Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Edit Like an Editor

         As a publisher and editor, I see many manuscripts that have not been thoroughly edited, are not ready for publication. So, where do writers begin to edit their own work? How can they do a credible job? I am so glad you asked.

Edit Like an Editor

         If you want to ever transition from writing to publishing, you will have to “bite the bullet” and force yourself to edit and revise multiple times before turning your “baby” over to a professional editor, or, perish the thought, you submit your work without doing a thorough editing job.

         However, editing doesn’t have to be a chore. Even if you plan to hire a pro to fine tune the editing, you must do some review and revision yourself. And if you plan to do all the work yourself, you’ll really need to focus and do your best to ensure the editing serves the book and achieves your goals for the manuscript.

         Leading us to the question; how do authors effectively edit their own work?

         Whether self-publishing or dreaming of being published by a traditional publishing house, learning to think like an editor will help you move your writing forward. Let’s examine some tips to help you edit your own work like an editor.


         First, take a break from even looking at your writing. Give your work time to become “new” again before you do a thorough edit. Stephen King advises waiting many weeks (for example, in his book On Writing,, he advises a wait of six weeks). However, I personally give myself a break of anywhere from a week to six months.

         But, you can be working on exercises you can do while waiting to help you better understand your own story:

1. Write down the plot(s)

         What you’re doing here is defining for yourself what the main plot line entails. Who is your protagonist? What drives them? What challenges them? Why? Think about all this and try to write a sentence or two that sums up the main drive of your story.

2. Identify the purpose of each scene

         What you’re looking for with this is a phrase or sentence that describes why each scene is in your story. These should be simple, and if you spend too long thinking about a scene’s purpose, there is a good chance it doesn’t belong in your final copy.

         Once you complete the exercises and have waited to allow your manuscript to “ripen,” you are ready to begin the editing and revision process. Perhaps, the following tips will help your editing skills:

Trim the Fat

         The most important lesson in the writing trade is that any manuscript is improved if you cut away the fat. – Robert Heinlein

         One of the most important pieces of editing advice you could receive is to trim the fat. After reading a scene or even a single paragraph, stop and ask yourself, “does this advance the plot?” and “does this scene add anything to the story?” If the answer is no to either of these questions, then what you just read is fat. Trim it away.

         Trimming away the excesses in your manuscript is not simple. Here’s an example from author George Saunders, rephrased for our purposes.

         Imagine I’ve written the line “Jack came into the room in a huff and sat heavily upon the old green recliner.” What are we trying to say with this line? The only information relevant to the plot is that Jack is now in the room, and possibly that he is sitting (unless of course the recliner is somehow important). So, we can’t trim the entire sentence because Jack’s arrival might be important. But do we care how he came into the room? Or how he sat on the chair? Or the details surrounding the chair? We don’t need that information unless necessary for the story.

         How much better is this sentence: “Jack entered the room.” Clean and simple. Saunders refers to his hypothetical as “Hemingwayesque” in its brevity and simplicity. If we must bring Jack into the scene, we should do so with only the details we need. Is it important to know that he’s entered “in a huff”? If it is, an adjective is probably in order. “Jack stormed into the room” has the gravity we might want, if Jack is about to yell at our other characters.

         The point being to use your words economically. First drafts are notoriously overwritten. That’s fine, if we return to the manuscript and trim the fat later. The challenge is in finding the lines and paragraphs that really do have valuable content, and trimming them down until they are lean and powerful.

Read aloud

         If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that. – Stephen King

         Mr. King refers to reading other writers (he claims to read upwards of 80 books a year), but to re-purpose his comment and turn it on the author, reading what you have written is a tough exercise for some. Actually, reading what you have written can be a chore.

         All authors can benefit from hearing how their words sound. Spoken aloud, your dialog might sound stiff or doesn’t fit the character as well as you thought it did. Or, that the snappy phrasing you’ve used is actually confusing. So much can come to the surface when you change the way you interact with your text.

         In the context of editing, I suggest giving the manuscript a look for grammar and spelling before reading it aloud.

Spelling & Grammar

         The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter. ’tis the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning. – Mark Twain

         You should aim to correct 99% of all grammar and spelling errors. I won’t say 100%, because that would mean the book never gets released while you go over it again and again looking for that one typo or misused word. Catching almost all of the mistakes is enough so long as you are diligent about spelling on the pages that matter the most. Those pages being the cover, the blurb, and the front matter. Any piece of the book a customer will see while looking online at your work.

         The first look for is obvious spelling errors. Word’s spell checker is good for this, but it is not always 100% correct. Another problem to watch for is the similar word issues. Things like affect/effect, their/there/they’re, and the like. Be sure each word is used correctly.

         Watch for overuse of words. Any word or words used to frequently distract the reader. Using the “find” option on MS Word, you can discover how often a word is used or overused.

         One way to check grammar and voice (passive/active) is to use Grammarly –a web-based tool that offers free and paid services. Basically, it adds a grammar and spellchecking tool to your browser. It also has the option to upload a file, run the Grammarly check, and download it back into the original format. Using MS Word, you get a file not only with the Grammarly correction, but those corrections are treated as Tracked Changes so they can easily be differentiated from other edits. One problem with Grammarly is that is isn’t always correct about grammar and punctuation, but it does highlight where passive voice is used. This problem is definitely true with the free program.

         Another way to check for grammar (including sentence structure) is to obtain an 8th grade English text book. I recommend a McDuggal-Littel book.

Think Like an Editor

         The artist, in this model, is like the optometrist, always asking: Is it better like this? Or like this? – George Saunders

         Thinking like an editor is a must to be able to do a good edit. You need to detach yourself from you work and look at it critically. You, as the editor, should look for the ways you can make the manuscript as clear and concise as possible.

         As an editor, you must be willing to ruthlessly cut and alter your manuscript in service of the story. No line is safe. If you ever come to a line or even a single word you think “I can’t change that,” then you’re not doing a fair job of editing. You might find in the long run that your awesome line doesn’t need to be cut, but you have to be willing to look at it with the red pen in hand and not be afraid to strike that line down.

         Getting yourself out of the writing frame of mind and into the editing one can be tough. This is another good reason to leave some space between finishing the manuscript and starting the editing process.

Befriend your Characters

         When writing a novel a writer should create living people; people not characters. A character is a caricature. – Ernest Hemingway

         This tip focuses heavily on fiction writers, but non-fiction writers may find it useful too. Basically, if the character dialog or tone is too mechanical or distant, the reader will not be held in the story. If characters converse in a way that does not ring true for them as a character or the way people actually converse, you risk losing a reader’s attention.

         To befriend your characters get to know them. I create a large file card for each of my characters and write the following information on the card:

• Full Name
• Date and Place of Birth
• Family
• Work
• Lifestyle
• Appearance
• Hobbies

         I also jot notes about the character I may use in my manuscript. I may not use any of or little of the information on the card in the story, but I “know” that character better and can write about him or her more realistically and believably.

Final Thoughts

         Editing can be a chore, but a necessary one. The purpose of editing is always to make the story better, to make it easier for readers to relate to, and to help you improve as a writer.

         I will share more editing tips later, but these should help you begin to be a better editor of your own work. However, do not depend on yourself alone; let your editing be the beginning before finding yourself a professional editor or a person who knows and understands literary editing.

Sources: Personal knowledge, experience, and expertise

1 comment:

  1. More authors should read their work out loud. It's probably THE BEST WAY to find errors, repetition, switched character names, etc..

    This is good stuff, Vivian.