I struggle with editing. Not so much other people’s work, but definitely my own. Once I’ve put something on the page I have a hard time figuring out how to change it.
But obviously it has to be done. So I took a look at how I edit other people’s manuscripts and compiled a bit of a checklist so I can look at my own writing more objectively.
1. Work on the big stuff first. (Substantive or Structural Editing)
There’s no point trying to nitpick about grammar if you’re going to delete or rewrite whole paragraphs. Take a look at the overall flow of your story first. Is there something you should add to help it make more sense? Is there something you should take out that detracts from the story? Does the pacing work? Do your characters act within their parameters or do they do something wildly outside their personalities? Is the setting clear? Are you delving into too much backstory? Are your characters’ feelings real and intense? Take care of this first and then you can get down to the little things.
2. Pick on bad habits. (Stylistic or Line Editing)
Number One on my editors’ list is always “show, don’t tell”. Look for all the places you’ve explained what happens – for example, “she felt nervous,” “he was always judging other people,” or “they were so much in love” – and replace them with actions or dialogue that demonstrates what you’re trying to say. “She felt nervous” can be replaced with some sort of nervous behaviour like tapping her fingers or chewing her nails. “He was always judging other people” can be demonstrated by adding several instances where he thinks about or says something judgemental about various characters. “They were so much in love” can be shown with a variety of creative dialogue or actions. If you do your job right, your reader will know these things without you having to tell them.
Another bad writing habit is adding dialogue tags. I’ve already talked about this, so if you missed it, take a look.
These days people don’t want wordy books. They want tight writing that keeps momentum. Check over your work for a few pitfalls such as excessive adjectives and adverbs, passive voice (e.g.: “the ball was thrown” should be “he threw the ball”), and convoluted sentences that can be stated with fewer words.
Also take a look at your sentence and paragraph lengths at this point. Paragraphs shouldn’t be too long – not more than 4 or so sentences. The modern reader gets bogged down in long paragraphs. Our eyes need white space. The length of your paragraphs will have a direct correlation to the intensity of the action: more action = shorter paragraphs. It keeps the eye moving and emphasizes each event. Your sentences should be a nice variety of lengths – some long, some short. Keep in mind that one short sentence within a group of longer ones will have a punchy effect, so make sure that’s the sentence you want the reader to notice.
3. Get down to the nitty gritty. (Copy Editing or Proofreading)
(I can’t say that without thinking of Nacho Libre 😉 ) Now that you’ve got your work structured the way you want it you can finally get to the little details. Check for those pesky typos – you might want fresh eyes to catch these. Pay attention to punctuation. If you don’t know the rules, brush up on them. One thing I see a lot of is misused apostrophes. It’s such a little thing, but it makes a big difference in the overall polish of your work. While you’re at it, take a look at commonly misspelled words – especially those that sound the same like “there”, “their” and “they’re”. These are the things that mark your manuscript as professional or amateur.
A Checklist for Editing Click to Tweet
Hopefully this helps you. Keep in mind, if you’ve got the budget (or a really good friend or relative), you can always get someone else to do this. Sometimes you need someone with a little personal distance to highlight your own blind spots.
If I’ve missed anything you might also include, please feel free to share.