There is absolutely no doubt writers need to self-edit a manuscript before sending it on to their editor and beta readers. There are tons of articles out there designed to persuade self-published authors to self-edit, but how exactly does one self-edit? To be honest, with my first novel (or two or three), I re-read my manuscript, took out grammatical and spelling mistakes, et voilà! Um, no. In the meantime, I’ve developed a system – somewhat. This system expands and alters based on the novel. Obviously, I won’t be looking for historical accuracies in a contemporary romance! Here’s how I go about driving myself crazy with editing.
Naturally, like a good little writer, I let the completed manuscript sit for a few days before I begin editing. Unfortunately, I can’t let it sit too long as I’ve inevitably promised the completed manuscript to my editor soon, and there’s no way I’m providing her with a document that is – frankly – complete crap (all first drafts are complete crap).
WARNING: Before beginning any phase of editing, ensure you have enough coffee, chocolate, snacks, wine, and beer in the house. Make especially sure you do not decide to take your coffee machine apart and then not know how to put it back together again.
First read-through. My first editing phase is the ‘Does my story work?’-phase: did the mystery resolve itself properly, was the culprit obvious, did you believe the hero when he fell in love, did I assume historical facts that are not yet known, etc. This phase is all about finding the BIG mistakes: historical inaccuracies, missing scene transitions, contradictory events, etc. Did I really just introduce so-and-so as new when we’ve already met him! Eek! During this read-through, I make an in-depth outline of the story. This is how I ensure accuracy in the timeline and story. It’s also a good cheat sheet when fact checking the novel. This read-through takes me the longest and is the most painful.
Second read-through. This is the ‘details’-phase. Before printing out my manuscript for this phase, I highlight all my ‘trouble’ words. Every author has a list of words she uses ad nauseum. Mine are: actually, really, so, just, and that. My trouble words can change depending on the perspective in which I’m writing. I keep a current list in my notebook. I allow myself more ‘trigger’ words when I write in first person as ‘normal’ people tend to overuse certain words. (I’ve been accused of overusing the word ‘awesome’.) In addition to finding alternatives for my trigger words, I watch for phases I overuse and actions I repeat. In my current novel, one of the male characters was constantly putting the heroine’s hand in the crook of his elbow. UGH! Do something else already! If I’ve made big changes in the first read-through, I pay special attention to those.
Third read-through. This is the ‘would I buy this book?’-phase. It’s time to read my novel like I’m actually a reader and not a writer. I find a comfy chair and just read. Sure, I correct tons of mistakes as well, but it’s less about the details during this round and more about seeing if it’s actually a good story – one that a stranger would not only read but pay to read.
Half read-through. This sounds a bit strange, but I print out the second half of my manuscript and do a mini-edit. I’ve noticed I often pay tons of attention to the first fifty percent or so of my novel while editing and then my attention to detail wanes. To prevent the end of my novel from containing mistakes or reading like a choppy wave (no one wants a seasick reader), I do this mini-edit.
Final read-through. This is usually a quick read of the manuscript one last time before I hand it off to the editor. Sure, I could go through another five or ten rounds of editing, but at some point, I get manuscript fatigue and fail to see the mistakes. There’s also a chance I throw the entire document at my husband and run screaming from the room. When you hit that point, save the document and send it off to your editor with your apologies and promises of chocolate.
If you’re looking for more tips/tricks on self-editing, check out my article here.