Even after meticulous research and with excellent writing skills, all first drafts include plot inconsistencies, superfluous words, typos, or other weak spots. Your second draft won’t be perfect either, nor your third. Even the manuscript you finally submit for publication won’t be perfect, but it’s your job to make it as perfect as possible.
Repeat: it’s your job. Hint One for editing is:
1. Never expect publishers to do your work for you. Don’t delude yourself that they’ll find your idea so brilliant, or be so short on potential material, that they’ll polish the manuscript themselves. Unless your initial submission is of near-publishable quality, they won’t even bother to finish reading it. (Even when sending your manuscript to a freelance “book doctor,” edit it yourself first: saves you money in per-hour charges, and develops the skills that will build your writing career.)
To ensure you do the best editing job:
2. Let the manuscript rest first. Put the first draft aside for at least a week after finishing it. When authors try to edit immediately, their minds, still in “initial writing” mode, are blind to weak areas. After your brain cools, you’ll see the manuscript with fresher eyes.
Really fresh eyes are even better:
3. Have someone else read your piece, someone who understands how to put potential improvements into words. Published authors are best; to find them, click here for a list of writers’ organizations. (See also “Critique Groups,” on this site.) Or check a local college for continuing-education writing classes.
As for the mechanics of editing:
4. Be prepared to edit in stages. Most drafts should be edited at least three times:
Broad edit. Read through rapidly, noting awkward areas. Rewrite any section where you stumble in the reading or have difficulty keeping track of the story. Eliminate any scenes, however beautifully written, that do nothing for the plot. And see The Fiction Factor’s “How Long Should Your Story Be?” and “Understanding Children’s Writing Genres” for notes on story lengths. If your draft is longer than the suggested maximum, consider tightening it: merging two characters into one, for example.
Paragraph-by-paragraph edit. Read through again, at normal speed. Get rid of redundancies (consensus of opinion), unneeded words (the fact that), qualifications (maybe, very, pretty much), and noun-adjective or verb-adverb phrases (see Settings, Hint Four). Do away with repetitive and “singsong” text—not “He picked up his briefcase and his lunch. He went out the door to his car. The engine sputtered and struggled to start,” but “He picked up his briefcase and lunch, and headed out to his car. The engine coughed and struggled to life.” And break lengthy paragraphs into two or three pieces.
Word-by-word edit. Read through slowly, correcting all typos. (Never rely on your word processor’s spell-check; it won’t know the difference between to and too.)
If all this sounds exhausting, remember that in the nineteenth century, Thomas Carlyle rewrote an entire book—by hand—after his original manuscript was destroyed.
5. Consider reading your manuscript out loud (for the first two edits) or backward (for the third edit). Reading out loud helps you note awkward text; reading backward forces you to focus on every word.
6. Finally, if you learned typing before word-processor days, a few rules have changed: Use italics—not underlining—for emphasis, and one space—not two—between sentences.
For a crash course on other editing essentials, read The Elements of Style.
Often, the last thing to be edited is the first thing a reader sees—the title.
© 2011 Katherine Swarts
Katherine Swarts is a poet and inspirational writer from Houston, Texas. Her self-published poetry book Where Light Dawns: Christian Poems of Hope for Hurting Hearts (the first volume in a planned series) was “written for naturally gloomy types like myself who are tired of ‘cheer up’ talk and need the comfort of ‘God does love you’ encouragement.” The poems in the book come from Katherine’s blog at http://newsongsfromtheheart.blogspot.com; contact Katherine at email@example.com for ordering information.