Self-editing... A necessary evil.
I know what you're thinking. I really do. I've been there. Done that. Gotten the one-star reviews to prove it. So let's tackle the big, ugly question.
WHY SHOULD I SELF-EDIT WHEN I'M PAYING AN EDITOR TO EDIT FOR ME?
No editor is going to catch EVERY error on the first pass, EVERY time. You might find it hard to believe, but your editor is human.
- If your editor is focused on correcting all your spelling/missing word errors, how much time is he/she spending on grammar or continuity? I'd argue not much. He/she is getting paid to do one pass of your book. That's it unless you’re going to shell out for another. Make the most use of your editor's valuable time and your money.
- Okay, you’ve decided to pay your editor to do a second pass. Did you know that after you've read a book once, your brain supplies the expected content, even if it's not correct? For example, you know that a word in a scene should be "couch" because that's what your heroine is sitting on a couple paragraphs down, but in reality, your document says "coach". Your brain inserts "couch" and ignores the error.
- You're paying a proofer on top of a line editor so now you have two sets of eyes on your book. You should be good, right? Well...maybe. Go back to #1. If you want to risk it and release your book with possible errors, go for it. If not, keep reading this post.
- With the growing saturation of the book market, reader retention is critical! I can’t say this enough. Feed your fans the best book possible every time you hit publish. No matter how loyal, if a reader stops reading your book, for whatever reason, they will be less likely to pick up another one of your books. Why should they? There are tons of other great books out there.
What does self-editing entail?
I approach self-editing in two passes: pre-editor and post-proofer. I tackle different aspects of self-editing with each pass. During the pre-editor pass, I look for glaring errors, readability, and flow. This is my chance to tighten sentences, cut the junk, and make sure my book is a page-turner.
During the post-proofer pass, I'm looking for spelling errors, incorrect words, and missing words.
Note: All tips apply to Microsoft Word. I recommend editing chapter by chapter or in some cases, page by page. All examples are from my latest book, Freeing his Mate or my current WIP, Forbidden Mate (Copyright 2017 and 2018 respectively. All rights reserved).
Note: all tips will apply to Microsoft Word. I'm currently using version 2016. I recommend editing chapter by chapter or in some cases, page by page. All examples are from my latest book, Freeing his Mate (Copyright 2017. All rights reserved) or my current book, Forbidden Mate (Copyright 2018. All rights reserved)
TIP #1: GIVE YOUR BRAIN BREATHING ROOM
If at all possible, wait a week or more before you self-edit. If that’s not possible, go watch a movie or read a short novella. You need to separate yourself from the story you’ve spent weeks to months working on. This is the time to be critical of your work, not admire that witty line or perfect scene.
TIP #2: UTILIZE WHITESPACE
View your chapter as multiple pages. Don't bother reading. Look for long sections of unbroken text. Highlight these for review. Then, return to page width view and read those highlighted sections. See if you can't break them up into smaller chunks. Your goal here is to add white space. This makes your text visually appealing. It also reduces cognitive overload, giving the reader a chance to breathe, metaphorically speaking. (see the below screenshots of text that illustrate the difference whitespace can make)
TIP #3: MINIMIZE FILLER
Scrutinize long sections of text and ask yourself:
► For backstory - Can this information be added elsewhere? Or broken up and scattered through the chapter/book? Can the information be relayed or eluded to through dialogue? If it absolutely needs to be there, keep it short, sweet, and to the point.
Avoid cliched mechanisms such as flashbacks, thinking about conversations/remembering them, and adding random POVs to relay information. While these tactics can be successfully employed occasionally, in general, they’re overused, especially by newer authors. Use them sparingly.
► Too much internal reflection - Be careful! You don't want to tell your reader everything your hero/heroine is feeling. Consider revealing this through dialogue and actions.
► Too many descriptive words/phrases - Some description is necessary, but ask yourself whether the reader needs to know every article of clothing, down to the color and style, of every character ever mentioned in the book or can you simply things by saying something like - he looked like a college bum.
TIP #4: CREATE A CHARACTER BIBLE
List all the characters in your book. Record their hair and eye color, height, body shape, and important relationships to other characters in your book. You can do this any number of ways, but for editing you’ll want this information close. Consider jotting details on sticky notes. Then hang them along your monitor so they’re easily accessible while you edit. You don’t want your hero’s eye color to change throughout the book. Readers will pick up that kind of mistake easily.
