Now, when I say “editing,” I don’t mean “revising.” When you’re revising, you’re fixing character and plot issues. When you’re editing, you’re concentrating on the text on a word by word, sentence by sentence basis. It’s proofreading with a little extra.
Editing our own work can be particularly difficult. Our brains often skip over problems when we’re reading; we know what we were trying to write and our brains read what they know the words should be. This is one of the biggest reasons to hire a copy editor to make sure your manuscript is really shined up properly before you go out on submission and/or self-publish.
But, say an agent just requested your first 10 pages, or you just heard about a conference critique or contest that would be perfect for you and you need to get your submission out quickly. No worries!
Identify what your main problem areas are, then go through your pages once for each issue. With each read-through, choose one common mistake and scour your pages for places that you’ve made that error. When applicable, you also can use the Find/Replace feature in Word.
Here are some of the more common problems I see when editing:
Tension: Every scene needs tension. If it doesn’t have tension, a scene will be flat and a reader will have a hard time continuing. Having tension, doesn’t mean every novel has to be a drama. Jeff Kinney’s Wimpy Kid books are hilarious and are filled with tension. Tension comes from conflict, from the character not being able to get what he or she wants in that scene, the see-saw battle of trying to achieve and falling short, getting somewhere, but falling again.
Tension keeps readers reading. They want to know what’s going to happen next, whether the character will get what they’ve been aiming for.
When you’re reading your manuscript as an editor, mark pages with tension or conflict with a T. When you’re done, revisit any page that doesn’t have a T and see how you can ramp up the stakes. It may be as simple as adding in a faulty stove in a scene where the character is cooking an omelet. Whatever it is, make sure there’s tension in every scene.
Dialog attributions: Generally, the best attribution to use with dialog is the good old “said.” It’s boring, you say? Yes, but that’s the point. Too many Bob exclaimed, Sally squawked, Mike cried slows the text. Readers want to get to the action as quickly as possible, and if you just use said, readers’ brains can skip over them quickly and get to the good stuff. That being said (no pun intended), attributions are necessary.
If you have three or more people in a scene, you need to make sure every piece of dialog is attributed to someone so as to not confuse the reader. If you only have two people in the scene, still throw in an attribution every few lines to keep the reader on track and to break up the dialog. Billy Bob said or said Billy Bob is fine, either at the end of the dialog or in the middle if he says a few sentences.
But said isn’t the only way to tell a reader who’s speaking. Rotate the saids with action, for example.
“I don’t know how to say this.” Casey twisted the ends of her hair. “I just don’t like you.”
Etc. So, go through your manuscript looking at the dialog. Make sure it’s easy for readers to tell who is speaking, that said is the tag of choice, but when appropriate, you’re showing who’s speaking with action.
Unnecessarily long sentences: Sentence structure in novels is a place where writers can turn their back on the old grammar rules they learned in school — as long as they do it for a reason. At the beginning of his Looking for Alaska, John Green has a sentence that’s the size of a rather stuffed paragraph, but its length makes a statement about the character’s state of mind.
Read through your manuscript picking out sentences that are long. For each, ask: Is it grammatically correct? Does its length reflect the pacing of the scene or something to do with the character? Can the sentence be cut into two or three sentences and achieve the same result? Make fixes as appropriate.
Repeated words: With descriptions, we always have our go to words, and editing is the perfect chance to vary them.
Read your work concentrating on every word. Don’t read sentences; just read the text as though it’s a long list of words. Reading aloud is a great way to do this.
If you pick up that “walk,” for example, has been used a couple times in the same sentence or paragraph, change one to “stroll” or something better. As frustrating as it must be to foreigners, the English language gives us plenty of words with similar meanings. Take advantage of them in your writing to make sure you’re not repeating the same descriptive words too often.
In part 2, we’ll look at words that are easily confused and proper manuscript formating for submissions.
Have you found these problems in your manuscripts? Any others you’re in the habit of doing?