Self-Editing - Discover Your Inner Masochist
Self-editing is often something a self-publishing author may have to do at the start of their career because finding, and being able to afford, an editor is difficult. I started out self-editing my work for those reasons.
Self-editing is amazingly difficult - a lot of my author colleagues will swear that it virtually destroys their love of their work - I agree with that sentiment. But, there are things that can help - and even though I do not self-edit any more, I use the same types of practices described below as I review my work before submitting it for editing. I hope this blog post is useful to you; I fully understand just how hard the process can be.
First some myth-busters :-
- Indie authors can get away with poorly produced work because they're indie authors
- Grammar isn't important these days
- Editing is for the elite
- My book is priced at 99 cents; what the fuck do you expect?
- I'm too busy writing to edit (I agree with this ... lol)
- It's the story that's important; readers will make allowances
- Even trad' published novels have errors in them; why should I worry?
Invest - and there are free options - in a spelling and grammar checker. I use Grammarly - which I believe may now be free. I cannot recommend strongly enough how useful it has been in trapping the plethora of simple errors that will exist in a first draft manuscript. The eradication of those errors, and to be honest, the training it provides for avoiding them in the future (where they are a bad habit rather than an error) are incalculable. I don't have my checker running while I'm working; it's for a later stage of the process.
But let's begin at the beginning.
You've written your story and it's time to celebrate - couldn't agree more. Put the draft away and forget about it for a period of time. That period of time is actually pretty crucial. If you plan to self-edit then the time you give yourself away from the manuscript is going to help you to disassociate and put yourself in the frame of mind to edit it successfully. At the start of my self-publishing career, I would publish as soon as the story was written with just a cursory look at the manuscript. There was no cooling off period. I've since learned to be patient because letting the story cool off is actually a very, very good idea. If you're like me, then 3 days is going to be too long to wait - I am extremely impatient. I suggest a week, better still, 3 weeks (some would say 3 months but I think that is too long). Meantime, write something else, shower, eat, use your legs, open the curtains, mow the grass, talk to someone ...
I find that, even though I may have put the story away, I am still thinking about it on one level - but I try not to think about it consciously. When I return to the story, I tend to read it straight through, and I am amazed at the difference in how the story reads now compared to the last reading. Don't start changing things immediately - maybe just highlight things that you want to consciously think about. Okay; glaring errors can be changed but nothing fundamental.
The last thing I want to do is read the story as the author - I need to disassociate. Beyond the cooling off period, which does help to achieve the right mind-set, these are some of the things that have helped me to disassociate and adopt a mind-set closer to that of the editor (although I don't think an author will ever truly get to the same place as an editor when editing their own work).
These are four miracle ways to highlight small errors that you seem to miss despite reading and re-reading a manuscript (whether you use a checker or not) and they will often knock me out of the groove of writing and into the groove of editing :-
· Change the format, font and font size
· Read it on your Kindle/eReader
· Read it out loud
· Read it from the back to the front
Checking your manuscript for grammar/punctuation/syntax and formatting errors is relatively easy - you will need to have decided on the rules you wish to employ - like how to write time or money or measurements - just be consistent. For example, you can choose to write time as 3 p.m. or 03:00 or 15:00 or 3 o'clock or three o'clock - just be consistent. And here's a good article from grammar.com for lots more choices and some rules you could adopt (and it's a great site for lots of other advice).
Other Basic Checks
If you check nothing else, check the following :-
- Names of characters and consistent spelling - for example Stephen vs Steven [I’ve mixed them; it’s easily done].
- The timeline - just map it out simply so that you can be sure that the dates and the events match and you have given sufficient time for things to happen.
- Tenses - I am terrible at switching tenses and mixing tenses [where it isn’t appropriate].
- Any ‘real’ data - just check your facts/figures/names/places/quotations, and insert footnotes as appropriate.
A Beta Reader
If at all possible, try to recruit a beta reader - who is not an editor and shouldn't be treated as such. Possible ways to recruit a beta reader/s:
Invite participation through your blog/Facebook/Twitter/Book Club/Goodreads, etc. I am loathed to suggest family and friends as they tend not to be honest enough.
And offer to reciprocate. Reading other people’s work is both fun and very helpful in seeing how someone else may have addressed something similar in your own story.
Fundamentally, you want to know if the story is a 'good story' and that 'it works'. If you can recruit a beta reader, they should be asked to look for plot holes, continuity errors, and assess believability, and above all, readability - was it a 'good read', did it invoke the right kind of responses, how did they feel at the end? Was there anything left undone, unsaid, or unresolved that adversely affected their reading experience?
Up to you how you handle the feedback.
So you have a handle on the quality of the story - how does the author challenge their own work? Start with the basic premise - what was the story about and what was the point? If you, like me, have no outline, no prompt, no consistent style and no clue about how things will end when you begin, this might be hard, and you might have to rework sections of your story once it reveals itself in all its colours.
My last published work* was about a man thinking about, and to a degree, lamenting, his life choices and what he believes he has actually achieved in fifty years. I give him the means to regain his zest for life, and I ultimately bring him to the point where he is ready for his life to end with no regrets. That is the story in a nutshell - did I get there? I guess you'd need to read it to find out. I can apply the tests, but I’ll never really know if I ‘got there’ until someone else reads it, which is why a beta reader is worth their weight in gold. I put that story in front of my beta reader and got feedback along the lines of :-
- Some of the feelings that the main character expressed seemed to come up too fast; insufficient plot time was allowed for the feelings to mature adequately (plausibility/believability).
