Now you’ve written your first draft. Hooray! Now what? Now you edit.
But first, thanks to fellow authors Joe Crance and Melora Johnson for helping me compile the data on this. Check out their fantastic work!
There are several different levels and types of editing, and they are ALL necessary. Too often a great story is killed by poor editing, making me want to throw the book against the wall (which is really damaging to ereaders, by the way). Your work is like your resume, and people WILL judge you on your final work. PLEASE don’t rely on self-editing alone for your work. Everyone benefits from another set of eyes (or five).
The first stages are more sweeping, and catch larger fish, so to speak. Plot holes, characters who change roles midstream, missing scenes, etc.
Alpha Reading: also sometimes called writing partners. Someone you can bounce plot ideas off of, help you work out snags while you’re writing.
Beta Reading: beta readers should provide an author important feedback in support of all types of editing—particularly content editing—prior to the beginning of formal editing. Normally this service is free, but authors would do well to offer discounts or take beta readers to lunch/dinner. There are several sites to help people find beta readers, such as the Absolute Write Water Cooler forum, Scribophile, or Betabooks.
Another great resource is if you can find a local author group to share work and critique as a group. Check your local library!
Editing types and general sequence:
- Content or Substantive (Developmental) Editing (and examples)
- Story arc – Sitcoms, for example, usually have very low or vague story arcs, while epic adventures (like Lord of the Rings) have strong arcs.
- Scene progression/Structure – The transition from one episode or scene to the next.
- Content gaps – A missing scene or transition. Not every action must be written, but events happening ‘off-screen’ should be referred or alluded to when they affect the story arc or character development
- Character development – A main character should grow in some way through the story. He can regress, but in the end, he should be ‘better’ or at least ‘wiser.’
- Dialogue – Be consistent in each character’s voice. An uneducated street kid will speak in a different manner than the CEO of an international organization.
- Logical consistency/Coherence – Does your heroine have black hair in scene one but blond in the final scene? Does her name change?
- Pacing – Try to spread out the action scenes between ‘recovery’ scenes – Article
- Fact checking/anachronism checking – especially needful for stories set in a particular time/place. Your medieval princess can’t wear glasses and a story set in Miami won’t have snow (unless this is a post-apocalyptic tale?)
- Balance between dialogue, action, and narrative – Too much dialogue and action can get exhausting. Too much narrative or exposition can be boring. try to balance between the three. Article
- Style – mistakes in past tense/present tense, headhopping between characters, too much exposition or ‘telling’ Article
- Sentence structure – run on sentences, fragments, etc. Article
- Paragraph structure – starting a new paragraph when a new character speaks, breaking up big paragraphs, etc.
- Word usage – repeated/overused words (that, was/were, it/there, could, etc.)
- Homonyms – affect/effect, to/two/too
- Passive voice – “the fence was painted white” vs. “Huck painted the fence white” Article
- Tone – a thriller will have a darker tone than, say, a romantic comedy.
- Filter words – heard, saw, felt, etc. Each filter removes the reader from the direct action, minimizing the impact. “I felt the blood drip down my arm” vs. “The blood dripped down my arm”
- Dialogue tags – most readers ignore the word ‘said’ as a dialogue tag, but excessive use can be cumbersome. At the same time, being too creative with alternatives can be ridiculous. Use some action tags or other ways of indicating speakers in dialogue. Article
Normally, proofreading is consistent with the latest version of The Chicago Manual of Style. Keep in mind the rules evolve with time, so newer editions may change from earlier editions.
- Paragraph consistency (indentation, scene breaks, etc.)
- Number, time (year, clock) consistency (e.g., 10 vs. ten)
Each of these steps can be outsourced to a competent, qualified editor. Typical rates are about $2-$3 a page (based on a standard page being 250 words). This is not cheap, but it is very much worth it. If you already have a good relationship with your publisher, you might be fine with self-editing, but I still highly recommend at least 3-5 good beta readers, and several sweeps of content, copyediting, and proofreading. However, if you are querying an agent or a publisher for the first time, an external, professional editor is worth their weight in gold.
- Editing software suites
Note on editing software: DON’T listen to all the suggestions these software suites offer. They are bots, not humans. They can be wrong, very wrong. I use ProWritingAid, and maybe make 40-50% of the changes it suggests. I often ignore the suggestions when it comes to dialogue, as people often don’t speak grammatically. Sometimes I ignore narrative suggestions because a particular turn of phrase is slang or colloquial. Each tool is great for pointing out areas for the author to examine the words more closely, but each author must then determine if the suggestion has merit… or not.
(Full Disclosure Note: some referral links gain me a bit of credit)
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