Does it seem odd, coming to an editor’s website to get tips on self-editing? After all, I get paid by writers to do this work, and yet here I am offering you advice for free!
With my plot coaching and developmental editing clients, I often tell them that my goal is to get them to a point where they don’t need me anymore. At least not for those services. All authors need at least a copy edit; even I have my stories edited before publishing. It’s almost impossible to pick up all the errors when you’ve written a piece yourself. However, the need for a coach or developmental editor generally suggests that an author is missing pieces of the craft required to complete a manuscript. It’s hardly surprising that this would be the case, especially if, like me, you don’t have an MFA or even a degree in English. Writers have to work continuously at honing their craft, and every writer naturally has certain strengths and weaknesses. My goal as a coach and editor is to help my authors with their weaknesses. As a result, I’ve developed a series of worksheets on the most common areas of the craft that authors have problems with, and if I identify problems in any of these areas while coaching or doing a developmental edit, I’ll often send them to authors with a suggestion they work on those skills for a while before putting them into practice on the next draft of their novel. As part of this series, I’ll be offering you many of these worksheets for free.
Before you hire an editor, self-edit
Many writers come to me without being aware of their strengths and weaknesses in the craft. Sometimes I can tease it out of them with some searching questions; sometimes they just can’t tell me what they’re good at and what they need help with. If you can identify those parts of the craft you need help with, and consciously work on those parts of your manuscript before you hire an editor, you will be vastly reducing the amount of work the editor needs to do for you. As a result, you will be reducing the amount of money you have to spend. Most of my clients intend to self-publish, and don’t have large amounts of money to spend on editing; as a result they will either find someone cheap (and I would argue that means they don’t get their story edited properly, which will impact their reviews and therefore their sales) or they will become disheartened as the quote or costs of editing continue to rise. It is in my interest to help writers minimize the number of hours I need to spend on their project, so they hire me instead of searching for someone suspiciously cheap. I won’t skimp on the edit and the end result. I want to give my clients a fair assessment of my time and costs, that is also within their budget. Usually that means getting them to do some of the work alone, before I get the red pen out. And they are just fine with that!
Okay, so how do I self-edit?
It amazes me how many writers finish their last chapter, run a spell-check, then send their manuscript out for a quote for editing services. If I ask a writer if they’ve read the whole thing from chapter one to THE END and they say no, I know we are both in trouble. It means I will have to do many more hours of work, and that means they will have to pay a lot more for my services.
I would suggest that if you follow these steps, your manuscript will be in a significantly better place before you send it to an editor. As a result, your quote for editing will be reduced, and possibly it will move you out of the coaching or developmental editing category and into the line editing or copy editing services, which also reduces the time and costs involved. In an ideal world, I would love it if a writer followed these steps before sending a manuscript to me:
1. Give yourself a time-out
You need some space to move from your writing brain to your editing brain. Some people like to put their manuscript in the drawer for weeks, others only need to leave it a few days. More important than the amount of time you wait, I would argue, is that when you’re ready to pick it up again you can give it your whole attention as an editor. Which means you have a number of days/evenings/a whole weekend to devote to reading it and analyzing it. It is important that you can read it all relatively quickly, on subsequent days if possible, and in just a handful of chunks until you hit the end. That means you need uninterrupted time. Sometimes I like to start a new project before I self-edit, just so that my writing brain is engaged in something else. Sometimes, if I’m on a deadline, I only need a few days in between but I will often do the editing work in a different physical space to help change to my editor’s hat more easily.
2. Read differently than you write
For me and for many writers, it’s important that you read in a different way than you wrote your manuscript. As I mentioned above, that often means I read it in a different space. It also means I don’t read it on the computer I typed it on. Different people have different approaches, but here are some options for switching up the text so you examine it as a reader and not a writer:
- print out a physical copy. This is my personal favorite, but it can be expensive, depending on the size of the manuscript
- send to your kindle. If you’re a fan of e-readers, send your manuscript there so you can read as you do with other published works
- read on a different computer. I normally write on my laptop, so sometimes I read it on the desktop computer in my office. If I do this, I often also change font and or color of the text.
- use text to read. Many applications will translate the words on the screen into an audio file. You can read aloud, but if your manuscript is long, you may prefer to have the computer read it to you.
3. Go with the flow
While it can be tempting to try and fix as you spot problems, the first read-through is NOT the place to do this. Find a system for marking problems that allows you to categorize and move on. I will have some more posts in this series that give a good system for doing this.
4. Write your blurb
You know what the blurb is, right? It’s the back-cover copy on any published book. Read a few on your shelves and you’ll see that they do a good job of outlining the first 25% of the story, hint at the obstacles, the climax, and the protagonist’s flaws. If you’re having a hard time summarizing these parts of your story, then you may be in trouble. Try writing your blurb, and see which parts you struggle with. Those are the parts of your manuscript you really want to examine. I will add a post in this series on how to write your blurb in more detail.
5. Prepare to trade editor hat for mechanic hat
When you’ve reached the last page of your manuscript, hopefully it’s only been a few days since you started your read-through. In which case you should be able to hold the whole story in your mind. Now is the time to read the notes that you made as you edited, and list the tasks that you need to work on in your second draft. It can feel overwhelming to look at the hundreds of comments you’ve no doubt marked on the draft, but remember that not all of these are as important or will take as long to fix as others. Prioritize your list according to the following:
- plot. It doesn’t really matter if your dialogue sounds corny in chapter two if you’re going to have to delete that completely to fix plot problems. The first task is to complete a Plot Outline Template with your main plot points. If you don’t know what these plot points mean, check out this post on How to Outline Your Novel.
- character arcs. I’ll go into this in detail in another post, but you need to at least consider whether your main characters change over the course of the novel.
- timeline. While editing you hopefully spotted places where you jumped about in the timeline of your story. This is a very common problem in a first draft, especially if you wrote scenes out of order. Once you’ve established that your scenes are all necessary, make sure you’ve given enough information at the beginning to connect them to the end of the last scene.
- dialogue. This can often be choppy and stilted in the first part of your manuscript and often becomes more realistic as the story progresses and you got into your character’s heads. Don’t worry too much about this! Read the end pages again and then work on rewriting the first sections of dialogue, confident you now know your characters far better.
- recurring problems. Sometimes this is hard to spot when self-editing, but if you realize that you are making similar problems frequently throughout the manuscript (for example, too many passive sentences, run on sentences, or dialogue adverbs instead of tags) then you want to highlight all of these in one way, and then go back through the manuscript trying to fix as many as possible. Once you realize the flaw and start to practice editing it, you’ll find that you become more flexible and adept at finding solutions. Doing this work will strengthen your abilities in this area and hopefully reduce the chances of you repeating this problem in future manuscripts.
Does this sound like a lot of work? Well, it is! But the more hours you spend on it, the fewer you will have to pay an editor to do for you. There are obviously times when you look at the plot and realize it has fundamental problems you don’t know how to fix. And that is the time to consider hiring a developmental editor or plot coach. There is no point in working on all the other issues until you know where the story is going. Most developmental editors will happily give you a manuscript critique and work on the plot with you, then allow you to work on the manuscript again yourself before coming back for more input. Some editors will only help with the big picture plot work and then advise you use a different line editor, depending on their particular skills and experience.
If you have any questions, please feel free to comment or send me an email, I’d love to help! And keep checking back for future parts of this series, so we can dig into these different types of self-editing skills some more.