Once you finish writing your manuscript, the work of self-editing begins. Self-editing is the process of catching the obvious mistakes so you don’t waste critiquing time with the little stuff. A critique partner or an editor should only see your work after it’s polished as far as you can take it. With very few exceptions, the author cannot polish their own work to a publishable state. However, they should and must polish their work to the point where the writer can no longer find mistakes on their own.
Let’s use a word picture to illustrate this. My daughter likes to collect rocks. She finds a pretty colored rock, puts it in a bag, and brings it home. It’s still dirty, jagged, and dull looking. But it has potential. The shape and color appealed to my child, so she kept it.
We have a rock polishing tumbler. It’s a barrel that holds the rocks and uses a four step polishing process. The rock, water, and grit are poured into the tumbler and it rolls around for a week or so. It comes out, then is washed off, and if it’s ready, we take it to step two. If it’s not ready, back into the tumbler it goes with the rough grit again. When ready, the rocks are cleaned, water is changed, and a finer grit is put in. The next week or so, the edges are rounded until ready for the next phase. The process continues until the rock is ready for the final polishing step. After polishing, the rocks emerge shiny, smooth, and beautiful. What was once a rough, dirty, and jagged rock is now a brilliant decoration. Few people would even bat an eye and the rock in its original state, but once polished to perfection, all eyes are drawn to it.
Editing a manuscript is very much like polishing a stone. The author discovers an idea and is inspired to dig out the rough draft. Like the jagged stone, it isn’t yet presentable. Most likely, only the author sees the value of the manuscript at this point. It’s ugly, undesirable, and only the author’s eye of inspiration can see the hidden gem inside.
Polishing a manuscript is one of the toughest jobs in writing. Writers often ask, “How many times do I edit before it’s finally done?”
I’ve often asked this question myself, and there is no easy answer. There is a point in time when we have to declare the work finished, but there will never be a time when you can’t find something to word differently. The state of mind you are in at the moment will affect how you word things. However, it is equally important to not turn the editing lights off prematurely.
A very successful writer stated, “My first draft is always garbage.” This statement has more truth than you probably realize. New writers have a hard time grasping this concept, but most experienced writers are probably nodding their heads.
When we write, it is a constant brainstorm as the story unfolds onto the pages of the manuscript. The editor in our heads isn’t allowed to take over our minds until the creative process is complete. The creative mind is throwing ideas, actions, characters, and dialog at our typing hands so fast, we barely have time to dump it onto the page. Our first role in writing is to get the ideas onto the page. Nothing else. Let your first manuscript read like an amateur. The first draft is an accumulation of ideas with a point that may or may not be clear. The second draft clarifies the main point or plot of our work, and begins to forge a clear path to get the reader to the conclusion.
It’s this path that causes the most problems. Depending on the time a writer has to commit himself / herself to the keyboard, the first draft may be done in a few weeks, but a finished draft is far from a finished work. In fact, the real work begins after the story hits the page. It may take a year or more to successfully polish a manuscript.
Editors and agents don’t reject most manuscripts because the story isn’t good enough, but because the writing hasn’t been polished enough. The market has changed—and continues to change. Editors are no longer willing to accept a good idea poorly written. It is now the author’s responsibility to present a manuscript that is already publishing-ready. In the past, it was the author’s job to present a compelling story or valued information. Today, this is still required, but now we are expected to be our own editors and marketers as well.
An author who truly dedicates his or her time to their craft will discover that the main work is in the polishing phase, not the writing phase. By nature, writers lean toward the creative side and not the editorial side; therefore, we must put on an editor’s hat and try to do what does not come natural to most of us.
I’m going to provide five helpful tips to assist you with the challenge of editing a manuscript to a publishable state.
1. Filling in the blanks
Unless you are a natural editor, fine tuning a manuscript will be a big challenge. If you are a natural editor, you probably will have blind spots in your editing and will still need help. The reason is that you know what you were thinking. Regardless of how hard you try to be objective, your mind knows what you meant to say, and will insert what is missing into your perception of the story.
It is for this reason that we all need help. It isn’t possible to avoid assuming the writing is clear, when it may not be so to other readers. Not only are we filling in the gaps in our own writing, but we are also assuming the reader has the same level of exposure to our topic as we have. This is especially true in non-fiction.
I have posted articles that provided detailed descriptions on a particular topic. After proofreading, following the flow, and making sure everything is explained thoroughly, a reader will still send me an email saying, “I don’t understand how you got from ‘A’ to ‘B.’”
