Last week I was asked about my self-editing/revision process. I do have a method that works for me, but it’s time-consuming. There is no magic bullet for this.
In some ways, novels are machines. Internally, each book is comprised of many essential components. If one element fails, the story won’t work the way I envision it.
So, what are these parts?
- Mechanics (grammar/punctuation),
I began this journey knowing nothing about how a novel is constructed internally. I wanted to write stories, but they never came out the way I saw them in my head.
So, realizing I knew nothing was the first positive thing I did for myself. I made it my business to learn all I could, even though I will never achieve perfection.
Writing is a craft where the bar is raised with every success. Each achievement you make pushes the hope of perfection a bit higher, still just out of reach.
But I won’t stop trying.
As an editor, I’ve seen every kind of mistake you can imagine. This tendency to not see the flaws in our own work is why I have an editor. I can see the places that need work in your manuscript but need someone with a critical eye to see my work.
When prepping a novel to send to my editor, I use a three-part method. This requires specific tools that come with Microsoft Word, my word-processing program. I feel sure these tools are available for Google Docs and every other word-processing program.
Phase one: the initial read-through. Once I have completed the revisions suggested by my beta readers, this stage is put into action. After considering their suggestions and revising the manuscript, it looks finished. But it has only just begun the journey.
In Microsoft Word, on the Review Tab, I access the Read Aloud function and begin reading along with the mechanical voice. Yes, it’s annoying and doesn’t always pronounce things right, but this first tool shows me many places that need rewriting.
I use this function rather than reading it aloud myself, as I tend to see and read aloud what I think should be there rather than what is.
- I habitually key the word though when I mean through. These are two widely different words but are only one letter apart. Most, but not all, miskeyed words will leap out when you hear them read aloud.
- Most but not all run-on sentences stand out when you hear them read aloud.
- Most but not all inadvertent repetitions also stand out.
- Most of the time, hokey phrasing doesn’t sound as good as you thought it was.
- Most of the time, you hear where you have dropped words because you were keying so fast you skipped over including an article, like “the” or “a” before a noun.
This is a long process that involves a lot of stopping and starting, taking me a week to get through an entire 90,000-word manuscript. I will have trimmed about 3,000 words by the end of phase one. I will have caught many typos and miskeyed words and rewritten many clumsy sentences.
But I am not done.
Phase Two: The Manual Edit
This phase is where I find my punctuation errors most often. I look for and correct punctuation and make notes for any other improvements that must be made. Usually, I cut entire sections, as they are riffs on previously presented ideas. Sometimes they are outright repetitions, which don’t leap out when viewed on the computer screen.
- Open your manuscript. Break it into separate chapters, and make sure each is clearly and consistently labeled. Make certain the chapter numbers are in the proper sequence and don’t skip a number.
- Print out the first chapter. Everything looks different printed out, and you will see many things you don’t notice on the computer screen or hear when it was read aloud.
- Turn to the last page. Cover the page with another sheet of paper, leaving only the final paragraph visible.
- Starting with the final paragraph on the last page, begin reading, working your way forward.
- With a yellow highlighter, mark each place that needs correction.
- Put the corrected chapter on a recipe stand next to your computer. Open your document and begin making the revisions you noted on your hard copy.
This is the phase where I look for info dumps, passive phrasing, and timid words. These telling passages are codes for the author, laid down in the first draft. They are signs that a section needs rewriting to make it visual rather than telling. Clunky phrasing and info dumps are signals telling me what I intend that scene to be. I must cut some of the info and allow the reader to use their imagination.
I will have trimmed about 3,000 more words from my manuscript by the end of phase two.
Phase three is the step that only works if you understand grammar and industry practices. Be aware that understanding context is solely a human function at this stage in our technology.
You may have found that your word processing program has spellcheck and some minor editing assists. Spellcheck is notorious for both helping and hindering you. It may or may not alert you to an obvious error.
- There, their, they’re.
- To, too, two.
- Its, it’s.
In this third phase, I go over each chapter using Grammarly. I have also used ProWriting Aid. Each program has strengths and weaknesses. There are several other programs available to writers, but I have only tried these two.
Editing programs operate on algorithms and don’t understand context. I am wary of relying on Grammarly or ProWriting Aid for anything other than alerting you to possible problems. If you blindly obey every suggestion made by editing programs, you will turn your manuscript into a mess.
If your knowledge of punctuation is sketchy, don’t feel alone. By the time we begin writing as adults, most of us have forgotten whatever grammar we once knew. If this is your case, your best bet is to avoid these costly programs.
It takes far less money to invest in a book like the Chicago Guide to Grammar, Usage, and Punctuation and learn how grammar works.
Good editing software is expensive. For my specific needs, it has been a worthwhile investment. If you choose to invest in some, use common sense when reviewing the program’s suggestions.
My three-part self-editing process can take more than a month. When I’ve finished, I’ll have a manuscript that won’t be full of distractions. I will send it to my editor, and she’ll be able to focus on finding as much of what I have missed as is humanly possible.
And, if you read any books published by the large Traditional publishers, you know that a few mistakes and typos can and will get through despite our careful editing.
We are only human, after all.