Also, detail your locations or draw maps if positioning is critical.
TIP #5: VARY SENTENCE LENGTH
While sentence length depends on many factors, including genre and writing style, it should NOT remain consistent throughout the book, or even in a scene. Chapter upon chapter of long sentences or short ones is not only repetitive and boring, but unnatural.
Consider these things when looking at sentence length:
► Short or incomplete sentences are great for action scenes (fighting, some sex scenes, story climaxes), but don't fill your scene with a bunch of clipped sentences. Longer sentences dropped into a series of short sentences can emphasize important points or allow the reader a chance to breathe before being tossed into another bout of action.
► Longer sentences work well for reflection and fit slower scenes.
► Varying sentence length and sentence type can create a tempo, rushing your reader to the climax of your scene. Harness this! Get your reader’s heart pumping or pull them deep to reveal something important.
EXAMPLE: This leads in to a kissing scene. Notice the varying sentence type and length:
Rick curls his long fingers around mine. He takes a small step closer to me, then another one until he’s standing in front of me, a hairbreadth from my chest. He pries my fingers apart, retrieving the money, then slips it into my pocket. “Neither are mine.”
I don’t know what to say. I don’t get the chance to come up with anything. Rick lifts my chin with a single finger and bends down. His lips brush mine. Our breaths mix. He inhales audibly, taking my air into himself, a shifter custom only the closest lovers share.
Shocked by his boldness, I draw in a deep breath too. Energy skips along my spine, racing in a line of fire to settle deep in the bite on my shoulder. It aches in a way it never has before, as if I’ll die if I don’t feel Rick’s lips on the scar. I don’t understand the reaction. Don’t understand any of this.
My heart races as my anxiety spikes. A thump settles in the raised scar, echoing my quicker heartbeat. It’s never done that. Not even with Todd.
I fist Rick’s shirt, holding him tight. “Rick?”
“I feel it.” Rick slides a hand to cradle the back of my head. “I feel you.”
Before I can ask what he means, he kisses me, gently urging me into a slow exploration of passion. His flavor hits me. Spicy cinnamon. Pure fire. All man.
TIP #5: CUT DIALOGUE TAGS
If you can pull the reader in and drop him/her into your scene, dialogue tags (said, asked, etc.) aren’t necessary. Dialogue is naturally a back and forth exchange. You shouldn't have to identify every person speaking every time they say something. Consider using action or refocusing to identify the speaker instead.
Dialogue tags can also become repetitive. Have you ever listened to an audio book where the narrator is constantly saying ‘he said’ or ‘she said’ every few seconds? Annoying, isn’t it? Do a find of “said” on your current WIP. How many are you using?
EXAMPLE OF DIALOGUE WITHOUT TAGS:
Eyes widened in mock surprise, I study Todd. “Not a fan of Shifter Affairs? We do risk our lives to keep lay shifters and humans safe.”
“My personal opinions don’t matter. My alpha says we are to cooperate. That’s what I’m doing. If it was up to me, I would’ve attacked you the second you got out of your car for stepping foot on my property.”
I make a point of glancing around me.
“You own this place?” I know for a fact Todd’s uncle, Wyatt, paid for it. And Todd’s truck. Working part-time at the Jager lumber mills, Todd’s a paycheck-to-paycheck guy. No shame in that, but it means he won’t be able to afford any place on his own.
“Don’t you concern yourself with my business. I live here. You don’t. Tell me why you came out here, or I’m kicking your ass off my place.”
Apparently, Todd doesn’t like admitting he got a handout. Interesting. I can’t help but wonder why. Family takes care of each other. Or at least they should. “Technically, the owner of a house on pack lands is the shifter who paid for it or inherited it from his father upon his death.”
Todd crosses his arms over his chest and leans against the doorframe. His eyes narrow, and a calculating look settles over him. “By shifter law, that’s true. Is that why you’re out here? Did Wyatt send you? Say I didn’t pay my rent or something?”
EXAMPLE WITH MULTIPLE SPEAKERS:
Ella smacks the file closed. “You didn’t hear a word I said, did you?”
