Self editing? This is where I start!

Finished with your book? At some point when you finish writing you must sit down and say, “Okay, I can do this… I need to self edit.” If only editing your work was that easy. It’s not and that is why many writers take alternate routes such as hiring an editor or a team of editors as soon as they finish their book. Others dreadfully state, “my publisher will take care of that.” Umm, no they won’t because an unedited manuscript – as good as you think it is – will never make it to a traditional publisher. The fact is, without taking responsibility in your hands and giving your book at least a one time go-round you will likely never have the book you dreamed of when you first started.

So, how often should you self edit your manuscript? The right answer is until your done. Though, a better answer is you will self edit on your own a couple times, and each time another editor touches your manuscript you should review their work. Changes happen, important things are inadvertently deleted, and your wizard-like symbolism can be lost in a few innocent (and misunderstood) rewritten sentences. But, before we get to hiring editors or even working with your team of editors assigned by a publisher if you happen to get so far, let’s look at your current manuscript. You know, the one you insist is completed even after Grammarly tells you there are 5,782 potential errors on the free program and tens of thousands in the advanced. So, yeah, your manuscript isn’t close to sending out those queries just yet, even if you have written THE END.

So, self editing… Possibly the most important step you will take once your final (rough draft) manuscript is complete.

Here are a few tips I’ve learned over the years when I self edit. Am I a good writer? I hope so, it’s my career. Am I a good editor? Of other peoples’ work, yes, very. Of my own work? Adequate at best. There is some logic to that and most of it starts with the fact that it is difficult to edit, or even see, problems you vested so much of your life into. It’s difficult to find problems in something we spend so much time nurturing, just ask any parent. So, when I begin the lengthy process of editing my own work I realize I must go very slow and start with tip number one.

Know your weaknesses

Most great writers will knowingly tell you that they have grammatical weaknesses. Yes, Stephen King, James Rollins, Patterson, Preston & Child, and the list goes on. Though, what makes them great writers is they know and understand their weaknesses. Hopefully, and likely they work on those things, but more importantly, when they are done writing they know exactly where to look first.

What are some of my weaknesses? Patience would be the top. Being an impatient writer means I often delve into the writing and hope that I can build a story as I go. But, along the way, I know that these speed typing sessions will result in mistakes such as an overuse of commas and under-use of semi-colons. I will also make errors around quotation marks, and hyphens. Those probably make up about 75% of my mistakes.

So, what are your most common writing mistakes? I’m guessing you know.

Double and triple check your homophones

Homophones are words that sound the same but are spelled differently and have different meanings. In a 90,000 word novel it would be surprising if you didn’t have a few of these mixed up; I always do. A list of common homophones are:

  • for/four
  • to/too/two
  • which/witch
  • break/brake
  • sell/cell
  • die/dye
  • knot/not
  • heal/heel
  • hear/here
  • soul/sole
  • steal/steel

There are also homophones that sound similar and are often confused, such as:

  • accept/except
  • affect/effect
  • then/than
  • compliment/complement
  • your/you’re

You likely understand the complications this can pose in your writing. These complications are doubly important to recognize because many of these homophones won’t be detected if you decide to just use your editing tools to find errors. That is why professional editors read your manuscript and use style guides to complete their work (hopefully).

Speaking of Style Guides

If you follow my blog you may remember my post a few weeks ago on using an editor’s style guide. This is an essential tool for editing your work. I recommend you start your book using a style guide though you can start when you begin the editing process.

All of my editing begins with a style guide which tracks name spellings, place spellings, timelines, unique word uses, and pretty much anything else that requires consistency throughout the book. If I knew exactly how many books, scripts, or other long projects I’ve worked on then I could tell you exactly how many times a style guide has saved me.

Read as a reader, not a writer

Easily the most common problem I see when I am editing for others (and sometimes for myself) is that writers will often write through their own eyes, neglecting the fact that they know everything. So, saying something like, “A tall guy walked into the room,” doesn’t tell the reader much in regards to description. Perhaps you will get into the description later, and I hope you do…I implore you to. Though, most don’t.

As a writer, your job is to tell a story that will help your reader clearly see and understand what is happening. Now, I don’t mean you need to go and name each wrinkle creased on the brow of your tall guy entering the room, but it is helpful to know some creative basics that will give your reader insight into who this person is. You may be surprised to know that a simple description of a person can relay not only their physical attributes, but also their personality, lifestyle, and more. Does their ponytail bob like a pom-pom? Is their hair greased back into a permanent So-Cal wave? Do their thick black-rimmed glasses sit snugly embedded into the narrow bridge of their nose? Do they “pop” their collar?” Reading as a reader can be difficult – no, it is difficult – but, a necessary process to edit your book and become a great writer.

Editing tools are a tool, not a fail safe

It is true that and editor reads your book a little differently than a writer or reader would read. An editor is often looking for clear problems in your grammar, as well as small details which you may have missed or didn’t even know existed, for example the differences between the AP Style Book and the Chicago Manual of Style. But, an editor must also read the entirety of your book. That is why simply editing your book using Word’s editing and grammar check or tools such as Grammarly are helpful, but not all-encompassing.

Editing tools simply offer you suggestions to consider when writing and editing. So, the last thing you want to do is accept all. Each suggestion must be read, reviewed, and a decision made to change or leave as is. In addition, editing tools don’t always capture what you are trying to say, or when you are trying to say it.

Remember our chat about homophones? Well, many editing tools will not see a problem with homophones because each is actually a word. In addition, there are many cases where either homophone will work grammatically in a sentence, but will not make any sense to the reasoning of your sentence.

This is an important tip to keep in mind. You have no idea how many “edited” manuscripts I receive each year from writers who tell me that they have fully edited their manuscript, but it keeps getting denied by literary agents citing too many errors. These writers are frustrated, confused, annoyed, and what they did was accept all changes in Grammarly without reading the manuscript. Ouch! That can make a manuscript unreadable. And really, it happens… a lot.

Editing is not just about grammar

I’ve tipped this off a little already. Editing your work is not just about finding grammatical errors in your writing. Editing for writers is just as much about rewriting. Do all of the sentences make sense? Are you telling your sections and chapters from a consistent perspective? Are you providing enough context? Have you provided enough description? Have you provided too much description? Does the reader understand the background of the main characters? There are hundreds of questions that you as the writer only know the answer to.

If you are a writer like Stephen King you may provide an abundance of description and backstory. You don’t want the reader developing an image of a character on their own. You feel that your description and what you are seeing is critical to the story. On the other side of that, writers such as Ernest Hemingway believe in keeping their books as reduced as possible. It is okay to let your reader imagine what a character looks like with simple descriptions. It is okay for the reader to immerse their self in a book because they are in some way part of the creation of the story. Whether you prefer a lot of detail or a little, either is okay as long as you are consistent throughout.

In conclusion

Editing is important. Self editing is important. While most writers consider editing and rewriting to be the most daunting part of their book it is essential. Know your weaknesses, don’t forget homophones, read as a reader, don’t worry about rewriting, and use tools as intended.

Best luck editing your book, and I would love to read some of your own experiences and insights when it comes to editing your own work. I think we can all benefit from sharing.

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