In the spirit of helping you write the best book possible, we’ve gathered a list of lesser-known editing tips from 14 experienced editors and authors. Between them, these ladies and gents have been through the editing wringer hundreds of times, and house worlds of wisdom we should heed.
Beth: BZHercules.com, a low-cost editing and consulting service
In short, don’t do it [editing your own work]! It is a huge mistake that can cost an author time and money, as well as cause some embarrassment. Whether the writer is seeking to publish traditionally or to self-publish, there are certain guidelines, rules of grammar, and formatting requirements that are best left to an experienced editor. For example, many of the smaller “boutique” publishers that have popped up on the Internet require use of Chicago Manual of Style formatting for submissions. Many authors do not know what to look for regarding this style (e.g., how to write numbers, titles, and abbreviations, or indent paragraphs) and should use an editor that is familiar with it. The placement of commas is another frequent issue for authors (The serial comma is a killer!), and don’t even get me started on semi-colons (Okay, I will get started—it is necessary punctuation and it cannot just be thrown out of writing because the author doesn’t believe in it! That is punctuation-discrimination at its worst.).
If an author is self-publishing, the risks associated with posting work that is riddled with errors on many of the outlets are actually higher than submitting to publishers. At least the publishers will be discerning. When posting to the DIY outlets, there is a low filter for screening errors until the work is already out there. Often, outlets such as iTunes and Smashwords will ticket submissions that have been reported as containing mistakes, and Kindle will pull them if the “right” complaint is given. Additionally, the reviewers are another source of misery for a self-publishing author who is trying to gain readers. Reviews regarding errors found in books are not always accurate, kind, or specific and giving critics fuel for the fire is never a good idea, possibly damaging an otherwise great piece of work.
My advice, then, is to find an editor with a track record of success. If you are an author who is new to publishing (You are obviously not new to writing, but that does not make your work showroom ready.), then your editor ideally is college-educated in a writing-related field (journalism, English, education, linguistics, communications), open to collaboration, and experienced at navigating through traditional and/or self-publishing (Most editors will provide a free sample edit of a few pages to you; do not, however, ask to see the edited work of others. That is confidential information and if it is provided to you, be wary of the ethics of that editor.). As the author, expect to pay for several passes through your work (one or two isn’t going to be enough if there are thousands of changes needed—although using a couple of editors isn’t a bad idea if they have similar editing philosophies. Again, ask for samples and compare the styles.), be open to criticism, and be cognizant of what you yourself are attempting to put out in the public eye. Every author needs another set of eyes that has an experienced view.
Meredith Efken: Fiction Fix-It Shop
Many writers tend to discount the importance of content editing. They focus on copy or line editing, and they either believe they don’t need content help or they fear a content editor will take over the story or change their voice. However, if a story fails, it’s not usually because of a couple of typos but because the story structure itself is weak or because the character development and portrayal doesn’t ring true on an emotional level. The biggest downfalls I see in many stories are:
- a lack of understanding of scene structure and a wobbly or disorganized story structure, and
- character emotions that are either too shallow or not psychologically accurate for what the character is facing.
A good content/substantive editor should be able to help spot these problems—and do so in a way that enhances the story and your voice. But if you’re not able to hire an editor, at least study some good how-to resources on those topics. My top recs are these: For story structure, Michael Hague at storymastery.com has an excellent seminar called The Hero’s Two Journeys that explains how the outer plot meshes with the character’s inner transformation. For character emotion, Margie Lawson at margielawson.com approaches character emotions from a psychological background and explains how to convey emotions in a fresh and authentic way. For scene structure, take a look at Randy Ingermanson’s article “Writing The Perfect Scene” which draws on the concepts taught by Dwight Swain in his book, Techniques of the Selling Writer.
Helen Baggott: Editor
Many writers embark on the editing process and assume it’s all about trimming things down. Often it is, but it’s too easy to edit out a crucial element that causes the plot to crumble. And because you, the writer, have the complete manuscript – warts and all – in your mind, you can’t distinguish between something that is still in the book and something that’s just a memory from a previous version. If you do decide to go for the chop, make sure you look at the bigger picture and resolve any potential issues before moving on.
C. S. Lakin: Author, Editor
Writers should consider getting a manuscript critique or evaluation before any line editing. Most books have a lot of structural flaws and weak components that the writer can’t see, and it helps to have a professional work with the author to strengthen or fix these weak areas. I always say that getting an edit done on a flawed manuscript is like putting pretty icing on a yucky-tasting cake. The book may look nicely edited, but it’s not going to hold up. So getting that critique done first, at any stage, is so helpful.
Kristen Weber: Freelance book editor, Co-founder of ShelfPleasure.com
Put your manuscript away for at least a couple of weeks. When you come back to it for editing, change the size of the font. You need to make it look different so you can actually see it. It’s like when a chair in your house accidentally gets moved – you won’t notice it until you trip over it! It is important to present your eyes with something different so you see what’s really there. And then once you think it’s perfect, give it to someone else to read – and they’ll find even more to fix!
Chandra Clarke: Editor
As everyone knows, the problem with editing your own work is that you’re too familiar with the material. My best tip for mitigating that is to change both the font type and the font size on the document. If you’re working in a serif font, change it to something sans serif or vice versa, and make it a bit bigger. This will change the way the text looks just enough to make it seem different, and that will force you to focus more on what it actually says, as opposed to what you think it should say.
Gary Gibson: AuthorOne of the best ways to learn how to edit your own writing is to edit someone else’s. I started writing paid critiques of unpublished novels more than five years ago, and I think it did a lot to improve my understanding of my own writing and in the process made me a much better writer. Before that, I’d been an on-off member of a writer’s group in my home city for more than twenty years.Taking part in a writer’s group can be invaluable, because you have to think about why someone’s story or novel does or doesn’t work. Even better is when you get to tell them what you like or don’t like about their work – and explain why. Doing that gets you thinking about the process, and the how-to of writing, and how to apply it to your own work. It’s a bit like the old saying: if you want to master something, teach it.
Rebecca Horsfall: AuthorWe’re taught at school that good writing involves using adjectives liberally in our compositions. In truth this is just plain wrong. The use of many adjectives is a sure sign of immature writing. When editing our own work it’s important to notice where we’re peppering our prose with adjectives and prune away all but the essential ones. The same is true of similes; you remember them: “his joints were as creaky as the old barn door,” or “her sudden smile was like the sun appearing from behind a cloud.” Similes almost always seem clunky and immature in prose. Same goes, in fact, for all the elaborate metaphors and figurative language so beloved of our school teachers. The more simple and uncluttered our prose, the more mature it will feel to readers (and publishers!)
Laurence Daren King: Literary ConsultantSet up the word processor for writing a novel, not an essay or letter as seems to be the default. Increase the margin size or font size until you have about eleven words to a line. You will then get a realistic idea of paragraph length. So many authors have paragraphs that are far too long. They think: ‘It’s only three quarters of a page long, I see that in novels all the time’, but they have eighteen or twenty words to a line.
Tania Hershman: AuthorChange the page from portrait to landscape and change the font, to try and see your writing with fresh eyes, as if you hadn’t written it.
Sam Jordison: Author, Founder of Galley Beggar PressIf you can, cut the first chapter. It’s almost certain to be your worst bit of writing.
Fay Sampson: AuthorEven after you’ve edited your book to the highest standard you can, get it professionally copy-edited. Writing consultancies like the Writers’ Workshop can put you in touch with an editor who will bring your work up to a professional standard and save you embarrassment later.