I know you want to submit your
story as soon as you’ve finished it. So do I.
Writers are under a lot of pressure to churn out work quickly in this
publishing environment. I get that. But this is a little piece of your soul
you’re sending out into the universe, and polish is the only protection it’s
going to have. So please, slow down. Treat your work like a gourmet meal
instead of fast food. Make sure it’s presented in the best possible way. You’re
the only one who will give it such loving attention.
Suggested reading before editing:
Self Editing for Fiction Writers (Browne & King)
A line-by-line copy edit helps you
find typos, missing words, and grammar mistakes. Below, I share the way I do
it, but as always, do what works for you. However, I strongly suggest that you
allow the MS to sit a few weeks after you finish your final draft before you
plunge into copy edits.
If you work in Word, you know all
about the wavy red lines for spelling errors and the wavy green for
grammar. You probably also know by now
that those are often wrong. There are many online sources to help you with
tricky, specific grammar questions. Plus, you have writer friends, right? Turn
to them. But always verify with a trusted authority on the matter.
I write science fiction so many of
my proper nouns are marked as spelling errors in the Word document. Adding them
to the dictionary gets rid of so many red wavy lines and Word will flag it if I
have a spelling variation (AKA a typo), which happens a lot with odd names. I
have yet to figure out how to get Scrivner to accept my world-specific
Despite the weaknesses of Word’s
grammar and spell check, it can show you interesting statistics such as percent
of passive sentences and reading level. I won’t say that I dumb down my
manuscripts, but if the reading level is over eighth grade, I know to look for
simpler vocabulary replacements as I edit. I usually run at about 2-4% passive
sentences. Despite what you’ve heard, passive sentences aren’t evil, bad
things. They have a place in your writing. No editor wants to see 60% passive
sentences in your MS, but you don’t have to completely eradicate them either.
Another interesting statistic is average words per sentence. If it’s over
twenty-five, you may be guilty of too many complex or run-on sentences. If it’s
under eight, your writing may have the delivery of machine gun fire. Mix it up
to create a pleasant reading cadence.
After spelling and grammar, I consult
my ‘errors I make all the time so you’d think I’d know better by now’ list. I
often type prefect instead of perfect. I switch the words from and form. I’m addicted to the word just.
Spellcheck won’t catch those errors. Do you have crutch words or phrases?
Are you aware of word substitutions you make often? Use the search function in
your word processor to search for your recurring mistakes.
After I’ve finished those
corrections, I print the MS for the first time. You might be able to see errors
on a computer screen but I see many more on paper. I take a green pen and
circle every error. If the problem is an entire sentence, sometimes I write the
correction on the paper but other times I’ll simply circle it and deal with it
later. POV errors, continuity, and plot holes are also circled but with a short
note about the problem. This is detailed work so I don’t do too many pages at
Next I sit down with the MS and
make my corrections in the computer. This is another time when the search
feature comes in handy. You can type in a three or four word string and it will
find them for you so you don’t have to scroll through the whole MS.
At this point, I print the
corrected MS for what I consider to be the hardest editing task. I read my
entire MS aloud.
What I think I wrote makes sense. What I actually wrote is missing words or other errors I didn’t catch on my first editing run. What I actually
wrote is repetitive either in theme or in word choice. What I actually wrote has weird rhythm. Or it’s
a tongue twister. Or what the heck was that supposed to mean? All those errors
are easily glossed over when I read mentally, but they’re glaringly obvious
when I read aloud.
Reading a sex scene aloud can be embarrassing
even though I wrote it. R has, on occasion, poked his head into my office and
said, “Bragging about your cock again, dear?” Instant mortification.
While reading an entire novel aloud,
I often get lulled into a mental space where I will start reciting what I
intended to write rather than what’s actually on the page. This happens even
when it’s been weeks since I looked at the MS. That’s one reason why I limit my
reading aloud to about twenty to thirty minutes a day. Another reason is that
reading aloud is hard on the throat.
After I’ve corrected any problems I
caught that time around, I may send the MS to beta readers or I may submit it
without reader input. That’s your choice.
Sometimes beta readers are more harm than help. Sometimes they try to
impose their vision on your story. Sometimes they simply don’t get it.
Sometimes everything you do is wonderful and lovely and… no. This is not
helpful. You need critique, not ego strokes. Some beta readers have brilliant
insights and totally call you on your weaknesses. Love that class of beta
readers. Cherish them. They are amazing, wonderful, precious humans.
That’s my method for editing both
short stories and novels. Do you have any tricks for catching errors? Beta
readers – yea or nay?
Next time: submission. Finally.