Step-by-Step Manuscript Editing Process
Are you the kind of writer who says, “Yay, editing!” or are you slightly less enthusiastic about the process? I think my main reason for enthusiasm, at least at first, is that I’m celebrating the completion of a rough draft.
I remember finishing the first draft of my first book. I was slightly in shock that I had actually written something that was book length. In fact, it was kind of long . . . at least 25,000 words too long, and I knew it was time for some editing. But I didn’t know where to begin. I knew I need to read through to search for typos and identify the sections that didn’t move my story forward, but I didn’t have a step-by-step approach.
Over the years and through five book-length manuscripts and multiple shorter pieces, I’ve created this checklist for attacking my rough drafts.
I write on a laptop and find that some editing must be done on the computer screen. Search, find, replace are invaluable, but finer editing for me is best done by reading from the printed page—I catch more language or grammar errors away from the computer screen.
Overall Structure - Plotting and Organization
I don't label this as my first round because I consider this the "big picture" editing. I do this as I'm writing and handling my daily edits during the writing process. That's just my favorite way to handle the plotting and organization side of things, but this could certainly be your first round of editing.
Plotting - Check for any weak points, dropped sub-plots, and overall coherency in your story. Make sure that your inciting incident, the problems and obstacles presented during the "rising action", and the climax or crisis point are all compelling enough to keep the reader engaged. And, finally, make sure that you provide the reader with a satisfying conclusion or resolution.
Organization - Will you be titling your chapters? If so, are these titles interesting/witty/fun? Do you have any chapters that are so long they ought to be split into two? Are your chapter endings engaging enough to keep the reader turning the page. If not, maybe split the chapter at a more pivotal moment.
Computer Editing – First Round:
1. Don’t forget the obvious—Run spell check. Did you know that you can set up ‘passive voice check’ in Word (plus a whole lot more.) You might like the other options to check for cliché’s, double negatives, oxford comma, slang, wordiness etc… Instructions for enabling these options can be found here.
2. Two spaces after a sentence. This is an old habit for those of us who learned to type on a typewriter. You can search and replace for “period space space” and replace it with “period space” (If you are concerned that you might be doing this in places where you shouldn’t be, you can do this one at a time.) You’ll be using the find/replace function in the tool bar at the top of a Word document.
3. Search for your frequently over-used words . . . mine are "really", "just", "had", and "that". Eliminate those that are unnecessary and substitute a different word where appropriate.
4. Search for dialogue that doesn’t need attribution . . . drop those “saids”. Use the action around the dialog to help indicate who is speaking in a multile person conversation.
5. Lazy verbs . . . where possible you’ll want to eliminate “protagonist” + “sense verb”. This list includes:
(and the past tense version of these as well)
Example: Brigit heard a low moaning come from the darkness. She looked in every direction and saw a shadow crawling toward her. As it got closer she realized it was Bodie and jumped forward to help him.
A low moaning came from the darkness. Brigit searched in every direction. A low shadow crawled toward her. It was Bodie! She jumped forward to help him.
Now this isn’t a perfect example, but you can see how this eliminates some wordiness and makes the scene more active.
You can do this with verbs that also take place in the protagonist’s brain:
(and the past tense of these verbs as well.)
Example: Brigit thinks about her visit to Tyler’s barn and the horrible things she remembered happening to her there. She knows there is no way she can forgive his grandmother for any of it. In fact, she can’t imagine forgiving Tyler for any of it either.
Brigit replays the horrible things that happened to her in Tyler’s barn. She can’t forgive his grandmother for any of it. In fact, she can’t forgive Tyler for any of it either.
Caveat: Obviously, you will be using some of these words. This is a sentence-by-sentence judgement call. By taking out the word imagine in the second version of the paragraph above, I change the meaning in a way that I might not intend. If I put imagine back, there’s a little ambiguity for possibly forgiving Tyler. Keep in mind that there’s no way to write a story without these words, but you don’t want to overuse them. This helps tighten your paragraphs/scenes/chapters as well.
6. Lazy verbs #2
Search for “there was”, “there were”, “was being”, and “were being”. I am certain you can find a more active way to say something than by relying on these crutches.
7. Sentences beginning with “it”. It is a bland word and likely replaceable by something much more specific.
Round Two: First Print Edit
After these initial edits are fixed, I print out the manuscript. In the first printed read through, I look for:
Boring parts that don’t move the story forward. (Anywhere I begin skimming to get to the good stuff, I know I need to do some serious cutting.)
Confusing parts that I haven’t connected well to the plot.
Any dropped subplots.
General grammar fixes, typos, punctuation mistakes.
Round Three: Read-Aloud Edit
I go back to the computer and make the round two changes, printing the manuscript out again for a Read-Aloud Revision.
Yes, I recommend reading your entire manuscript out loud. You might have to drink a lot of water to get through this, but trust me this step is a smart move. I know some writers use their computer’s read aloud function. This will catch the same type of errors. Hearing the story helps you find missing words and strange punctuation mistakes. For example, I have a very intelligent friend who misspelled dinghy as dingy in her novel and the read-aloud function caught this error for her.
Round Four: Second Print Edit
After making the round three edits, print the manuscript out again and re-read it again (NOT out loud.) I reserve this round for paying particular attention to descriptions and ask whether I’m using all the senses fully to draw the reader into the story/setting. I also use this round to dissect the most pivotal scenes to make sure I’m achieving the pace that I’m aiming for, asking whether I have the right balance of narration with action. (Some writers may prefer to make this part of the Second Round of editing.)
Depending on how many changes/scene writes have been made, you may want to go back to some of First Round steps, particularly spell check.
Round Five: Third Print Edit/Beta Reader Edits/Professional Edits
Now at this point, your manuscript should be ready for sharing with beta readers and/or a professional editor. At the same time as the beta readers/editor are making their notes, go back and read it again yourself. (I always find more to change, but I hold these changes until all the beta reader/editor notes are returned to me so I can compare the notes.)
Carefully consider the notes from beta readers/editors and your own third read through, making the changes you feel are necessary. Now, you should be ready for formatting if you are moving forward with indie publishing.
Round Six: Advance Reader Copy/Proof Edit
Once in book format, I always order the printed copy to proof, and I always find another round of errors, typos, changes that need to be made. Depending on the extent of these changes, I may order another proof or I may rely on the online pdf proofer to confirm that the changes have been made.
If you’re not independently publishing, you could do a Round Six read through on your own before you query agents or publishing houses.
And my best advice is not to rush the editing process. I sometimes let a few months pass, especially with a book-length work, between finishing the manuscript rough draft and beginning round one of the editing process. It helps to have fresh eyes on the story.
Just like in the telling of a story, there are many ways to approach the editing process! I’d love to hear how your process differs from mine.