Let me preface this by saying I absolutely hate editing. I’m sure I’m not alone in this. Writing a book isn’t always the easiest, but the worst writing days are still better than the best editing days for me, and I’d say that was telling of how much I don’t like to edit.
With that in mind, I will say that I have managed to find a formula that suits me for editing now and makes the process seem less painful. Don’t get me wrong. It still feels like I’m pulling nails most of the time, but now, it feels like I dipped my fingers in numbing cream before I did.
Understand that everyone has a different process and not every tip I’ll give will work for you. I have friends that have no trouble editing while they write, but if I attempt to edit while I’m writing, I often discourage myself from writing at all. Some people prefer paper to a screen or vice versa. Some like to go right into editing after they finish a book. The entire goal of editing for the writer is finding a way to read the story in the same light as the reader.
I feel that the job of the writer, and I’m only speaking from the place of a fiction writer and poet, is to provide the story, which is why my first tip is to write the book before editing it. Our job isn’t necessarily to write every word correctly or know exactly when to use a comma. Our first job and most important is to get the story out. I’m sure some of you, especially the grammar Nazis cringe at that idea, but I always think of it like this: Think about children. Children are often the best storytellers you know. Their ideas are wild and imaginative, and I believe most writers are just children in adult bodies. There’s a part of us that never grows up because we’re able to see a random object and turn it into something magical. Adults see a closet door. Children see a doorway to another world. Writers are able to explain what that other world is. If a child tells you a good story, it’s a good story. You wouldn’t discount a child’s fictional story as being bad if they didn’t write the story correctly. It wasn’t their first job to provide a perfect manuscript. Their first job was to tell the story, regardless of whether they knew how to properly spell.
Am I saying don’t have a basic concept of spelling, grammar, and punctuation? Absolutely not. But I am saying that when you begin writing a story, worrying too much about these things is pointless. Your job is to tell the story as it needs to be told. Deciphering through the rummage afterward can wait for the story to be told.
Now, once the story itself is out of the way, my best tip, and I honestly believe that this is the one that has helped me tremendously over the years, is to forget you wrote the book. The moment you write that last word, save it. Close the file, place the manuscript in a drawer, and forget about it. I know the excitement that comes with finishing a book. You want to dive back in, see how it works, but you’re not getting a perfect representation of the book that way. I also suggest this before you let anyone else read your manuscript as well. It’s okay to let the story simmer. Forget the story, celebrate finishing it, and start working on something else. I suggest leaving the book for as long as you can stand.
The thing is, when you leave that book to do another project, you’re switching your mind to something new. You have new thought processes based on what you’re working on. You switch the one-track line you were on for a new track. Doing this means that when you do come back to that manuscript, you can view it with a new perspective. You’ll often be surprised with what you wrote before and be less biased against your own work. It’s an easy way to read your book as accurately as the reader will.
So now, we’re actually editing. I know, it took us a while to get here, but the preparation is just as important as the execution.
I think most of my tips will only apply to writers of fictional work, but some of these tips may be more universal for editing in general.
My first tip is to not edit the first time you read the manuscript. I know but hear me out. Your first goal is to simply write a good book. Your second goal is to make sure the story you want to tell is told. Once you’re satisfied with that, then you can worry about the technicalities. I suggest reading the book without focusing too much on whether you used the right word or comma placement. Instead, read the story, and when you note something within the plot that should be changed or needs adjusting, mark it and leave your note. Your first job is to have the story you want, and once that’s out of the way, the rest is a lot easier.
My second tip is to be aware. Most of us know our shortcomings. I know I have trouble with determining ‘went’ or ‘gone’ when writing. I try to remember this when I’m writing, but it’s just one of those things that I often forget the rules of when I’ve fallen into the page and are more focused on the story. So, when I start editing, I often check for those words first. Any issue that I know I have trouble with, I will typically keep my eyes open for to correct.
Which brings me to my third tip: The FIND tab is your best friend. If you write on a computer, as most people now do, you’ll find that most word processors have a tab in the tools called FIND. Sometimes, they even have FIND and REPLACE. If you know you have trouble spelling a certain word or confusing between what is grammatically correct, being able to spell or search for a certain word is a great tool to have to specifically scope out these weak points. It’s also a good tool to use to make sure your document is double spaced and single-spaced after periods. I highly recommend making this feature your new best friend.
The third tip is to make a checklist. Especially with a manuscript, you want to be sure you list the things you may forget while editing. Make a run through specifically to check your headers and footers. Page numbers, formatting, spacing even, make a list for these concerns and often overlooked issues, and then do each one individually.
