Today I’m continuing a series on self-editing that I began on February 12, Revisions: Self-Editing.
The revision process is where some of the worst errors that can mess up a manuscript are committed. This is because making changes on a large scale within your manuscript is a tricky job at best. Ensuring consistency requires focus, the ability to be meticulous, and an eye for detail.
Good editors have these qualities, but if the services of a good editor are out of your financial reach, you must find a way to self-edit and still come out with a literate manuscript that flows well and engages the reader.
A tool I have mentioned before in this series is the style sheet.
In 2012, after reading the first chapter of my raw manuscript, my editor asked me for a style sheet. She was disappointed but not surprised to find I didn’t know what she meant.
My work was so uneven that it was clear I had never listed my made-up names. Things evolved as I went along. I forgot how I spelled that one minor character’s name in the one scene where it was mentioned. However, at the midpoint of the novel, the character had an important role and a slightly different spelling.
This happens because fundamental things sometimes change as we are going along in our first draft:
- Character names evolve.
- Place names evolve.
- A different character becomes the protagonist—it may be someone you initially thought was a sidekick.
These adjustments happen because we realize something isn’t logical, make the changes, and move on.
Unfortunately, we’re only human and don’t always catch all the places we needed to change.
Once my editor pointed this out to me, I put together a comprehensive list of how I wanted to spell the names of every person, place, and creature in my novel.
Even though I spent several days doing this, the editing process was slow and agonizing because I didn’t catch half the words.
What the style sheet should cover:
All names, created or not: Aeos, Aeolyn, Beryl, Carl, Edwin, etc.
Real and created animal names: alligator, stinkbear, thunder-cow, waterdemon
Created words that are hyphenated: fire-mage, thunder-cow
All place names, real or created: Seattle, Chicago, Ragat, Wister, Sevya, Arlen, Neveyah
Some authors use a program called Scrivener, which apparently assembles all that information for them and does magic tricks to boot.
I’m happy for those who have figured it out, but be warned, there is a large learning curve if you go that route.
Frankly, Scrivener was a waste of money for me because my mind doesn’t work the way Scrivener does, and I became quite frustrated with it.
For me, it’s simpler to copy and paste my words into a spreadsheet or document labeled with the book or series title and the words style sheet, such as Bleakbourne_style_sheet.xls.
You don’t have to be fancy unless you want to. Google docs, Open Office, and MS Office all offer perfectly good word processing programs with both documents and spreadsheets, and all you need is to keep a simple list of people, places, and things.
I keep this document open while I am writing a first draft and try to be scrupulous about listing every name, place, animal, and hyphenated word.
In cases where your characters are traveling, you might need a simple map. I get fancy because I’m a wannabe artist, but you don’t have to. All you need are lines with north and south listed, and the names of towns and other places that have parts in the story.
But how do we make these corrections in our manuscript? We do what is called a global search.
I open MS Word, which is my word processing program, and do it this way: With your mouse or stylus, highlight the word you want to find every occurrence of. On the far right of the home tab, click ‘find.’ This will open the navigation pane.
Or, on your keyboard, press the ‘ctrl’ key and the ‘f’ key at the same time. This is the keyboard shortcut to the navigation pane.
With that word automatically highlighted, you have a choice to make: is it a word you want to delete or replace?
First, you must understand that you are about to embark on a boring, time-consuming task.
If you get hasty and choose to “Replace All,” you can inadvertently ruin your entire manuscript. I’ve used the following example before, but it bears repeating:
Your writing group tells you that you overuse the word “very.” You decide to simply eliminate every instance of the word “very” because that seems like the most logical way to resolve the problem quickly.
So, you open the navigation pane and the advanced search dialog box. In the “replace with” box, you don’t key anything, thinking this will eliminate the problem. You then hit “replace all.”
Don’t do it.
Every, everyone, everything—you get the idea.
Every word in the English language is made up of a selection of letters chosen from only 26 letters. These letters are used in many combinations, with different meanings. Before you click “replace all” consider how many common words have the letters h-a-s in their makeup:
Trying to cut corners in the editing process can easily mess things up on an incredibly large scale. Looking for weak words and phrasing is a time-consuming task.
Things to look for and possibly delete or change:
- Any kind of qualifier or quantifier: just, a little, a bit, somewhat—these are words that show indecision. Active prose should not be indecisive.
- Action-stopping words: started to, began to— these are word combinations that slow and stall the action. They are passive, so if you want to write active prose, go lightly with them. Your characters shouldn’t begin to move. Have them move and be done with it.
- words that end in the letters ly: probably, actually, sympathetically, magically … etc. These are weak, telling words. It takes thought and intention to show what you mean rather than telling it.
Examine the eight forms of the word be. Decide if they are useful or not in the context you are using them.
Weak combinations using forms of be that you should look twice at:
- was being,
- has been,
- had been,
- is being,
- am being
We may need them to make a certain point in conversations, but in the narrative, your prose is often stronger without them. That and very can easily become crutch words, bloating and fluffing word count.
Once you see the magnitude of what the editing process involves, you realize that most editors don’t charge enough money for the amount of work involved in doing the job right. However, while the process of self-editing is time-consuming and requires diligence, it is doable.
Don’t underestimate how savvy and smart your readers are. You can’t cut corners, and you can’t let small things slide.
Passionate readers care about the quality of what they purchase. We should take pride in the quality of what we publish.