Editing fiction is an exhaustive process.
First, there’s the basics of good editing: correcting typos, fixing grammar issues, and making sure all the punctuation symbols are in the right spots. But then, there are the more treacherous areas: checking for story (or series!) consistency, steering clear of white room syndrome, and making sure your characters are relatable and not just 2-D Mary Sues or John Does.
Not to mention, we can never catch all these things in one simple read-through. Boo.
But, is there a way to make editing easier? Have no fear, my fellow writers! Today, I’m sharing how I self-edit my fiction books before sending them on to my professional editor.
If you’ve read some of my books before, you may recall that it takes me just short of an eternity to publish a book. Why is that? While I know I can’t edit a book to perfection (and no one can), I’ve learned that I work best if I space my editing time over several months, allowing myself to go through at least seven read-throughs of the manuscript. So, if you came here looking for quick-and-easy tips to help you rapid release titles, sorry Shug, this ain’t the place to be seeking that advice.
But, if you’re here for advice on how to catch as many manuscript issues as you can before sending your book baby off to your editor, you’re in the right place.
Read-Through 1: The “Just Read It” Pass
Normally (quite possibly because I have issues, but idk) I choose to do the first read-through of my first drafts within a month of publishing my newest book. Why? Maybe I like to torture myself with the reminder that every book first starts out as a giant pile of poo, or maybe it’s because my mind is still in Editing Mode from reading through my latest book with a fine-tooth comb before publishing. Either way, it works.
I call this first editing pass the “Just Read It” pass, because here, I’m just letting myself get reacquainted with the story. If I see typos, I try my best not to correct them yet (though it makes me cringe something awful). If I see terrible sentences, I just let them lie. During this pass, I’m mainly looking for big boo-boos, like gaping plot holes, inconsistent characterization, and terrible scene transitions.
For example, my first draft of my next release, The Fall (The Ballad of Emery Brooks, #2) was originally around 60k, as it was the first novel I ever “fast-drafted” (well, the fastest draft for me, at 7 months). After my first read-through of the book, I was humbled to realize the book was a certifiable hot mess after finding all three categories of Big Boo-Boos mentioned above, and deduced I needed to add 20,000 words worth of additional scenes to fix it. Facepalm Which leads me to…
Read-Through 2: The “Bob the Builder” Pass
Anyone else remember the cartoon Bob the Builder in the early 2000s, and its theme song “Bob the builder. Can we fix it? Bob the builder. Yes we can!” If you don’t, I’m sorry, because the original show was quite good. 😛 But, let’s get back on topic. What on earth does Bob the Builder have to do with editing fiction?
This is where we sing his theme song for the sake of our manuscript. For realies. Because only by the Grace of God and motivational cartoon theme songs can we reconstruct this ramshackle shack of a manuscript into a brick house that can hold its own.
This looks different for everyone’s manuscript. Instead of underwriting like I did on The Fall, you may have overwritten and may need to cut down on unnecessary scenes. If that’s what you’re doing, cut every scene that doesn’t advance the plot or your character’s arc. If it’s just two characters having a conversation about the weather for ten pages, when nothing in the book depends on the weather, cut that bad boy out. If your characters have a heart-to-heart that affects your main character’s next step in the book, keep it! You know your story best, so the decisions are up to you, but don’t be afraid to be ruthless. Go full demolition mode if you have to.
Now, if your first draft is underwritten, think back to The “Just Read It” Pass and determine where your manuscript needs improvement. Write down ideas for how you can improve it. And then, like good ole Bob, build that manuscript up with those improvements. Then, once you’re satisfied, move on to…
Read-Throughs 3-5: The “Readability” Passes
Pretty much for all my third through fifth read-throughs, I either:
- Have Microsoft Word read the manuscript to me, listening for errors, and then pausing to correct them, OR
- Create a MOBI file of the manuscript using a draft file on Draft2Digital and read it on my Kindle, making highlights and notes of what to correct, and then correcting all the errors within the manuscript file.
I like these methods equally, and use them interchangeably during these middle editing passes. If you don’t use Microsoft Word, if you have a Kindle Fire, you could have the book read to you that way as well using the Text-To-Speech feature. I’m not sure if other Kindle models have that feature, or if other word processing programs like Google Docs or Scrivener have it. If all else fails, though, reading it aloud to yourself could work just as well.
Read-Through 6: The Dreaded “Word Search Edit” Pass
Good gracious. This one about killed me when editing The Fall.