I also highly suggest letting other people read your work. After having gone through your manuscript and stopping at a place you feel comfortable with, send it out. Whether you ask a friend or family to proofread or simply read the story, ask people to read it. Outside opinions are very important, especially unbiased ones. If you can create a beta reader list that’s consistent, I highly recommend it. With Beta readers, I do suggest giving a deadline, a realistic one, when you’d like them to finish by. Life gets busy, but it’s often very easy to simply forget you have the manuscript and not read it, which doesn’t benefit you as a writer trying to publish and can annoy the reader when you’re going crazy asking them if they’ve finished yet. I’m not suggesting send your manuscript to a million different strangers, you’ll do that once you’re published, but having a healthy mix of people who will honestly critique your work, enjoy the genre you’re writing in, or simply love you is a great way to have fresh eyes on the project. Often, they can see something you didn’t because you only knew what you were trying to say, not actually seeing what you said.
For this tip, I also want to strongly encourage you to listen to their opinions and critiques. Yes, I know. When someone critiques your work, there’s a part of you that wants to defend the story you wrote. It’s natural. You spent months, maybe even years, working on this manuscript just for someone to say they disliked a certain part and give their opinion as to how to change it. Not every opinion will be right, but each opinion deserves to be considered. I can give plenty of times that someone gave me their honest opinion about a certain situation and it proved to be right. I think in this, I’m pretty open-minded because I trust those that are willing to give me their opinions, but even I have had moments where I fought for a certain idea in a novel that I didn’t want to change or cut. Opinions are diverse but not always right. But when someone gives a critique, it’s crucial to ask yourself if it’s wrong or if it’s pride that has you against it.
Editors are not created equally. My first novel was professionally edited. Because of that, I didn’t read the manuscript before the company published my book. My thought was that an editor, that I paid for, had edited the book and they knew a lot more than I did. It took another writing friend to read my novel and point out several editing mistakes. Some were even simple things, like misspelling a word, but the one that stuck out the most was a phrase I used quite a bit. I wrote ‘I could care less’ quite a few times, and I knew that wasn’t the correct phrase. I had known this before writing the book, which meant that I had either wrote it that way without thinking about it or they had edited it that way. I was told I needed to get my money back, but what I learned from that experience was that not to simply trust an editor’s work just because they’re an editor.
But I do suggest hiring an editor. Quite literally, it’s their job. They know what to look for, how sentences should be written, what words are better suited, and they are a blessing to writers. However, do your research. If you can, read books that they’ve edited. See if you notice inconsistencies. Finding someone that knows their job and is easy to work with is a goal for you as a writer.
With manuscripts, I suggest the last edit through be read in a different format. Staring at a screen isn’t always the easiest way to edit something. Taking yourself from one format to another, such as printing out the manuscript or creating a physical paperback of the book, is an easy way to see what you’ve written in a different light. Sometimes, the words are easier to pop off the paper than the screen.
I also highly recommend reading the story out loud. My uncle doesn’t like to read. He prefers to be read to. Want to know how well your book reads? Hearing the sentences out loud can help tremendously with the flow of your work. You can easily see what sentences need work and what needs to be changed. It’s a simple trick that can give you a more accurate idea of what your book reads like.
And finally, SPELLCHECKERS ARE NOT YOUR BEST FRIEND. It’s easy to go to a site like Grammarly or use the spellchecker in your word processor, and though I do recommend them highly, especially Grammarly, they are not foolproof. I usually suggest using one first, for the basic things like spellchecking but don’t rely on them solely. They will never know exactly what you were trying to say and often, overlook some of the silliest mistakes. I have an issue with using the wrong pronouns. I’ll write a sentence about a girl and use ‘he’ to describe her. It’s an issue proofreading often if ever, catches. So though it may seem tedious and boring, read your book.
And that’s my last tip. READ. By the time your book is ready to be published, I can almost guarantee that you’ll be able to quote it. Don’t be afraid to read and reread your manuscript multiple times. You are the ultimate judge of your work. You know your weaknesses and your strong points. You know which sentences were written lazily and what to look for. We are often our hardest critics, so allow that inner critic a crack at it, but learn what is critique and what isn’t within your own mind. If you find yourself judging too harshly, that’s when it’s time to let another set of eyes judge whether it’s worth that much critique.
And that’s it. That’s the way I slowly lose my mind- I mean, edit. Now excuse me, my Darlings, while I go rip my fingernails out.
P.S. LONG LIVE THE OXFORD COMMA.