How do you edit your baby? It’s not easy, but it must be done. I’m rather certain there is no such thing as a final draft twinning the first draft.
Remember the good old days, when you could just write whatever you felt—loved whatever fell past your fingertips—and it was great because technicalities didn’t matter? There was no stress because the right way to write sat in the back seat of unknown unimportance, and only the colors and patterns of imagination mattered. I miss those ‘ignorant’ days sometimes. They were, without a doubt, the best of times… even if they were the worst.
First order of business: Prepare yourself to read your manuscript from start to end so many times that you’ll come close to despising it. Only children like stories ground-hog-day style. If you’d rather light your hair on fire than read the damn thing again, that’s actually a good sign. (Just don’t really light your hair on fire; that’s not normal.) Read and edit like you have tunnel vision. What works for some writers, myself included, is to have a specific task during each read-through.
- Sound. For me, the first editing task I want to focus on is hearing my manuscript because I’m bad about missing words. Especially the little guys: the, it, a, of, to, is… and so on. I used to read it aloud, sometimes in some random foreign accent, but nowadays I use an add-on in Microsoft Word, Text Aloud, to listen for these MIA words in my manuscripts. (In fact, I’ll use it for this very topic before I publish it on the website.) This is also useful in rooting out misspelled/wrong words (but not always so don’t rely on it to find all of them). For example, if ‘Mr. Voice’ said, proph-e-SIGH, when he should have said, proph-e-SEE, then you need to correct prophesy to prophecy. Also, Text-Aloud can help you scrutinize colossal-length sentences.
*Tip: If you used Text Aloud, and then later make any changes, run it through again. It’s worth the persnickety rechecking more often than not.
- Tunnel Vision Tasks (highly subjective). So now that you’ve inserted all your missing words, and caught a few misspellings and wrong words, you’re going to read it again. Focus only on one or two tasks per reading: Eliminating unnecessary dialogue tags; word repetition; formatting cleaning; major overhauls; etc.
- Color Maps. Familiarize yourself with the Text Highlighter tool in Microsoft Word. Come up with a color code for highlighting passages: yellow for sentence needs restructuring; green for ‘consider deleting’; blue for ‘double-check for consistency’; pink for potential plot holes; grey for ‘consider expounding’. After each highlighted passage, you can keep notes in red font for reminders. (This same process can be achieved with the good old-fashioned highlighters-in-hand method as well… just don’t forget to purchase the multi-color highlighter pack from wherever you get your office supplies!)
- Font. Change the document’s font to some other font that’s not your go-to/preference. Maybe even double-space it if you respond well to visual padding. Then read it again. You’ll be amazed by what you see… and wonder why you didn’t see it before. Play around with font size and alignment (Justify, Align Right, or Center) to see things at a different angle.
- Atmosphere. If you work on a laptop, go to a different location. For example, if you normally write and edit at a desk in your living room, den, or home office try reading a chapter on the front porch, back yard, on the couch, or at work if you can get away with it! (If you don’t have a laptop, print it out if you can afford the ink/toner and paper—please recycle the paper—and take the hard-copy to the ‘elsewhere’.) Another option is to look at it in a pdf form, which can be very helpful in deciding if a paragraph is too long and should be broken up. Remember: At first, only highlight what bugs you. If you still feel that way later, then make changes. Atmosphere is important to me—whether I’m writing or editing—specifically, silence. This is not easy to attain: I’ve come to the conclusion that the world is entirely too noisy, and so I flounder in the din.
*Very Important Tip – Keep copies of your original documents.
- Blank Canvas. Try working on a blank document solely dedicated to tackling irksome sentences. We all have them: that sentence that’s awkward somehow, but you can’t figure out what’s wrong with it other than it’s just not right.* (←Kind of like that one!) Sometimes it’s helpful to isolate the wayward sentence from the sea of black and white words it blunders in. I keep a document in every manuscript folder titled, ‘Re-worksheet’. This is where I’ll copy and paste (isolate) the problem sentence/s. Many, many times, this was all it needed: a blank canvas, an empty stage, for the flaws to show themselves. (*We all have them: that awkward sentence with an elusive fix.)
- Order. Discover what editing order works for you. Every writer is different. For me, I must Easter-egg hunt the missing words first. I know they are there (or not there I should say) and it will haunt me until I fix it. All other levels of editing come next. Once all the typos, grammar issues, and whacky sentences have been addressed, then I’ll look at the tidier manuscript landscape and start working on the larger issues—such as cuts, additions, word searching to make sure all names and terms match in spelling and attribution. Somewhere along the way, either early in the read-through editing process or in a later pass, I’ll make sure all those words I’m not so sure about mean what I think they do (intended). When in doubt, check it out. There is a difference between impassible and impassable. (A very big difference!)
*Extra tip: It’s not co-mingle, it’s commingle.
- Vetting opinions. If you’ve pimped your manuscript out for critiques/beta-reading, consider democratizing the feedback. What I mean is, and what I personally do, is compare and contrast what they’ve said. If the majority of them have commented negatively on a particular matter, then I pay attention and give it more serious thought. Keep in etched-in-stone-long-term-memory mind that this is your manuscript, and you have the final say on all matters. Never forget that fundamental fact.
*An aside tip: Don’t be afraid to ask for help. Nothing ventured, nothing gained. (And I admit, asking for help has never been easy for me either, but it’s sometimes necessary so pluck up and do it.)
- Points to Ponder. Word economy can be your friend. Think in terms of how to use punchy powerful words to get your sentence across. –ly adverbs are considered lesser word-beings in the writing community, so use them sparingly. Evocative adjectives are considered to be much-loved darlings; use them to ‘sneak in’ more of the story. Use vivid verbs and nouns – the kind that sneaks images, thoughts, feelings/emotions, and concepts into the reader’s subconscious, like a subliminal message. Using evocative adjectives, high-metabolism verbs, and vibrant nouns can help write the same story with less wordage.
- Reverse reading. Read it backwards, from end to beginning. I tried this and it’s a mind trip. *Jury’s still out on whether or not I’m on board with this method. Its usefulness can’t be denied… but like I said, it’s a phantasmagoric undertaking which may not be to everyone’s liking.*)
- Programs and apps. Many writers use Scrivener for outlining, word processing, and organizing. I haven’t used Scrivener myself, but I know several authors who have and they love it. Grammarly is a proofreading website.
- Time and Space. Once you’ve done some or all of the suggestions listed above, wait a while, then read it again with a distanced mind. A ‘while’ is subjective, but if it’s only been a few weeks (or even several months if it’s a lengthy manuscript) since your last read-through, then that’s not a long enough spacer to go at it with a finalizing mind. The time-spacer, especially if coupled with working on other projects in the meantime, creates an amnesia-like divide that may help you in being more objective when returning to the ‘supposed’ final edited manuscript. This space-and-time buffer between reads is extremely important, particularly when going at it with an eye for the story-over-all mindset. It really is crucial that you find other things to focus your energy on while this time lapses. Work on the sequel if it’s part of a series, or work on a new manuscript that has nothing to do with it—bonus points to you if it’s in a different POV and/or genre. Remember: cerebral distance is your ally.