- A lot of questions of the type that begin - Why did he? Why did he not?
Fundamentally, the reader is the auditor, and the only one that counts (pun intended).
*The story is titled The Last Jötunn.
Invest in a dictionary and a thesaurus - there are plenty of free ones on-line.
An example of how word choice can affect how we think about a character/situation :-
"You're so utterly wrong," Adam remarked bitterly, finding Joseph's assessment no easier to swallow than a handful of dry pills ...
utterly - could have been - completely or totally (any others?)
I chose utterly because of the tempo of the sentence and because of where the stress on the utt of utterly comes as opposed to the ple in completely, where the stress is in the middle of the word, and I discounted totally because my character is an older English teacher.
remarked could have been said - but remarked implied a kind of distancing, a resignation, or perhaps a clue to some underlying angst, motive or long held animosity.
assessment could have been comments - but assessment implied more depth to the subject matter that was in dispute.
Some challenges are obvious - what would my character say? They live and breathe in the story, and their character is usually established through dialogue - read it out loud - try role-playing the conversation - does it sound authentic? Adam is bitter, the emphasis is on utterly - move the stress and listen to the effect - does it sound more authentic/powerful/evocative? If the stress moves to You're it makes Adam sound more combative - is that what I was actually going for? In which case, bitterly is replaced by angrily - try it for yourself and see how it works. See what works for your character/s and your story.
I change dialogue more than I change anything else - it is also affected by my mood at the time, which is something to guard against but also embrace, as a reader could be in a very different place to you as the author/self-editor.
This review stage is time-consuming and energy sapping - so pace yourself.
How many words does something need to convey its essential meaning?
Did I need to say ... finding Joseph's assessment no easier to swallow than a handful of dry pills ...?
That's a style choice - but it can still be challenged. I want the reader to recall, if possible, a time when they found something hard to swallow, a bitter pill (literal or figurative) - I hope this sentence helps them do that because I want them to actually experience the sensation as they read it - I'm encouraging an investment by the reader in the story - I want them to have a deep [relative] emotional experience.
I could have written 'Adam said' ... leaves me feeling unemotional, disconnected and cold.
Or I could have written 'finding Joseph's assessment galling' - but that sounded too clipped, and galling might imply anger, irritation and annoyance, whereas, Adam is bitter, and actually, Joseph's assessment is probably correct but Adam is finding it hard to take.
Sometimes you do have to cull :-
Jessica remembered a time, not too long ago, when the pain would have been so acute as to cause her to double over and vomit up the contents of her stomach (31 words)
Jessica recalled the all too recent episodes of excruciating pain and debilitating nausea (13 words; almost 1/3 of the original length)
Did it have the same meaning?
Is it important? There are no prizes for verbosity - you risk turning your reader off, and I recall reading The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt, and I, along with lots of other reviewers, came to the same conclusion - cull 300 pages and you've got a decent read.
Be succinct when it's necessary to move the pace on, when creating drama and tension.
Another example of drawing a picture with few words - my thanks to my best buddy Chambers Mars for donating this very small fragment of his latest instal of The Life & Times of Johnny Santé ...
... “That’s Gloria; she owns a café in Brick Lane ...”
No love lost there, judging by the tone. Gloria looks more confident, is probably a few years older, and doesn’t care that her roots are showing ...
Have a mental picture of Gloria already? 40 something, business owner, no nonsense, perhaps combative, certainly not vain - average height, not too slim, dark brown hair [going grey], minimal makeup ... and someone who Perrie [who spoke] doesn't like but probably admires.
Invested? Intrigued? Already identifying with the character/s? Already caring about what happens to them/next?
Basic challenge - is it the right word? Is it needed at all?
Change the word or remove the word - what else changes? That depends on context.
"You're so utterly wrong," Adam remarked bitterly, finding Joseph's assessment no easier to swallow than a handful of dry pills, grimacing, just like he always did when he found only Gypsy Tart on the menu in the refectory - was it beyond the wit of man to offer a piece of fruit as an alternative? Payback would come later when he had Joseph facedown and begging for cock; then the matter of 'return on investment' would be utterly inconsequential.
To put this into context - Adam is a senior lecturer at a college, facing budget cuts. Joseph is the financial director, who has just pointed out that, despite heavy investment in Adam's department in the past, results have not improved. They are having a clandestine affair. The reference to fruit and the fact that the character’s name is Adam, is, of course, no accident - Joseph ultimately corrupts Adam. I could not afford to remove these words because then the backdrop is lost - even if the reader doesn’t see it. When you have a story working on multiple levels, the editing is just going to take that bit longer. And you might find editing each story within the story a useful technique.
- Context dictates choices.
- Style dictates choices.
- Change begets change.
What do you want the reader to experience/remember/talk about?
This process of challenge, however long it takes, and however laborious it may seem, will give you a fantastic insight into the story, into your style, and into your strengths and weaknesses.
- Invest in a spelling/grammar checker
- Invest in a dictionary and a thesaurus
- If at all possible, recruit a beta reader/s, and reciprocate
- Leave a first draft complete manuscript alone for at least 3 weeks before attempting to self-edit it
- Challenge every word
- Read your manuscript out loud
- Read your manuscript on your eReader
- Cull anything that does not add value
- Context and style dictate choices
- Dialogue should be real - role play it
- Move the stress in the sentence to see what else changes
- If you adopt a rule, apply it consistently
If you have self-editing tips to share or questions or anything to say, please comment below. I would welcome your feedback.
The next post will be on the thorny issue of reviews.
Thank you for stopping by.