Self-Editing: Before You Wordprocess

to do list.jpgEveryone loves a list.  Okay, maybe not everyone.  But given the number of lists I see on Pinterest, the interwebs, and other social media outlets, I figured I would toss one together about self-editing.

For many of you, the prospect of hiring an editor is daunting.  Fear of feedback and fear of costs both play a role in this.  It can be expensive.  Some indie authors don’t have the money to do it for those first couple books.  At least until you get discovered and take over the world!   World ruling aside, you still can apply decent editing techniques to your writing on a budget.

This is the basic process I would recommend to self-edit your work before you start editing on your word processor.  Obviously, this is a daily blog post I create so some steps might be missing (i.e. I didn’t spend days writing this post).  Also, if you are going to self-edit, I would highly recommend buying some books on editing and self-editing.  I will offer an assortment of references to consider at the end of the list.

forgetful gentleman.jpgStep 1: Write book.

Step 2: Forget the book exists for a month or so. This is essential.  The reason people buck against editors is because we see your work with fresh eyes and mistakes are more apparent.  To be your own editor, you must acquire fresh eyes too.

Here’s an example to drive this point.  Every now and then, I will jump back a month or so and look at a blog I posted.  In just a few seconds, I will often find numerous issues.  When I published those posts, I read them aloud, and studied them for mistakes – it was perfect to me.  With fresh eyes I see the mistakes.  Check out one of your own older blogs and see if this rings true for you.

During this painful waiting period, I encourage you to crack open some books on writing and editing.  You can sharpen your tools while you wait to apply them.

hourglass.pngStep 3: If you have alpha readers, send them the manuscript during this wait time.  Ask them not to talk to you about the book during your waiting period, or you will remove them from your Christmas (or whatever holiday you prescribe to) card list.  If they follow through, send them a gift basket as well as the card.

A note about alpha readers.  Alpha readers should be trusted and competent folk who are willing to give you more detailed feedback than a beta reader likely would.  I would generate a basic template that allows them to give feedback for each chapter.  I like to have one to three of these people, no more.  I’ll explain why in Step 14.

Step 4: After wait time has elapsed, print pages.  If not double spaced, make it so (said in Captain Picard’s voice).

Corot_Monk_Reading_Book_1.jpgStep 5: Set aside blocks of time to read the book in seclusion.  If you can do it all at once, even better.

Step 6: During this first pass note obvious issues, but don’t dwell on them.  This isn’t the time to go into the computer and start editing.  You wrote the book in chunks, see for the first time how the entire thing flows together.  You don’t have to use copy-editing hieroglyphics.  Just circle, one-line, and jot notes down in the margin.  The goal is to move as quickly as you can through the work, the notations are secondary.

Step 7: Do take the time to put a plus, minus, or equal sign (or however you want to indicate it) on the last page of the chapter.  This is a notation regarding pacing.  It’s a quick way for you to reference chapters that drag, are too rushed, or were just perfect.  This may likely be the only time you notice those pacing issues as you are reading the work in its entirety in a sitting or two.

Step 8: Start over.  This time treat each chapter as an independent entity.

rewritingStep 9: Read each chapter aloud, or have someone do it for you.  Listen to the words.  If you stumble when you read it aloud, people will stumble when they read.  Again, circle or underline those areas and write a note above them.  You could write things like, awkward, reword, needs punctuation, or break sentence apart.

Step 10:  Look at description, setting, transitions, dialogue, and other aspects during this 2nd pass.  Jot down basic notes, “Add description,” “Where are they?” “What does this look like?” “What the heck was I thinking with this?”.  Hopefully, because your eyes are fresher, the basic blunders are going to really smack you in the face.  You might have noted some of these issues while you were in Step 6, this is a good time to expand.

Step 11: As you are tackling one chapter at a time, consider character arcs.  Write down characters as they appear and write a sentence or two about what they do in the chapter.  I do this on an extra piece of paper and clip it to the end of each chapter.

For character arcs, I take the notations I made and compile them.  This is easy to do if you did it on a separate page like I indicated above.  It makes analyzing this information easier when an entire character arc has been summarized on a single page.

This allows me to look at the course the character took through the duration of the work.  I consider how (and if) the character changed.  I take special care to note if certain characters were simply floating along in the story.  Also, because you tracked this by chapter, you will know exactly where to go to revise.

character arc.png

Step 12: In the same way I handled character arcs, I address plot.  I consider the value of the plot devices (conflicts) as they pop up in.  Were they resolved?  Were they prevalent?  Did they matter to the characters?  Again, compiled on a single paper it’s easier to see where issues are.  Another bonus, if you did it for each chapter, you know where to go to when you start revision.

Step 13: After you finish, your manuscript is going to look like an insane Frankenstein monster.  It will be likely covered in marks and have pages of additional information attached to it via a paperclip.  You can’t blame your editor, blame yourself!  But hey, the more destruction the better.  It’s the road to polished success.

kids with paper.jpg

All of my notes came in!

Step 14: In addition to your own self-editing notes, you should also have detailed feedback from alpha readers at this point.  The reason I like to only have a 1-3 is because you already have a lot of self-generated information to sort through.

Final Step: Gather large quantities of stimulants, sit down at the computer, and apply the compendium of notes.

That’s the basic pre-computer editing process.  Like I said, it’s far from complete, but it’s a good start.  Every editor develops unique and creative ways to note information quickly.  You will likely do the same as you edit your own work and become faster and more efficient.

Some of you may be saying, “QE, what about adverbs, show versus tell, punctuation problems, verb tense disagreements, and all of that other stuff?”  Hopefully some of that jumped out at you during the more thorough handwritten revision (2nd pass) and you noted them.

But honestly, I generate a blog post every day covering each one of those little ideas.  If I made a list of all of those things, it would be pages long.  Outside of formal instruction, this is where reading some greens will help you notice and isolate those issues.

book in hand.pngHere’s a shortlist of books to help with the editing process (all links send you to GoodReads).

Self-Editing for Fiction Writers – This is honestly one of the best books I’ve read on self-editing.
The Elements of Style – Arguably one of the greatest books on the craft ever written, and shortest.
Writing Tools – Full of great general writing information and revision techniques.
The Chicago Manual of Style – Massive in size, but it’s considered by many the editor’s bible.  You can kill a full sized raccoon with this thing.
Manuscript Makeover – An amazing book on revision.  Each chapter offers a checklist to help you out with revision.  Those alone make this book worth buying.

tools.jpgI hope you found some useful tools here.  I hope this also gives you an idea of the amount of work some editors do before they even go into markup mode and touch your manuscript.  You can see the process is lengthy (and this is even before you start typing).  But if you are going to self-edit, you need to really take your time and be thorough, there is no way around it.  What’s the rush after all?  You likely spent months writing, why not devote a fair amount of time to polishing?

Did I miss a step?  Do you have a method that should be on the list?  Let me know, I’m always open to new ways of doing things.  Like I said earlier, the list is incomplete.  But this is a good start.  Until tomorrow, keep reading, keep writing, and as always – stay sharp!

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