1. Get the best editor that you can afford. If that happens to be you, learn all you can, refer to reputable sources in print and online, and always have people around you that can read your work and offer you feedback. Over the next few days, I’ll be sharing what I’ve learned through trial and error about the editing process.
2. Editing practices have changed over the years. There are way too many so-called experts out there. Editing manuals even disagree on some of the specifics. So it can be a confusing, frustrating experience at the beginning. By listening to too many different “advisors,” I’d make changes to my manuscript based on one piece of advice then hear something conflicting and change it all again. I finally put together my own editing guide/style sheet – general rules, specific examples, and a watch list of common mistakes I’ve made in spelling, grammar, punctuation, etc. The Chicago Manual of Style has become my bible. My work is consistent now. I’m no longer second guessing myself. I feel more confident as an author. Doing it yourself isn’t for everyone, but if you’re a perfectionist like I am, if you have a love of the English language and a desire to learn, you can become your own editor.
3. I use a five step editing process. The first is a quick read through to check for consistency of thought, general flow, and readability. I say quick because it’s tempting to start fixing every little mistake. Don’t. Highlight things if they need attention, but the main goal here is to get an overview, a sense of how the book reads. I highlight sections and make notes as I read. Afterward, I add detail if necessary for clarity, move sections around for better flow, create (or add to) my character profiles, and often chart relevant events on a timeline. I may do further research or verify specific details at this point.
4. The second step is a thorough paragraph by paragraph edit. It can take me weeks to get through a 400 page novel, but the result is a much more polished manuscript. If I was an artist creating a sculpture, this is where I would smooth out the rough edges, refine specific details, get rid of any unnecessary bits. I look at a sentence and ask myself, “Can this be stated more clearly, more concisely? Is it in the active or passive voice? (Which would work better here?) Do I need to add more detail to get my point across? Is it properly punctuated?” In this edit, I go over my watch list (using the find feature on my word processing program, I search for commonly misspelled or misused words). This is where a tool like Cliche Cleaner
would be useful. (I haven’t tried it; it’s not available for Mac.)
5. My third step is audio editing. It’s using your ears instead of your eyes to pick out mistakes in your work. This can be accomplished in various ways. Simply reading aloud will expose many of those sneaky little errors or omissions that your eyes miss. I use my computer’s text to speech capability. On Mac, highlight the section you want the computer to read (or it will start reading from the beginning of the document) and right click. Then click speech -> start speaking. (I have mine set as a shortcut key, so it’s convenient and fast.) When I used Windows XP it was in the tools drop-down menu. You even have a choice of voices to choose from and you can adjust the speed. A third option is downloadable software. I’ve heard good things about NaturalReader.
It’s free, but check out your options. This is something I use daily – even to edit a Facebook post before I press enter! I’ve come to trust my ears – especially after my eyes have been staring at the screen for hours and really need a break.
6. Formatting is an important part of my editing process. Formatting the book allows me to see it in a new way. I go through the book page by page, but rather than looking for errors, I’m lining up the pages (I like all the bottoms to be even), removing orphans (single words by themselves on a line at the end of a paragraph), tightening up lines (using character spacing and/or manual hyphenation), etc., and as a result, I often find things I’ve missed in the previous edit. Just a word or two here about formatting. It can seem like a daunting task and you may want to have it done by a professional, but if you’re up for the challenge you can create a professionally formatted book using Word (or Pages on Mac).
7. FInally, I print out the formatted manuscript and proofread the paper copy. At this point I like to get feedback from a few close friends and family. This is also where I’ve had to learn to let go (I could keep on tweaking forever!) and allow others to be a part of this production. A qualified proofreader is a valuable investment and hiring a professional is a good idea at this stage.
8. Lists: Compile lists of synonyms for common words such as “amazing,” “awesome,” “nice,” “beautiful.” These descriptors are often overused in fiction. Another handy list you can create and refer to is alternatives for “he said.” Consider descriptive words like, “he barked,” or “she grumbled.” Or better yet see if you can omit those tags altogether. Create a watch list of common mistakes you make in spelling/grammar/usage and use the edit -> find feature on your word processing program to locate all the occurrences of a problematic word or phrase in your manuscript. Here is a great article I cam across:
9. Tools: Keep your online dictionary and thesaurus open in the background and refer to it often. Check words to make sure you’re using them in the right context. A dictionary will also show you how to properly hyphenate, how to use the word in various tenses and even list common phrases. As for your thesaurus, use it if you find yourself repeating a certain word, but keep in mind that clear and concise is better than pretentious, so avoid words that sound pompous or grandiose. Other editing tools I’ve come across: Cliche Cleaner and Natural Reader (as mentioned) and ErrNET to proofread your work.
ErrNET takes only minutes and runs on their server so there is no need to install software. The program uploads documents through your web browser and calculates price based on total number of pages. Once payment is received, ErrNET checks for errors, marks them in your document, and generates an error report. My latest book in it’s unformatted form is 120 (8.5 x 11) pages, so the cost was $50.
10. Allow time to be your friend. A week or two between edits clears your brain and rests your tired eyes. Things you missed before will pop out as if they were highlighted. And one final tip: stay connected and enjoy the process. Life is supposed to be fun!