Grammergency #25: Five Shortcuts to Self-Editing Like a Pro

Writing a book is a goal that a lot of people have but do not all achieve. So if you’re one of the courageous souls who are forging ahead with a manuscript, congratulations. Now you get to go out and tell your friends and relatives and even perfect strangers what you’re up to, and then you get to bask in the glow of their exclamations of delight and envy. And you deserve your moment in the sun, because writing is sexy and mysterious and really hard.

You know what else is really hard? Editing. But because it’s neither as mysterious nor as sexy as writing, it’s more a wallflower than a showstopper, and that makes a lot of people want to distance themselves from it. After all, why spend your time nitpicking when you can be creating instead? Because editing is the bedfellow of good literature, that’s why. If you want to be taken seriously as a writer, you have to take yourself seriously first, and that means sometimes you have to pick up the proverbial red pen and apply it to your own work. The following five tips will have you thinking like a seasoned editor in no time.

1) Be mindful of your manuscript’s length.

One of the services that good developmental editors can provide for authors is either expansion of a too-short manuscript or reduction of a too-long one, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t make every effort to produce a narrative that meets the publishing industry’s standard for length (measured in total words, not total pages) before you enlist professional help. Shoot for fewer than 80,000 words in both fiction and nonfiction. If you declare your book done when it’s only 40,000 words, you’ve got a lot more writing to do to make it viable in the marketplace. By the same token, if it comes in at 150,000 words, even the best editor is going to be daunted by the prospect of slashing the book in half—and that’s to say nothing of the way literary agents and publishers may dismiss you without even giving your story a fighting chance. She Writes Press publisher Brooke Warner provides an excellent, more in-depth analysis of this subject in “3 Good Reasons to Keep Your Book Shorter Than 80,000 Words.” 

2) Try your hand at fact-checking.

Oftentimes, your copy editor and/or proofreader will fact-check as she goes, to ensure that such elements as proper nouns, brand names, and historical references in your manuscript are correct. But she’s not going to be using any special resources that you can’t access yourself, free of charge (i.e., Google, Wikipedia, the US Patent and Trademark Office, etc.), while you’re still writing your book, so go ahead and see how much headway you can make on your own. Even if you think you’re 100 percent certain about how a term should be formatted, double-check anyway. That way, when you start your next book, you’ll already know, for instance, that Jacuzzi, Laundromat, Dumpster, Jetway, and Windbreaker are all trademarks; that author bell hooks spells her name with all lowercase letters; and that J.Crew and L.L.Bean use no spaces after the periods in their logos.

3) Learn about narrative arc and character arc, and make sure your book has both.

A narrative arc, or story arc, is essentially the way your story develops, climaxes, and finds resolution. A character arc describes a character’s evolution over the course of a book, from self-identification through personal transitions and on to transformation. Whether you’re writing fiction or nonfiction, and no matter what particular events, relationships, conflicts, and takeaways your narrative encompasses, it must include these arcs. A developmental editor can draw your attention to problem areas, but if you educate yourself on the essential components of the two types of arcs and apply that knowledge during your writing process, you’ll be grateful for having done your due diligence—it’s a lot easier than trying to turn a flat plain into a mountain range after the fact.

4) Know where your chapters begin and end.

Crafting compelling introductory and concluding chapter sentences is a real art form. The most sophisticated writers know how to make every one of their individual chapters start and end almost like a book within their book. Try giving your own manuscript the same white-glove treatment. For example, if you’re opening a chapter with a new time, place, or point of view, make sure the first sentence helps to clue readers in to that shift, and if you want to wrap up a chapter forcefully, close with a decisive physical gesture or line of dialogue or, conversely, with a provocative question that you might answer in the chapter(s) to come. In addition, be aware of the average page count of your chapters, and try to keep them all roughly the same length. While there’s no hard-and-fast rule about how long a chapter should be, you don’t want to oscillate wildly—such as between eight pages and thirty pages—within a single manuscript. Do your best, and then consult your editor if you need additional advice about where to insert chapter breaks.

5) Worship at the altar of consistency.

In the past two weeks, I’ve copyedited two separate manuscripts that each featured a character named Maude. Or was it Maud? I don’t know, because the authors used the two spellings interchangeably throughout their books. This kind of discrepancy manifests itself fairly frequently to a trained eye, but try to preempt it before you turn your work over to an editor—not to mention beta readers, agents, or publishers. Ensuring consistent spelling of characters’ names and place names is as simple as using Microsoft Word’s find/replace all function to eliminate erroneous instances in just a few keystrokes. Take advantage of it.

Have a question? Leave it in the comments below.

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Comment by Denise Wright Downs on December 28, 2016 at 8:34am

"That" is an over-used word. I had my journalists circle it and then re-read their copy to eliminate the clean the copy. I have noticed it is often over-used or incorrectly used in literature, too. I would include it while doing the above, not as an additional. 

Comment by catherine meara on September 6, 2016 at 6:40pm

I've looked throughout the world for editing advise. Most of the stuff I've copy and pasted (I have a whole file of them) are so involved! I am going to send my book to an editor I trust and I've wondered, how much editing should I do? I mean, if I'm hiring someone to go through it with a sieve, shouldn't I wait and see what she says? I want all my grammar to be correct (although sometimes it needs to be wrong), all my words spelled correctly, and have good flow. But nineteen pages on how to edit? If I'm going to do all of that, why bother paying someone (a good bit of $) to, well, edit. I've been published quite a few times (short stories and flash, some memoir), so I know what it takes to sell. In my intrepid wandering I've certainly found some good information like: write a scene, not a chapter; don't go chronologically as that is for autobiographies; keep chapters short; and keep the word count under 250 pages. I am mindful, but that can turn into second guessing myself. But these five tips should do it. Its like bread dough -- work it too much and you don't end up with what you wanted.

Comment by Kelly Hayes-Raitt on July 8, 2016 at 4:26am

Great post!  It's so easy to be less than fully mindful of these issues while writing.  A special read-through and edit really are necessary!  I imagine you are a very good developmental editor, Annie.

Kelly Hayes-Raitt

Mosey on over to my web site and sign in for your free gift -- an mp3 of me reading my book's first chapter about a beggar in Iraq! ...And a pre-publication discount!
Columnist, The Argonaut

Comment by Patricia Robertson on July 6, 2016 at 11:06am

Agree on all except the one on chapters. I know many recommend that chapters be a uniform length but I compare it to sentence length. I like to vary sentence length. It keeps it more interesting. Why not do the same with chapter length? Long chapters can be broken up by some shorter chapters giving the reader a break before going on to the next long one. What do you think?

Comment by Bella Mahaya Carter on July 6, 2016 at 10:29am

Thanks, Annie. This is great!

Comment by Roni Beth Tower on July 6, 2016 at 9:51am

You distill the essential, Annie, like always!  Thank you.

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