Over the past four years or so, I’ve been collecting bits and pieces of advice given from writers who have made their mark in the writing world.
Today, I’d like to share suggestions for self-editing. I know that not everyone can afford to take editing classes, but you can develop a routine to polish your work. Here is a framework to build on. (While these tips are written for polishing the novel, you can adapt them for writing the short story.)
12 Steps To Self-Editing
1. Read through
Print out your manuscript, make yourself a coffee, and grab a pencil. Read it from beginning to end as a dispassionate reader. If something glaring pops up, make the odd comment in the margin, but hold back from making detailed notes. The idea is to get an idea of the global story, the flow, and its feel.
Next – READ YOUR PROSE OUT LOUD
Now it’s time to interrogate the plot and determine if there’s enough conflict in the story. Look at each scene and sequel to see if you’ve unpacked the central story question posed by the inciting incident. As Sol Stein suggests, compare your most vital scene with your weakest scene. Decide if the weaker one can be recycled or rewritten.
3. Hero in the spotlight
Here we pick apart the main character. A good idea is to create a character to start from the character wheel – write a paragraph under the headings of his psychological, physical, and socio-economic make-up. Make sure that every decision or behavior he displays in the story is consistent with these trait.
4. Rattle the cage for the antagonist
The next step is to do the same for the antagonist. Make sure that he is positioned to bring out the most conflict from your main character. Nothing destroys a story like unfair odds between the hero and his nemesis. Make sure he is equally strong, if not a bit more wily than your main character. If you need to plug more into your plot, go back to step two.
5. Dust off your supporting cast
To a lesser degree, you will do the same for the other characters in the story. While they may not need the same magnifying glass, you should make sure they’re fulfilling their roles in a vivid, lively, and engaging way. A tip is to spend just 10-20 minutes on each, freewriting or brainstorming ideas to make them pop. Feed these into the story.
6. Infuse your palette
Now it’s time to look at the setting. Try to put in setting detail where it’s lacking or unclear and to cull places where you’ve been overly descriptive. Make sure you’ve used as many senses as possible to bring these to life. Take time out to research areas you’re unfamiliar with so that these parts of your book hum with authenticity.
7. Talk it out
If step six asks you to look at the manuscript with a fresh eye, this one demands you bring a keen ear. Read your dialogue aloud or record it and play it back to yourself. Does it sound realistic? It should give us information about the characters – it must tease out their individuality, their background and, at the same time, move the story forward. Read plays or movie scripts for inspiration.
8. It’s a sprint, not a marathon
Now you should look at pacing. Does your manuscript have enough white space? Try to keep sentences and paragraphs as short as possible –keep in mind that some genres allow for a more leisurely pace than, say, a thriller. If you’re getting bored reading a page, be sure your reader will be too. Be merciless. A tip is to cut every second or third word and see if the story can survive these cuts.
9. Beginnings, middles, and ends
Look at your first and last page side by side. If you can, try to bring in symbols, images, or moods that echo or contrast each other. Find a way to create bookends that will resonate with the reader subliminally. Now go to the middle of the book – the hinge – and see if this section is a powerful enough mid-point to drive the story towards its climax. It should be a falsely high or low point for the main character and reaffirm his commitment to the story goal.
10. Become a continuity editor
Put the manuscript away for at least eight weeks, longer if you can manage it. Print out a fresh copy and look for consistency and clarity on every page, every line, in every word. Look for gremlins – a character’s eye color changing from one chapter to the next or someone encountering a tiger in Africa. An excellent way to do this is to imagine each chapter is a stage play – have you signposted your stage directions in a clear but unobtrusive way.
11. Polish it till it shines
Now – and only now, we might add – do you do a linear edit of the manuscript. You check spelling, you check grammar, you check that your formatting is consistent. It’s like dressing your book up for a red-carpet event – it needs to be flawless. A sloppy manuscript – no matter how promising – is often passed over for a mediocre story well-presented when it crosses an editor’s desk.
12. Find another eye
If you have an objective friend, freelance editors, or an online community of beta readers, give them the manuscript to read over and encourage constructive feedback. This is the time to put your ego on the backburner and be open-minded. Listen to what they say, take notes, and see if their points are valid.
After this, it’s time to make final checks and changes and prepare your manuscript for its final journey – to an agent, editor or print if you’re self-publishing.
Think of your book as your 18-year old kid going off to college or varsity. You’ve done the best you can, given them warm clothes and a stern lecture – maybe even a flurry of good luck kisses. Now it’s up to your book to stand on its own.