Right now, I’m in the middle of edits on two separate books, both of which I hope to query in June. When I first started editing my own work, a necessity if I wanted a professional editor to take me seriously, it was utterly daunting. I had little idea what I was doing. Now, though, books later, I’ve learned a few helpful techniques that I thought I’d pass down to you, dear readers. These can be applied to any length of fiction or can be modified for non-fiction.
1. Give yourself distance. This usually means taking at least a couple weeks away from a work. No touching it. No checking on it. No nothing. Put it away, close every file you have on it, and work on something else. For shorter works, I give myself at least a week. For longer, I try for a minimum of two weeks, but I prefer a month of time off.
The reason this is so necessary is that, when editing, it is essential to gain as close of a perspective to your readers as possible. This is frankly impossible, but we need to try our best. As the writer who knows everything, our brains play tricks on us and fill in details that may not actually be there. Or, because we know everything, we miss gaps in structure or characterization. Readers do not have the luxury of knowing all the secrets, motivations, and so forth that the writer knows. They have only the words written on the page.
2. Break it down. Never try to edit everything at once. That is a recipe for disaster. Assuming you survive the stress without some sort of breakdown or major confidence crisis, it’s extremely difficult to look for all the things that need attention all at once. It would be like trying to cook a grand dinner with seventy-two dishes all alone in less than an hour and with the Queen of England waiting outside to taste it and give her opinion. Something will burn. Something will boil over. Many somethings will be forgotten or missed. And the queen will not likely return for a second meal.
I recommend dividing all the things that need editing into categories. When I edit, I look for big things first like plot structure, characterization, and generally that the story makes sense from one end to the other. I don’t worry about anything else when I go through this first edit. That doesn’t mean I don’t occasionally fix a glaring typo or knock out a being verb, but I don’t focus on those things.
Here are a few more examples of things you might group together for a single read through:
Heroic qualities of characters, description, dialogue, narration
Incorporating all critiques and beta comments and recommendations that I agree with.
Filler words, being verbs, and excessive adverbs.
3. Read it backwards. This may sound a little crazy, but as long as you’re looking at line edit type changes like eliminating as many being verbs as possible, it’s helpful to start at the end and work your way to the beginning sentence by sentence or paragraph by paragraph. This technique keeps the story from drawing you in enough that you forget to look for whatever it is you’re looking for.
4. Accept the imperfections. This doesn’t mean only give 75% of your best. What it does mean is that there will always be something that gets missed. No matter how many times I’ve gone over a manuscript, I always find a typo, wording that makes me cringe, or a punctuation error. It’s the tricks our eyes and mind play when we read. They fill in what isn’t there sometimes. This very reason is why we have critique partners, beta readers, and editors to help catch those little things.
5. Print it. Do this at least once toward the end of edits. We read differently on a screen than we do off paper, and the difference will help us catch errors. Another way to do this at other stages of editing is to alter the font color and/or style. Just make certain that it is still easily readable.
6. Read it out loud. When I first heard this bit of advice, I confess I was a bit uncomfortable with it. If I read out loud it would be, well, out loud. People might hear me. Why is reading the story out loud so important in editing? It accomplishes a great many things that you can never manage just going over a manuscript visually.
First, your mouth has a much more difficult time fooling you into believing something is on the page when it’s not than your eyes. If I wrote a sentence like this, “The ghost slipped between the cracks in door to escape the fighting she had heard all her life,” I might miss the fact that the article is missing before “door,” either because my mind provides it because I expect it to be there or because I’ve already combed through two hundred pages and am tired. My mouth, however, will probably stumble over that part of the sentence and bring the error to my attention.
Second, reading aloud lets you hear the cadence of the story. If it is broken without a good reason, you will hear it. Further, sentences that look perfectly acceptable on the page may be far too much of a mouthful to get out without stumbling in speech. If your book reaches success, there might be an audio version or someone might read it aloud to someone else. If you are fortunate enough for that to happen, you want it to be as pleasing on the ears as it is on the eyes.
And last, reading aloud is good practice for those times when you might need to read your work in public. It helps build confidence. Plus, hearing your work is yet another tool to help improve skill and precision in the craft.
7. Decide on a stoping point BEFORE you begin. This is essential because, otherwise, you give yourself the right to go over a story endlessly. It will never get published, you will not improve your skill, and other great stories inside you will not get written if the story is forever in edits. Besides, acknowledging that it can never be truly flawless, this gives you a point when you know you are done.
I hope you have found these techniques helpful. What do you do to make editing a project manageable?
For more help on self-editing: check out the self-editing class notes on Candace Havens’s Write_Workshop or try Self-Editing for Fiction Writers: How to Edit Yourself into Print by Renni Browne and Dave King.