As with writing a novel, there is no single correct way to edit your book. If you are working with an agent or publisher, they will help you through the process and give you access to invaluable support from creative editors, copy editors, line editors and the like. Life is not so simple for us self-publishing authors. So, having gone through this process once, I thought I’d share my learnings by explaining the process I will use for the sequel to Second Chance. This doesn’t mean it will be the right process for everybody, but hopefully all of you will see at least one or two things that will be of help.
1 First read through
So you’ve left your manuscript to lie for a few weeks, haven’t you? You haven’t? Then go away and come back in a few weeks.
Stephen King in his book, On Writing, suggests your first act should be to read through your manuscript from start to finish, preferably in one go, to gauge the pace of the story. Well who am I to argue? At this point do not be tempted to start correcting typos or change wording; that comes later. The whole point of this part of the process is to look at your manuscript from the point of view of a reader. It is all about the big things. What works and what doesn’t? Are there sections that bore you or add nothing to the story? Then take out your read pen a strike them through. Are their areas that fly through too quickly, actions taken with no visible explanation or reason? Make notes to broaden these sections out but don’t start making the changes just yet.
Once you’ve done this read through your manuscript again, this time to identify any major errors; plot holes; character’s names, appearance and gender changing unintentionally, or the characters disappearing altogether. Write your notes either in a notebook, as post its, or as I do, on the relevant scene notes in Scrivener. My favourite error from my last book was finding chapters written in present tense instead of past tense like the rest of the manuscript. I have no idea how that happened. At this point don’t forget to add in any notes you made during the first draft – expanding character’s roles, writing out characters altogether, changing locations to fit with later scenes etc.
2 Make the major changes
The next step is to make the changes you identified in step 1. Again, try not to get bogged down in correcting grammatical errors, this is all about getting the structure right.
3 Edit your prose
Now, finally, you can make the corrections you have been itching to change during the first two steps. It is here you smooth your prose, remove stray adjectives, re-phrase poorly structured sentences and, of course, correct any spelling or grammatical errors. My one piece of advice is to edit first at sentence level, then go through again at paragraph level, then once more at scene level. Only then move on to the next scene. The reason I say this is that in my last book I edited only at sentence level, which gave me a series of wonderful sentences but horrible, jarring paragraphs and scenes when I read them back. The major mistake I made was not reading the passages out loud. Doing this not only helps you identify clunky prose and poorly structured sentences, it also helps you catch the many typos that will be hidden in your text.
4 Send to test readers
The purpose of this stage is to sense check the story and characterisation. One of the issues with editing your own work is that you know the story too well. You know the full history behind the story, as well as what is happening but being left unsaid and undiscovered. This makes you blind to any gaps in your manuscript. Another issue is that during the act of writing your characters have become a part of you. You love or hate your characters because you know who they are and why they are doing what they do, but have you written it down?
You want your test readers to be concentrating on the big things. Ask them not to worry about grammatical errors or typos (though they will). What you want to know is, does the book work? Are there things that are confusing when they aren’t meant to be? Have you given enough information at the right time to make sense? Have you edited out a crucial piece of information? At the character level, do the readers relate to the characters? Do they care what happens to them? What works for them and what doesn’t? All of this information is crucial to improving your manuscript.
5 Adapt based on test reader feedback
For most people, the first reaction when receiving test reader feedback is either that they’re wrong, or that you have written a piece of garbage. Both reactions are normal and also untrue. What you need to remember that your lovely, kind-hearted test readers – who have volunteered to critique your work for free – are desperate for you to produce the best book you can. Really good test readers give you blunt, honest feedback. They tell you what works and what doesn’t, for them. Once you recover from the shock, you’ll realise what they say contains truth you have either been hiding from yourself, or too close to the manuscript to see. This is not to say you should accept everything at face value, but you should have a good reason not to. Once you have accepted those points you believe to be right, make the necessary changes to your manuscript.
6 Read through for flow once more
By this point your manuscript may look very different to the first draft with which you started. Now is the time to re-read the whole thing again, just to make sure the changes you made haven’t had a detrimental effect on the flow of your story.
7 Send to Editor
It’s at this point some authors question the need for an editor. But you’ve made all these changes, spent hours polishing your manuscript and now you are going to pay for an editor. Are you crazy? Well, no, is the simple answer.
Everything you have done to date has been to save time and money for when you get the professionals involved. I’ve learnt to my cost that I am not, and never will be, a line editor. I miss things. Lots of things. My grammar is OK but not perfect. I am very poor at when to use hyphens and don’t get me started on semi-colons. I am blind to certain types of typos. If you have been a regular reader of this blog, some of this will come as no surprise, but in acknowledging this weakness I also recognise that I’ve needed to do something about it. That is where the editor comes in. My editor will help correct the many grammatical errors still present in my manuscript at this point, as well as offering suggestions on how to improve my prose. That’s not to say he doesn’t also offer some structural advice, but that is just a bonus over all the other wonderful things he does.
8 Make changes based on Editor’s feedback
Of course, you don’t have to listen to what your editor says, but in my experience you had better have a bloody good reason not to. I can only think of one or two occasions where I’ve ignored my editor’s advice, and both times he was happy with what I had written and had just offered alternative wordings as an option.
9 Send to proofreaders
If you have the resources, it is this stage where you would send your work to a line editor. I don’t have that luxury, but I do have a couple of reader friends who have eyes like a hawk and suffer severe physical reaction when exposed to typos. You may say why, having used an editor, should you do another round of proofing. This is because despite your best efforts, you have probably added errors while dutifully making changes based on your editor’s feedback. Or your editor could have missed something; they are only human. I skipped this process last time and as I have written before, my book was launched with, what I found later, over 80 typos in place. This does not mean your book will be perfect, but you should do everything in your power to keep the typos to a minimum.
10 Make changes based on your proofreaders feedback and prepare to publish
The final stage! Well, not quite. You still have a cover to get ready, you need to format your manuscript into the various e-reader formats. You have to produce a pdf layout for print. Then there is the pricing to think about, as well as how you are going to market the book, all of which you should have been preparing while writing and editing your book…
So, is there anything you do that I’ve missed, or do you have any other tips that could help other writers?