By Donna Schlachter
Okay, you’re getting close to the end of writing your book. You’ve checked the character arcs, the plot lines, sub-plots are all concluded, satisfying ending. Time to type THE END and send it off to your agent or one of the dozens of publishing houses languishing for want of your book, right?
Now it’s time to edit your book until the prose shines. Until you make your word count squeak because you’ve tightened the writing so much.
There are several ways to approach this stage, but I will suggest the steps I usually take, and I’ll toss in a couple of options for you, as well.
Regardless how much editing you might already have done while writing the book, the following steps are critical to the success of your book. Having already spent hundreds or thousands of hours getting the book written, you don’t want to skip any important steps. If you do them in the order laid out below, you won’t waste time because getting the steps out of order will duplicate the work.
- If you haven’t already, you should put as much of the book as possible through your critique group. Everybody should have a critique group. Online or in person, it doesn’t matter. And once you receive feedback, incorporate it appropriately. Each member of your group should have their own particular skills. A grammar queen, a sentence structure guru, a big picture boss, and a story expert should comprise the basis of your group. So for example, if your big picture boss says to put a comma here, but your grammar queen says no, listen to the one who knows the grammar and punctuation best.
- Use an online tool such as Grammarly or ProWriting Aid. Don’t use this tool instead of a critique group. Use it after the critique group. Listen to what the program tells you, but choose wisely. In particular, use the Grammar & Style, Echoes, and Overused Words functions. Check the readability and strive to get your book to fall into the parameters listed. For example, if the program says your Readability is difficult to read, check out the Stats to find out why. Or if the program says your Passive Index is 45, and the target is up to 25, listen to them.
- If you have beta readers, send it to them now. These could be folks you’re related to, or friends, or strangers who offer to read your book for free when you ask for help. If you have a launch team, this could be them. When they send you feedback, listen to them and incorporate their suggestions.
- Print your book out in the format in which it most likely will be published. If you expect it to be a 6X9, or a 5X7, or a mass market size like 4.75X7, set the margins and print the book. I know, it will be a lot of pages. Still a great investment. Then read the book as if you were a reader. Mark any changes you want to make in red. Move paragraphs around inside the document with arrows and notes. You will sometimes see things on the page when it’s printed this way that you wouldn’t see otherwise, such as if every paragraph on a page or in a scene begins with “she”. Then make your changes to your digital document.
- Print the book out again, this time with regular margins on regular paper, single spaced. Find a quiet spot, and read it out loud. No, mouthing the words doesn’t count. Out loud. Mark where you stumble over words, where there are echoes—when you use the same word more than once in a paragraph, such as vehicle, book, hospital, tree, gun. Look for places where you can change the wording to eliminate the echo, such as identifying the kind of tree, vehicle, or gun. Make those changes to the digital version.
Things to Watch For While You Edit
- Pet words. We all have them. I tend to overuse: just, nearly, managed, begin(ning), start(ing), try(ing)
- Overused phrases: be able to; be going to; barely managed to; in fact; goes without saying;
- Redundant phrases: shrugged his shoulders; nodded his head; sat down — cut the underlined words
Make sure you have:
- Lots of body language – switch out dialogue tags (he said, she pouted, he whispered, she hissed) with action.
“Where are you going?” he whispered. “And can I come along?”
A better way to say it:
“Where are you going?” He gripped my sleeve. “And can I come along?”
We can see the desperation or the boldness in the clutching at the sleeve.
- Highlight tension between and within characters through internal dialogue, particularly when what the character is thinking is opposed to what they say.
Jane twirled around the living room. “Don’t you just love this dress?”
Orange always did make her look fat. Paul gritted his teeth. “Lovely.”
- Tension on every page. Doesn’t matter what kind: physical, mental, relational, spiritual, internal, external (like with the elements or nature). Doesn’t have to be life-threatening, but make it important enough for the reader to ask, “Ooh, what’s going to happen next?” Tension keeps the reader reading. You can identify weak areas by underlining tension in red then going back and looking for places where there is no red ink.
- Make sure every scene and chapter starts by anchoring the reader in the character’s Point of view, and the time and place. Avoid going backward in time in the story. Keep the story moving forward.
- End every scene and chapter with a question, a problem, a danger, or a twist. Something that makes the reader want to keep reading to find the answer, solution, rescue, or explanation.
- Foreshadow what’s happened in the past and how it affects the character, and also suggest how it will have an impact on choices the character will make when pushed into a corner or out on a limb. Do this as if you’re sprinkling cinnamon on your oatmeal, a little at a time.
Depending on many factors, you might want to hire an editor for a final set of eyes on your work. If several of your critique group or beta readers mentioned the same issues, such as not liking your main character, not believing your premise, not understanding why a character did or didn’t choose a certain action, then you might choose to hire a developmental editor to look at the story as a whole and make suggestions about structure, premise, plot, or characters.
If you find yourself asking yourself questions as you work through the above process, like, “does a comma really go there?” or “how should I format this paragraph”, you might choose to hire a copy editor or a proofreader.
In reality, there are as many kinds of editors as there are problems with manuscripts, each with their own price tag and level of expertise attached. Ask your friends for recommendations, or your agent. Just remember: a reputable agent or publisher will never charge you to edit your work. NEVER.
If you have any questions, while I don’t pretend to know all the answers, feel free to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org
Looking forward to seeing your book in a bookstore soon!
Below I’ve included several websites and resources you might also find helpful. Many of these articles have a plethora of other useful articles on writing, and some include free downloads, newsletters, and blogs you can follow:
How to Edit Your Own Work
How to edit a Book
The Ultimate Guide to Editing Your Manuscript
10 Self-Editing Tips
How to Self-Edit a Book With Specific Strategies for Success
Self-Editing Your Manuscript
Self-Editing Basics: 10 Simple Ways to Edit Your Own Book
Top 10 Golden Rules of Self-Editing
Mastering the 3 Stages of Manuscript Editing
Editor’s Note: This is the eleventh installment in Donna Schlachter’s fantastic series, Producing a Novel. If you would like to read more in this series click on the links below:
Generating—and Testing—Ideas for Fiction and Non-Fiction Books – Part 1
Genre and Markets – Part 2
Building Believable Characters – Part 3
Character Sketches and Backstory – Part 4
Hooking Your Readers – Part 5
Character and Story Arc – Part 6
Outlining Your Book – Part 7
Overcoming the Muddle Middle – Part 8
Racing to the Finish – Part 9
Writing a Series – Part 10
Self-Editing – Part 11
Cover Design and Self-Publishing – Part 12
Donna Schlachter lives in Denver with husband Patrick. As a hybrid author, she writes historical suspense under her own name, and contemporary suspense under her alter ego of Leeann Betts, and has been published more than 30 times in novellas, full-length novels, and non-fiction books. She is a member of American Christian Fiction Writers, Writers on the Rock, Sisters In Crime, Pikes Peak Writers, and Christian Authors Network; facilitates a critique group; and teaches writing classes online and in person. Donna also ghostwrites, edits, and judges in writing contests. She loves history and research, and travels extensively for both. Donna is represented by Terrie Wolf of AKA Literary Management. You can find her at www.HiStoryThrutheAges.com