Self-Editing Your Manuscript

Self-editing. The angst of many writers. They are more comfortable and excited about writing their first draft where they can ignore grammar rules, setting descriptions, and other fundamentals of the craft. No need to worry about showing rather than telling, info-dumping, or using ly-adverbs (yes, I ignored the rule for this post). Just let the ideas flow and get them on paper, i.e., in a Word or Google doc.

All good for those types of writers. It works for many of them. Yet, editing is inevitable, whether traditionally or self-publishing. An agent or small press publisher might bite if the story is good, and the writing is polished. A clean manuscript minimizes their cost in terms of time and money. Good editing is even more important for the indie author. Their sales depend on clean copy. Many self-published books get 1- or 2-star ratings because the writing is poor.

In either case, some effort into self-editing goes a long way. It shows traditional industry professionals that you know the craft of writing. I heard one agent say she can help an author with materials like jacket covers, but she cannot teach someone how to write. Likewise, any good hired editor charges by the hour. A lot of redlining equals a lot of money.

Here’s an overview of my process for those who dread the process or those who don’t know where to start. There are a couple phases: a developmental edit and copyediting/proofreading.

First, a developmental edit of my own work begins with a macro-analysis. I’m a plotter, so my writing process starts with an outline, which evolves as the story unfolds. Yet even as a plotter, I still perform this review because it’s more than an outline. It’s creating what I call scene summaries, and there are four key elements in mine:

Purpose
The reason for each scene. I answer several questions during this analysis. First and foremost, why is it important to the plot? What am I trying to accomplish with this scene? How does it add to the unfolding of the story? Is it necessary to devote an entire scene to it? Can I slip it into another scene?

Synopsis
A summary of what happens in the scene. This step helps with pacing, and it’s related to the purpose. In general, it helps me to see if the scene’s intent is clear to the reader based on what happens in it. Did the action serve its purpose? Or was it too short or too long to carry out its mission? The same analysis is done with dialogue. Does the discussion between characters reveal what the reader needs to know? If anything, writing these synopses are great practice for when I have to write them for selling or marketing my book. Another tip I found helpful: a synopsis is written in present tense like a screenplay.

Character Arcs
All of us know (or should know) that our protagonist’s is not the same person at the beginning and end of the story. They transform from one person to another as a result of what happened to them in the story. This step summarizes their journey, and I complete it for every significant character to ensure they are fully developed. I even document the purpose of the flat or expo characters.

Narrative Tension
This aspect is defined differently by others. In my little writing universe, I describe it as “what keeps the reader turning the page.” It includes suspense, intrigue, and speculation in the form of questions raised, questions answered, and foreshadowing. I identify the carrots I’ve dangled in front of the reader. In addition, I note when details are given to the reader to make sure I leave no questions unanswered.

Another technique I use is more creative in a sense. It involves the use of color to identify various elements in my manuscript. Using different colors, I highlight backstory, worldbuilding, descriptions, and visceral/sensory reactions. In the end, I have a visual picture of how these important components are integrated into the story. A valuable tool for identifying too much or too little of a good thing.

Finally, copyediting and proofreading. The simplest way to check your grammar is to use an online tool. There are several options available, and they are usually free. These automated tools will not catch “everything,” and you don’t have to accept “every” recommended change. Like the program I use doesn’t like my fragmented sentences, but it does keep me honest about using them judiciously. If anything, I get a refresher on the rules because grammar should be second-nature to a writer.

My all-time favorite proofreading tool is the Read-Aloud function. It is a life-saver for me since my fingers can’t keep up with my mind. It catches the dreaded missing words. Likewise, it helps me with the cadence of my writing. Parts that don’t flow well or read awkwardly jump off the page when I hear them.

I used both of the tricks to edit and proof this post. I unabashedly admit that there were lots of redlines.

This process is mine and won’t work for everyone. I’m very detail-oriented and visual. For like-minded writers, they may already use some of these techniques or have other tricks of their own. For those who loath self-editing, perhaps, one or two of my methods will help them successfully conquer this necessary evil. Because self-editing is a fundamental part of commercial writing.  

4 thoughts on “Self-Editing Your Manuscript

  1. Thank you – really like your approach to the structural edit. And great tip about using colour to make the different elements standout. A few years ago, one of my writing teachers had us do a similar task but with exposition, dialogue, description, action and internalisation. As you say, it is a great way to get a powerful visual of what might need to be fleshed out or cut back.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for reading and commenting on my editing process. Using this approach, I can sit back and feel my book is the best it can be. Well, the writing can always get better, but I try to keep my pencil down. Please come back soon. I’ve finished my first first draft and will be blogging more frequently.

      Liked by 1 person

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