional proofreader to make sure the book doesn’t go out with typos. Weak writing and other errors could cause readers to get annoyed and leave bad reviews.
Looking at all the steps to successful self-editing may be daunting, but break them down into pieces, take a step at a time, and don’t rush your revisions. “This whole process could easily take several months,” Renner says. “Don’t shoot yourself in the foot by putting your manuscript out too soon.”
Each time you go through this process you’ll be developing your skills, making the next time easier. “Like anything else, self-editing becomes easier the more you do it,” Peschel says. “When it becomes second-nature, you’ll have made a big leap toward becoming a professional writer.”
Stop by next Wednesday for final tips on editing – or subscribe to get posts automatically and never miss a post. You can use the Subscribe buttons to the right, or add http://chriseboch.blogspot.com/ to Feedly or another reader.
You can get the extended version of this essay, and a lot more, in You Can Write for Children: A Guide to Writing Great Stories, Articles, and Books for Kids and Teenagers. Order for Kindle, in paperback, or in Large Print paperback. Advanced Plotting also has advice on editing novels.
Chris Eboch writes fiction and nonfiction for all ages, with over 30 traditionally published books for children. Learn more at www.chriseboch.com or her Amazon page. Sign up for Chris’s Workshop Newsletter for classes and critique offers.
Chris also writes novels of suspense and romance for adults under the name Kris Bock; read excerpts at www.krisbock.com