Basically, what this infamous “Word Search Edit” is, is a Google Doc checklist I compiled of a bunch of common writing crutch words that weigh down manuscripts. For example, words like “that”, “it”, etc. I also list common typos that are book specific, like character names I often mistype (ex: Saywer instead of Sawyer) or nouns that I may need to capitalize depending on their context (Daddy/daddy, Momma/momma, etc.).
Don’t get me wrong, this list is super helpful for me, and really improves the readability of the manuscript. But it’s a pain in the butt to implement.
The search part can either be done in Google Docs or Word. Just mash CTRL+F on your keyboard, and a nifty little search box will come up. And then, you just type a crutch word of your choosing in, and it’ll show you how many times you’ve used that word.
It may be twelve. It may be two hundred. It may be one thousand and forty seven. This is where headaches may come in. But soldier on.
Should you delete every single instance of the crutch word in your manuscript? Nonsense! If the sentence does not make sense without the crutch word, keep it. If you can delete out the word and it doesn’t change the meaning of the sentence, delete that thang. Better yet, if you can reword a sentence to get rid of the crutch word and make the sentence stronger, do that.
This list can also be an overkill form of editing though, so take it with a grain of salt. It took me like three months, working on and off, to get through this one editing pass on The Fall. Is it worth all that work? Maybe, maybe not. Does it make your manuscript stronger? Yes indeedy, my friend. If I hadn’t of went back and fine-tuned the crutch words out, some of the best sentences in The Fall right now wouldn’t exist.
If you’re interested in getting a copy of this Word Search Edit list I made, drop a comment at the end of this post! I’m considering making it a free download here on Authoring Arrowheads. 🙂
Read-Through 6.5: The “Alpha Reader” Pass
I just do this pass out of personal preference, because I no longer enlist several beta readers for my books. Instead, I send the manuscript to an author friend of mine, M. Liz Boyle, who is my Alpha Reader. (P.S. Check out her amazing books here!)
Liz does a fantastic job of helping me catch typos or other issues I’ve missed in the manuscript, and offering helpful suggestions for improvement. I don’t mean to belittle her hard work by christening this the “6.5” read-through; I just call it that because I’m not the one reading it during this pass. I just fulfill the half-step of editing out the issues she finds. 🙂
My fellow writers, find yourself an Author Bestie, preferably one who gets your work. I met Liz through her commenting on Authoring Arrowheads posts a few years ago, and we’ve read each other’s work before publishing ever since. It helps that we both write Christian YA fiction and have similar content standards.
The biggest thing to worry about if you’re selecting alpha or beta readers is to find someone who gets your writing. Alpha and beta readers aren’t as effective if they’re not used to your genre or content standards; instead, you may accidentally have recruited someone who will do nothing but bash your work, because they don’t understand those aspects of your writing. While constructive criticism is okay, and should be welcomed, destructive criticism should not be tolerated or taken to heart. If someone bashes your work without offering any helpful advice on how to improve it, find someone else.
Read-Through 7: The “After Professional Edits” Pass
At the time this post goes live, The Fall was just returned to me by my amazing editor, Rayleigh. (P.S. Check out her editing services here!) For both The Crush and The Fall, as soon as I finish editing per Liz’s suggestions, I send the manuscript to her. When I receive Rayleigh’s feedback, I then implement those edits, and that manuscript goes out to my ARC readers via BookSirens.
But, is this the final manuscript, the grand finale that gets published? Not quite. After implementing Rayleigh’s feedback, because I’m paranoid I messed something up whenever I made those corrections, I do one more proofread of the book before submitting it for publication. Because Liz and Rayleigh are so thorough, and amazing at editing, I never find anything major during this proofread. Sometimes I find little nit-picky things that only I as the author would pick up on (like something that will affect another character in a past/future book) and make sure those are consistent, or a couple typos we all overlooked, but by this round, the book is solid and ready to hit readers’ shelves.
Oh, and one more thing before you go…
Pre-orders for The Fall are now live on the Kindle Store, Apple Books, Nook Books, and Kobo! If you’d like to pre-order The Fall, just visit its universal book link here to pre-order the ebook from the vendor of your choice!
Talk to Me, Arrowheads!
And there we have it! If you have any questions on these methods, or would like a more in-depth dive/tutorial on some of these aspects, drop a comment below. I’m always looking for more blog content to help fellow authors! 🙂
Again, my methods may not work for everyone, and that’s okay. If you’re more of a rapid-releaser, that’s awesome! If you use some of the same methods I use, but with your own twist, that’s awesome too. Just do what works best for you, because at the end of the day, it’s your book you’re editing, and your opinion should matter most.
Aim high, stay strong, and always hit your mark.