The Challenges of Self-Editing: Producing a Quality Manuscript without an Editor
Whether you intend to self-publish, look for an agent, or submit your manuscript directly to a traditional publisher, editing is one of the most important things you can do to ensure your book is taken seriously. No matter how interesting your story is, or how passionate you are about telling it, a manuscript riddled with errors will turn off prospective publishers and readers alike.
Hiring a professional editor with good references is, of course, highly recommended. Many talented writers struggle with basic grammar, spelling, and punctuation. Even those who don’t will still have difficulty editing their own work because they are too close to it. Ever read the same paragraph so many times that your brain fills in what “should” be there rather than what is actually there? It happens to everyone. But readers will catch the mistake even if you don’t, which is not what you want when your name is on the cover of the book.
What if you simply cannot afford an editor? Should you toss aside your pen and give up on all your dreams of becoming a published author? Definitely not! There are still plenty of things you can do to ensure you’re presenting the best manuscript possible. As someone who is both an author and editor, I am happy to share a few self-editing tips that really work. Just don’t expect to catch everything in one read-through, and don’t do a rush job. Editing is a multi-step process that requires a lot of time and patience, which is one of the reasons why professional editing costs so much!
- Do separate edits for proofreading and comprehensive editing.
Proofreading is limited to checking for proper grammar, punctuation, and spelling. Comprehensive editing looks for things like story flow and organization, inconsistencies, repetitiveness, plot holes, weak writing, and character development issues. This part of the process may require re-writing or even stripping out whole sections of your story that aren’t working. Trying to focus on comprehensive editing and proofreading at the same time is like trying to follow two different television programs at once. You will inevitably lose focus on one while you’re paying attention to the other and miss crucial elements.
- Use an editing checklist.
There are lots of different checklists out there on the internet for writers and editors. Some deal with straight editing and formatting issues, some go into plot and character development, constructing well organized chapters, or other aspects of the writing process. Know your weakness as a writer/editor and find a checklist that will help you address that weakness.
- Don’t edit when you’re tired or emotional.
Good editing takes calm, focus, and a rational, objective state of mind. Never try to edit when you are tired, stressed, emotional, distracted, rushed, or otherwise mentally impaired. This can greatly affect what you find, the changes you make, and how you feel about your work as a whole. If you are feeling overly critical toward your piece, set it aside for another day so that you don’t get discouraged, or get a second opinion from someone you trust to be honest with you. Your critical mood might be a reflection of something else going on in your life, and not related to your writing at all.
- Don’t always read on screen.
With computers this is tempting. After all, paper and printer ink cost money, and bulky manuscripts take up space. But I guarantee you will find different kinds of errors on the printed page than you find when you are reading on a screen. Just have your computer version handy so that you can make quick edits as you go. This will save you time and headaches. Also, read out loud every once in a while. If a paragraph or sentence is difficult or confusing to say, it probably still needs some work.
- Watch your tenses and point of view.
One of the most common issues I find when editing for others is shifting tenses and point of view. Correcting these issues can be very frustrating and time consuming, but are absolutely necessary. Most stories can be comfortably written in past tense (was, had, etc.), third person point of view (he, she, they, etc.). Present tense can lend speed and excitement to a story, but is difficult to sustain throughout a long piece of writing. First person writing has the advantage of being very personal. However, you are limited to the feelings, knowledge, and experiences of one character. Deciding what tense and point of view works best for your particular story is up to you. But once you decide, you need to stick with it and be consistent.
- Use your word processor’s grammar and spell check…with caution.
Most of us agree that the grammar checkers in our word processing software programs are mediocre at best. Every once in a while, use them anyway, just to see what they find. Spell checkers are important too, but don’t rely on them too heavily. They will not tell you if you’re using the wrong word (bare vs. bear for instance). Both are spelled right, and they sound the same, but they obviously have very different meanings.
- That being said, good writing is not only about grammar.
Make sure that your sentences vary in length and rhythm. Change up your word choices to keep the writing interesting, and eliminate redundancies. If you feel like you’re using certain words and phrases too much, you probably are. Do a quick search in your word processing software to find out. Don’t be afraid to expand your vocabulary, and remember that the thesaurus gives words of similar meaning. Not every word it gives you will be interchangeable. If you are not sure about the nuances behind a word’s meaning, look it up in the dictionary before you use it.
- Look up what you don’t know.
If you’re writing about a specific place or time in history, or your characters have special skills or knowledge that you don’t, do some homework rather than make assumptions or skimp on details. A good editor will always check your facts to a reasonable extent, but if you are self-editing, you will have to take responsibility for this on your own. If you really struggle with grammar, punctuation, and spelling, invest in a style book, like The Elements of Style by Strunk and White, or even The Chicago Manual of Style, which is what professional fiction editors typically use as a reference. There are also relatively inexpensive online courses you can take to help you improve your writing and editing skills.
- Don’t be afraid to ask for help.
Use beta readers. Ask friends, relatives, other writers, or anyone else who takes an interest in your writing to voice their opinions. You don’t have to agree with every proposed change, but don’t be thin-skinned about the feedback you get either. When someone takes the time to read your writing, view their suggestions as an opportunity to make your work the best it can possibly be. Nobody’s perfect.
- Read your chapter or story backwards—literally!
This is a good exercise for the end of your editing process, when you’re trying to catch those final stray errors that keep eluding you. When your mind isn’t automatically filling in what it thinks should be there, your brain can more easily notice the things that shouldn’t be there.
- Know when it’s time to quit.
You’ve read and refined your piece so many times you’ve lost count. You’ve run out of beta readers, friends, and relatives. You’ve scoured the internet for tips and tricks, and have used them all. Now it is time to just let go and give yourself a break. Even professional editors will tell you that you’ll never find every single mistake, and as you grow and mature as a writer, there will always be things you want to go back and change. But you can’t hang onto a single piece of writing forever. At some point it will be time to publish your piece, pat yourself on the back for a job well done, and move on to the next challenge…probably marketing. But that is a topic for a whole different article.