Editing, self-editing, beta reading, and revising are each their own huge topics, but here are a few quick tips to help you improve your MS polishing techniques, whatever they are.
Self-Editing (before it goes anywhere)
A good piece of advice I got early on was to stop using THAT. I completely didn’t get it, because obviously THAT needed to be used in order for the sentence to make sense, and so I didn’t remove them. Better understanding might have shown me to use it as little as possible, because the entire document would end up riddled with it and similar words, as many times they actually are necessary for communication.
Other words I struggled with were LOOK (because I simply wasn’t a skilled enough writer at that point to understand how else to move the characters forward or communicate the character’s attention), and words like REPLIED, YELLED, ANNOUNCED, CRIED, EXPLAINED (because I’d read somewhere you shouldn’t overuse SAID, which, as it turns out, wasn’t quite good advice–better advice would be you should replace dialog tags with action where possible, but always use SAID when the reader doesn’t otherwise know who’s talking). With practice, or the shame of having them edited out a million times, you’ll get better about not overusing your crutch words. For now, I suggest this fix: Make a list of words you find yourself abusing and when your story is complete, use word search to find and destroy what you can.
Here’s a list of some commonly overused words, though every writer’s list will vary:
- Suddenly/All of a sudden
- Literally (because even once is probably too much)
While you’re searching, watch for these weak words, which you should consider revising to make for stronger prose.
- Things/Any (or other vague terms)
Echoes are words that pop up more than once in the same sentence or paragraph that can pull a reader from the story. Echoes are different than overuse of a word, because often they happen with less common terms. They’re still a problem. While you may not be able to catch all these yourself, they’re a great item to add to your Beta Duties list.
Most authors read their own work over and over and over again. Like, six million times. I’m not even kidding. Still, typos sneak through. Obvious issues and plot bunnies and character mis-naming, anything you can imagine slips right past your blind spot, determined to embarrass you when when a reader catches it.
My best trick for erasing those blind spots? Take it out of The Usual. If you write on PC or laptop, proof it somewhere else. I like to do a final read-through on Kindle–just send the document to your device and be amazed at how quickly the errors come into view. An author friend turned me on to the Kindle Fire device, which will read your work via text-to-speech–another great way to get the typos to leap off the page.
If you don’t have those options, you can read your work aloud (or if someone really loves you, have them read it TO you). Bringing the story out of its screen will make a huge difference. Even while blogging, I catch far more mistakes by hitting the Preview button than reading the input page. If you’re old-school, you could even (wait for it…) PRINT THE BOOK ON PAPER and mark it with red ink. I know, wild ideas everywhere. Again, do what works best for you. That’s what counts, just getting it done.
Beta Reading (before it goes for edits)
Authors use beta readers in many different ways, and it’s always a good idea to do you need for your process. Personally, I have betas who read while I write (chapter by chapter) and give me instant feedback on plot, betas who read the nearly finished project (about 3/4 through) to give me feedback on pacing and story arc and what they really need out of the grand finale, and betas who read the finished project to proof for typos and grammar. Any improvements a beta can make is that much stress off your editor. If you turn in a clean manuscript, your editor will be free to focus on plot and pacing instead of typo or comma correction every line.
Great advice was given to me on beta readers: Ask them what you need to know. Communication is important, and while you might need readers who simply scream YES THIS IS AMAZING GIVE ME MORE for your process, you’d be wise to ask them questions that might help improve your work. After all, isn’t that our end goal: to have a better book. Many betas don’t know about HOW to make your writing better, but they can certainly tell you if something is WRONG. If you ask your questions correctly, you might find that a character is unlikable, that your hero’s goal isn’t clear, or that the reader wants backstory or world building that you aren’t including. Make a list of questions for your readers, and you might be surprised the wealth of information you get back.
Critique partners aren’t for everyone, but if you find an author who works well with you, it can be of incomparable benefit. Other authors know what it’s like to write, they know their own downfalls and blind spots, and they can pick them up in your work even easier than their own. They understand your love for the story, your anxiety, and your deadlines. They enjoy reading and editing just as much as you.
I’ve been working with my crit partner for around five years. We’ve grown as authors together, and we understand each other’s writing style. Not all working relationships need it, but Jenn and I are friends, too. We have fun reading the other’s books. Lately, we’ve moved our editing onto server-based/sharing software, which allows us to converse in the comments simultaneously and edit as we go. There are many services that allow this, but if you’re looking for something free and relatively easy to learn, I recommend Google Docs. I also recommend backing up your work any time you get a large chunk of it done, so if you’re working from Word, it’s a simple fix to back it up online, or if you prefer to work online, always save a copy to your hard drive just to be safe.
At this point in my career, I will never not recommend using a professional editor. I’m not sure it would have done me a single bit of good when I first started out, but only because I had no idea how to even understand what I *should* be doing. Editors can be costly. I get that. But if you are serious about being a writer, about having a career, any money you’re spending on cover art and marketing might be better placed on the work. Sometimes it really is what’s inside that counts. We plan on featuring some of the editors we know and trust on future posts, but the best advice I have for finding a good fit for you is to ALWAYS GET A TEST EDIT FIRST. Even if an author friend has recommended someone they use, your process might be different. They may only want someone to catch typos while you need help with plot. Ask questions, be sure, because it is an investment in your book.
There are different types of editing, and I recommend figuring out what you want or need beforehand. Explain what it is that you’re looking for to whoever you plan to hire and be sure that is covered in their fee. Look for an editor who has an established profile and list of clients in a similar genre to yours. If you write a lot of books, maybe try out a few different editors. Maybe use two for each book. As long as your goal is to learn and grow, to create better work, then the investment is worth it.
I cringe to even mention this, but I do know of some authors who simply hit “accept all” to the editor’s changes in their book. If you don’t take the time to follow each of the editor’s corrections, you’re wasting your own money. This is the best time to learn, to catch your bad habits in the act, to grow as an author. And while many editors will tell you their comments are only “suggestions” and you should do with them as you wish, the truth is they are professionals. Their job is to find and fix problems with manuscripts. If they are telling you you need to cut a scene or add world building, it is because they see an issue you don’t. You should have an editor you trust, because you need to be able to put your trust in those suggestions.