If you’re a writer and anything like me, when you finish the first draft of your latest work you’ll type the words ‘THE END’ and feel a curious blend of euphoria and sadness. Although I know those two little words won’t make it into the published version, I type them every time; it’s a form of closure on my least favourite part of the writing process, producing that first draft.
But what then? Unless you’re unusually gifted, or have painstakingly edited as you’ve gone along, chances are that the manuscript will need some work—some spit and polish—before it’s in a fit state to be released into the world.
Whether you’re just starting out and haven’t the funds to spend on editing, or whether you intend sending the manuscript off to a professional editor, there are various steps you can take yourself to improve the work to make it more publishable or in a better state to present to an editor.
There are various methods of self-editing. I’m going to set out what I do for my longer works, which might be helpful to someone who doesn’t know where to begin. (For shorter works, especially short stories, some of the following steps might be truncated or missed out altogether.) Like writing itself, this is not the only way of doing it; it’s not the best or recommended way—it’s simply my way. Each writer must find what works best for him (or, as ever, her).
So, I’ve typed the two magic words ‘THE END’. What next?
Step 1: Let it Rest
After saving and backing up the Word document, I close it. Then I try to forget it about for a minimum of four weeks. Longer, where possible. Two months is better, three perfect, but I don’t have that much will power.
Step 2: The Bigger Picture
When I can’t stand ignoring the manuscript any longer, I’ll read it through from beginning to end. This is where the importance of Step 1 comes in—it’s as though I’m reading a novel someone else has written. Obviously, I know the story and recognise the style of writing, but I will come across entire passages I can’t recall drafting.
The main purpose of this step is to make sure the story works on the broadest level. It isn’t to make corrections, although I usually can’t stop myself changing any typing errors I come across. While I’m reading, I’ll keep at the back of my mind questions like:
- is the opening interesting enough to draw the reader in?
- does the plot flow?
- do the characters act, um, in character?
- are all sub-plots resolved?
- does the story ever lag?
- is the ending satisfying?
- are there any themes that could be better developed or emphasised?
There are other questions, but that should give a flavour. Essentially, I’m looking at the bigger picture during this step.
Step 2A: Major Revisions
If I identified a need to rewrite part(s) of the work during Step 2, this is when I’ll do it. I’ve been lucky—only once have I needed to do a major rewrite after the first read-through. This was with the final instalment of the Earth Haven trilogy.
Even as I was writing the original ending, I knew it was too easy: the characters weren’t having to sacrifice much to achieve their ends and it lacked a final face-off between the two main groups of protagonists. In short, it was unsatisfying. Nevertheless, I let the manuscript sit for a few weeks before embarking on Step 2.
It confirmed what I already knew. I discarded the last few chapters and rewrote the ending, adding another chapter or two in the process. I knew immediately it was better, a much more satisfying end to a 300,000-word trilogy.
Then I returned to Step 1. After I’d let it rest for another four weeks or so, I embarked on Step 2 once more. This time, the bigger picture looked complete.
Step 3: Snagging
Now I’m happy with the overall structure, I’ll start the fine-tuning process. During this second read-through, I’m looking for passages of narrative or dialogue that don’t flow as well as they could, and correcting them as I go, or that don’t add value to the tale. This might involve rewording paragraphs or sentences to make the writing clearer, and deleting words, phrases, sentences or entire paragraphs that are superfluous.
Step 4: Eradicating Clunkiness and Repetition
During this third read-through, I’m looking at individual sentences and revising any that are awkward or contain unnecessary repetition. I find that when writing the first draft, I often use the same word repeatedly in places when there are perfectly good alternatives that freshen up the prose.
I will search for how many times words I tend to overuse appear, like ‘just’, ‘that’ and ‘the’, together with certain swear words, and either delete some instances or substitute alternatives. It’s about removing clunkiness and repetition to make the reading experience more pleasurable.
I’m looking, too, for inconsistencies such as referring to ‘Jenny’ as ‘Jill’, or (true example) saying a character comes from Hull when earlier in the novel he came from Grimsby.
Also, at this stage, I’ll check any facts or references are correct.
Step 4A: Rinse and Repeat
Whether I repeat Step 4 depends on how many alterations I made the first time around. If not many, I’ll move on to Step 5. If there were a lot of changes, I usually feel I have to repeat Step 4 in case the changes themselves have introduced more clunkiness or repetition.
Step 5: The Nitty Gritty
The final read-through. The proofread. For this, I reformat the Word document into a mobi file and transfer it to my Kindle. It’s surprising how many simple errors I spot on the Kindle that I missed on the computer screen. Reading it in this different format seems to make typos jump out at me. I keep my laptop close at hand so I can change the master Word document as I find errors.
Step 6: Spellcheck
Having corrected all errors I noticed during the proofread, I’m almost ready to publish. Before I do, I run the manuscript through Word’s spell-checker. What I’m mainly looking for are any final spelling errors I missed during the proofread and things like double spaces, which sometimes go unnoticed, especially if they occur at the edge of the page.
These steps are broadly equivalent to the various types of editing mentioned in Part 1: Step 2 – developmental edit, Step 3 – line edit, Step 4 – copy edit, Step 5 – proofread.
In theory, I should now be ready to publish a book filled with flowing narrative and sharp dialogue, free of spelling errors, grammatical mistakes and other blemishes, polished and shining like a new pin. In practice, of course, I’m unlikely to have caught every single tiny error in a ninety-thousand word novel. The aim is to achieve perfection, whilst recognising that I’m only human and am certain to have missed something.
It’s accepting that I’m not perfect which enables me to publish anything. Otherwise, I’d never get past Step 4. I could read through a draft novel a hundred times and find something to change on each occasion, though after a while it’s only because this time I prefer a particular sentence construction over another, or a particular word over the one I used, when either do the job perfectly well. We have to draw the line somewhere, say to ourselves, “Enough’s enough. Publish and be damned.”
Here are some other methods I’ve heard writers say they use. I’ve tried some of them and they’re not for me. But try them and find what works best for you.
– change the font size and/or type (this is of similar effect to what I do when transferring the book onto my Kindle, and should be useful for those who don’t own an e-reader)
– print the manuscript onto paper and edit/proofread the hard copy
– read the text, particularly the dialogue, aloud
– have someone (or the voice function, if present, on your word processing program) read it to you
– read sections of the work backwards (useful, I imagine, for proofreading rather than editing)
If there are any novice writers looking in who aren’t sure where to start when it comes to self-editing, I hope you’ve found this to be of some use. Don’t forget: this isn’t ‘one size fits all’. You’ll need to try various methods and combinations until you find what works best for you.