I did a very informal talk at a writers group last night about my own editing process, so I’ve decided to post my notes here for the members who weren’t able to come. Please realize that I haven’t yet edited this post. (Weird, I know, but a gal with three jobs who is working on a 9th book and trying to have a life only has so much time…)
I work as a professional editor as well as a writer, so this process may not work for everyone.
First of all, I always make a final outline after finishing my rough draft.
Things I’m tracking during the outline process (keep in mind that I write action-packed mysteries):
- Timeline—do I have time sequences correct? Is there sufficient time for characters to do what they’re doing, to move from place to place, etc.? Are there huge gaps in time in which nothing is happening?
- Character actions—I track each important character chapter by chapter to see if I’ve been consistent with their descriptions, motivations, and actions.
- Character names—are they too similar? Jane Black and Kate Smith might seem different enough, but if all your character names are one syllable names, readers may have a hard time remembering who is who unless you’ve made their roles and personalities very distinctive.
- Clues—Did I explain all the red herrings in the end? Did all the clues add up? Are there clues that I totally dropped along the way?
- Does each scene contain action or an important clue that moves the plot forward, or at least an important revelation of character?
- Does each chapter end with an interesting element that makes the reader want to move on?
After I have finished the rewrites caused by all the above, I put the manuscript away for a week or two. Then I read the manuscript through completely, focusing on language. I watch for:
- Words and phrases I use too much. I search for those and try to get rid of some of them and use synonyms for others. (“Look” is my personal worst offender.)
- Vague words like “it” and “some” and “sometime” and “thing” and “very.” You probably need a few of these to convey normal speech, but you should replace most with more descriptive words. It’s hard to draw a picture in the reader’s mind when you use a lot of words like “thing” and “it.”
- Common typos like “you” instead of “your.” When I edit the work of others, I look for other common mistakes: the ones that seem to be most frequent are confusion of plurals and possessives (adding ‘s does not make a singular noun plural), mismatched subjects and pronouns (“Each student should take their books with them”), and misused words (get a dictionary and use it, for heaven’s sake–you’re a writer!).
- Punctuation—people tend to either use too many commas or not enough. The basic rule is to use a comma when you need to set off a phrase from the rest of the sentence (“Her dance class, which always took place on Fridays, was canceled with no explanation”), and in lists (“he was tired, hungry, and more than a little crazy”). Another common problem is hyphens in adjectives. The rule is to hyphenate when multiple modifiers come before a noun and there might be confusion otherwise, such as “an amazing display of eight-foot-tall grasses” or “the schedule of ranger-led events.” And please realize that “non” is not a word unless you are writing in French.
FYI: There are two common style guides in the U.S.—Chicago Manual of Style and AP Style. They differ mostly in punctuation, especially in use of commas in a list before the word and (birds, dogs, and cats = Chicago; birds, dogs and cats=AP). Most books published in the US use the Chicago Manual of Style standards, so you are less likely to be criticized if you use that. If you don’t want to go so far was to subscribe to Chicago MOS online or buy a copy, you can easily Google most grammar questions by typing a phrase like “grammar titles before names” or “possessives of words ending in S.” (The rule for that last one, by the way, is to add ‘s to single names ending in S (Charles’s house) but add only an apostrophe when the word is plural (the Smiths’ home).
SPELL CHECK after every edit. And then SPELL CHECK again. Keep the grammar checking function turned on, too. But keep in mind that Word cannot find correctly spelled but incorrectly used words (their, there, and they’re and too, two, and to and then, than are prime examples), and Word doesn’t have all words in its dictionary.
Use the Find & Replace functions as the powerful tools they are. You can search for and replace punctuation, fonts, line spacing, paragraph formatting, etc—nearly everything with Word’s tools. It’s a big timesaver to learn to use them efficiently. (If you’re not using Word, I can’t help you; but most of us are.)
SELF-EDIT, and THEN trade manuscripts with someone else for a final proof. Or hire a pro. If you don’t have the money to pay one, then offer to trade with them (yard work, house cleaning, cooking, babysitting, running errands, etc—everyone has something she can offer). Even professional editors cannot catch all their own errors, because all writers tend to see what we intended to write on the page, not necessarily what is actually there.
YES, spelling and grammar DO MATTER. Many of your buyers will stop reading if your book contains a lot of errors. And then some of them will go and write a nasty review on Amazon and elsewhere about your book. And you will forever be labeled as a clueless amateur. If you find errors after publishing (and you will), FIX THEM and publish the revised version. Fortunately, this is reasonably easy to do when you self-publish.
Ciao for now!