“Probably not. He’s been distracted ever since we walked into the bar.” Uri folds his arms over his chest as if my behavior is inexcusable, but it’s the perceptive look in his eyes I don’t like. He knows where my attention has been.
Hell, anyone watching me could probably figure it out. My gaze kept drifting to where Mya sat with Josh and Ilan. As hard as I tried, I couldn’t hear their conversation. They were too far away and the music in this place is too loud. She appeared stressed, though. I hope Todd’s not the reason. Then again, even if he was the source of her anxiety, my hands are tied.
Unless I betray my vow.
Ella flicks her gaze to Uri. “By what?”
“Don’t you think you should ask—”
“A female.” Uri interrupts me. “Even made up some excuse to get her address from me yesterday.”
“My personal life is none of your business.” I lean toward Uri and lower my voice, but it doesn’t dim the growl to it. I sound barely leashed, an animal ready to attack. “And if you interrupt me again, we can meet in the woods for a little—”
“Enough.” Ella slams her hand against the table, rattling the soda glasses and yanking both Uri’s and my gaze to her. She glares at first Uri, then me. “There is no room for your dominance bullshit in my unit. From either of you.”
“Is not a reason to fight with your partner.” Ella cuts me off. She bends close to me, her long blonde hair falling forward and hiding her face from anyone who might be watching. “You should fight for each other. Die for each other. That’s the vow you took. You know this. So, don’t even give me an excuse about dominance and hierarchy. I’ve made sure to pair agents of equal strength together. The only thing Uri should be deferring to you for is experience as an agent, and even then, he’s lived a lot longer than you have. Time adds insight to situations experience sometimes can’t.”
I dip my chin, accepting her words as truth, but I can’t speak yet. Just because I understand her point doesn’t mean I like Uri sticking his nose in my personal business. Not being able to claim Mya doesn’t make me less protective of her.
“She’s another male’s breeding partner. You know that, don’t you?” Uri drops his arms, losing the condescending attitude. “And she has kids.”
TIP #6 (ADVANCED): STORY FLOW
Every scene should move your story forward. If a scene (or even a sentence) doesn't act to move your plot or character growth toward the climax, then it shouldn't be there. This especially applies to sexy scenes! The easiest way to earn a one-star review is to drop a bunch of sex in a book without some emotional or plot progress occurring because of the sex scene.
► In a notebook (or new Word document), write down a one to two sentence summary for every chapter or scene (if there are more than one in a chapter). Ask yourself:
♢ Does this chapter (or scene) serve a purpose? Have I left any plot holes?
► Use those sentence summaries to create a loose storyline. Ask yourself:
♢ Did my characters grow emotionally over the course of the book? How? If you can’t answer the ‘how’ then they didn’t. Go back and make sure you show emotional growth. This is one-star review fodder. It doesn’t matter if your book is 10K or 100K. Readers want to experience a journey where people learn from their mistakes or situation.
♢ Did I address all subplots? If not, do I plan on addressing them in another book? Readers hate dangling story plots. Have a plan to address all of them or don’t put them in your book!
♢ Did I use any cheap mechanisms or cliched plots to reach my HEA? For example: Did you use jealousy to create conflict? Did your hero and heroine meet by catch?
♢ Do your characters have logical, sound reasons for doing the things they did? For example: Does your heroine have a reason the reader will understand for leaving her house while a killer is outside?
TIP #7: AVOID THE SLOW OPENING
Nothing encourages a reader to close a book faster than a boring opening. If you're writing romance, consider starting the book at the chapter where the hero and heroine meet. That's the start of your story. You're sharing their romance from the beginning to the all-important HEA. Anything that happened before your main characters meet can, in most cases, be alluded to in text or conversation.
Have a hook! You have about 3-5 seconds to grab your reader's attention. Make sure you have an intriguing first sentence. This is hard work and takes practice. Consider asking your writing buddies to analyze those first 100 words. Encourage them to be critical! Very critical. This is not the time to soothe egos or blow bubbles up people's arses. Ask questions to understood why they were intrigued or not. Then revise, revise, revise until you have a good hook.