The first thought that comes to mind may be, “Isn’t that obvious? Can’t these people put two and two together?”
The truth is, what may be familiar to me could be a new idea to someone else. Not everyone thinks like I do. Not everyone thinks like you do. We all have different life experiences that paint our perceptions; however, others without those same experiences could be confused when we assume readers begin from the same platform of knowledge we are coming from.
We fill in the blanks when we leave out critical information we may have intended to include. We also fill in the blanks when we knowingly omit vital information, assuming the reader already possesses a certain level of knowledge.
Gathering feedback from others is a good way to discover holes in our manuscripts. We’ll discuss this in greater detail on tip 4, Effective Critiquing.
2. Finding Mistakes
Our ideas may indeed be inspired, but our penmanship is not. I have never seen a manuscript that doesn’t need critiquing, editing, and correcting. This seems to be more of a struggle in the Christian writing community than the secular.
When a Christian feels inspired and is persuaded that divine guidance has led them to write a manuscript, it’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking the writing itself is infallible. The truth is, inspiration comes from the outflow of the heart, but we still have a flawed body. Mistakes hit the paper and corrections need to be made.
When we look at a book on the shelf, we must realize that the finished product did not come directly from the inspiration of the author. Inspiration was the engine driving the work forward, but many rewrites, edits, critiques, and corrections were made before the work made it to print. Look at any author. All have this truth in common. Their work was edited, re-edited, and polished to perfection. The goal of polishing a manuscript should be clear. When a manuscript is polished, there is nothing left behind to distract the reader. All the errors and miscommunication has been corrected so the reader only sees the message and inspiration of the book.
In order for readers to see your inspiration, the distractions must be removed from the manuscript.
Editing is a topic in itself, so I won’t go into great detail in this article, but there are some basic mistakes we must look for.
Punctuation. Use proper punctuations throughout the writing. Don’t over use exclamation points! Don’t do it! Don’t do it! In fact, the general rule is to only use one. Good writing should build the reader toward a climax. An exclamation point is the highest point to make; therefore, once it’s used, anything after it is either flat, or taking the reader back down. There are exceptions to this ‘rule’, but just be aware of how you are affecting the reader.
In American writing, periods are always inside quotation marks, and curly quotes should always be used since it is easier on the eyes. A curly quote is “ ”, verses a plain text quote ” “.
Single space after a period.
Look for homophones. A homophone is a word that sounds the same, but has a different meaning. Example: “I here the sound of there hoofs beating the ground.”
When you’re dumping thoughts onto a page, it’s easy to put here instead of hear, there instead of their, etc.
Reduce the number of ‘was’ words.
Reduce ‘that’ words.
Reduce ‘ing words.
Reword passive sentences.
Remove redundant words, phrases, or paragraph sizes.
The mind can be fickle. Why do people get annoyed when someone taps a pencil on the table, or drums their fingers, pops gum, or any other redundant sound? We don’t like redundancy. It never seems to bother the person creating them, but it drives everyone else crazy.
In reading, the mind picks up on redundancies. It begins as a distraction, then slowly grow until the reader becomes annoyed. Starting too many sentences off with the same word, sentences with the same length, paragraphs with the same number of lines, repeating phrases, and any number of redundancies distract from the writing. Often, the reader doesn’t even know why they are annoyed; they just know something doesn’t sit well in the story. A five page article with every paragraph the same length immediately conveys boredom. The same is true with too many sentences beginning with the same word. Seeing the same phrases stands out in the reader’s mind, and they begin to look for the repetition instead of getting into the story.
There is much more to be said about self-editing, but these are some basic mistakes to watch for.
At this point, the gem is beginning to emerge, but the writer tumbles the manuscript through multiple phases. You might go through, chipping away at the point of view errors. Then put it in the tumbler again, looking for only ‘that’ words to eliminate. Then ‘was’ words. It’s slow and patient work, but we must keep tumbling the manuscript until all these things are smoothed out. It’s too much to tackle every problem at once, so we use the fine grit method. Like polishing a rock, we start by grinding away at the blatant errors, and then work to the finer points of writing and editing. Clean up one thing, then when satisfied, move on to the next step.
Editing is hard work. It requires patience, diligence, and dedication. A rushed manuscript will look like an unpolished rock. The hidden potential will remained hidden behind the unpolished exterior.