TIP #8: REPETITIVE WORDS
What are your common repetitive words? Do a find and highlight of those common words you use too much. Cut them or replace them. (Find and replace > format > highlight)
TIP #9: POV/HEAD-HOPPING
Let me preface this – I am not here to criticize or critique your writing style. These are tips. Take ‘em or leave ‘em. But unless you’re Nora Roberts (and wouldn’t that be so cool if she was reading this!), head-hopping and multiple POVs in a chapter or scene are generally distracting and confusing for the reader.
Worse yet is switching POVs during a battle or sex scene. It’s the equivalent of tossing a bucket of cold water on your reader and killing the mood you’ve worked so hard to create.
Remember this: every time a reader stumbles while reading or is pulled out of your story in some way, there’s a greater chance she/he will put your book down. If that happens, you’ve likely lost that reader forever. Don’t give them an open door to leave! Suck them in and keep them in your story, frantically turning pages late into the night.
The easiest solution – pick the POV of the character set to lose or hurt the most in the scene. Make that the POV of that chapter or scene.
The more advanced solution – SHOW the reaction of your other characters. Eg. Do you want to tell your reader how frustrated your heroine is with the hero? Show her slamming a door or glaring at him. Or have your POV character contemplate on the other character’s mood.
Example: Go back to the multiple POV dialogue above to see how this can be done.
TIP #10: PREP YOUR MANUSCRIPT FOR YOUR EDITOR
You want your editor focused on improving your book and catching all the stuff you missed, not look for spots where you inserted two spaces instead of one, etc. Before shipping your doc off:
► Remove double spaces using Find and Replace:
On the Find line: [space][space] (note: this should be obvious but [space][space] is the action of hitting the spacebar twice to insert two spaces)
On the Replace line: [space]
Then, click on replace all. Repeat this until no more replacements are made.
► Remove spaces before the first word in a paragraph using Find and Replace:
On the Find line: [space]^p
On the Replace line: ^p
► Remove spaces after the last word in a paragraph using Find and Replace:
On the Find line: ^p[space]
On the Replace line: ^p
► Double space your document and add 0.5” indents for paragraphs. (yes, I know it looks weird, but your editor will love you for it)
► Use page or section breaks after the last sentence of every chapter.
► Create a table of contents
TIP #11: USE THE SPELL CHECKER AND GRAMMAR TOOL!
► This should be a no brainer, but worth mentioning. Spell checker won’t catch everything, but it does find many stupid errors.
► If you really want to analyze your document, you can turn on options to highlight missing Oxford commas and passive sentences, too.
Your edited book is back in your hands. I know you're tempted to format that sucker and upload it to retailers. After all, you've looked at it a zillion times, right? It's got to be perfect, right? Before you format, consider trying these final tips and read it at least one more time to make sure your book is really perfect. Or combine several of these at once. The goal here is to force your brain to see all the things you might've missed.
TIP #1: CHANGE YOUR FONT
► Do you write in Times New Roman? Switch to Calibri. (or vice versa)
► Try a handwriting font, such as Pristina.
TIP #2: CHANGE LINE SPACING
► Do you write in double-space? Try single or triple. Add extra spacing between paragraphs.
TIP #3: CHANGE THE BACKGROUND COLOR
► Try changing to a dark blue or grey. This turns the font white.
Design > page color > Blue Accent #1 (my personal favorite)
TIP #4 (THE MOST IMPORTANT!!!!): HAVE YOUR COMPUTER READ YOUR BOOK TO YOU!
► In Word (on a PC), go to customize the quick access toolbar > more commands > from the "choose commands from" dropdown menu, select "all commands" > add "speak". Then highlight(select) about a page of text and hit the speech bubble icon you've just added.
For results, follow the written text on your computer screen while your computer is reading to you. I usually combine tips 1, 2, and 3 above for this pass.
► If you have a Mac, Vellum will also read text to you. Some older kindles will too.
TIP #5: UTILIZE DIFFERENT MEDIUMS
► Print out your final manuscript
► Format and send to your Kindle
► Read on your phone
► Format and upload to Createspace, then order a proofing copy of your book
That's it. If you've spent the time thoroughly self-editing, in addition to a professional editor and/or proofer, then your book should be about as perfect as you can make it. Sit back and wait for those five-star reviews to come rolling in!