Thursday, May 23, 2013

Editing Essentials

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As a self-published author, I often find myself involved in discussions debating the benefits of self-publishing versus traditional publishing, both with readers and fellow authors.
I am the first to admit that both have their pros and cons--which I won't get into here--but the two attractive features of traditional publishing which are almost universally agreed upon are distribution and perceived quality. It is the latter which provides the impetus for this post.
The perception of quality in traditionally published books comes from the editorial support provided by publishing houses. Before anything goes to print, multiple editors have a go at a manuscript, leading to multiple revisions, all supposedly to bring the best manuscript to market (or perhaps the most likely to sell?).
What many indie authors miss is that they can also bring this level to their work, but it has to start with the writers themselves.
Even if you are investing thousands of dollars with one of the best editors in the world, you still have to take a look (a number of looks, really) at the work yourself before you email it away. But how do you do that? You just wrote the thing, you know what happens, your eyes are already tired of looking at it. How do you get some distance?
You're right, it's difficult. The answer is not to simply sit down and start reading through, looking for errors--this is exactly how you will miss things. The key is to have a process. That looks different from one writer to the next, but here's mine:
1. Bad word edit.
In this stage, I have a list of words I look for to get rid of my habitual 'go to' words, passive constructions, and wishy-washiness. Most word processors and writing software (I use Power Writer) have a 'find' or 'find & replace' function under the edit tab to make this easier. Here is my list:
that, as (shows me both 'as' sentence constructions and passive 'was'), were, just, try, tried, moment, turn, fro (shows me 'from' when I meant 'out of'' and the like, as well as having people standing in front of things too often and when my fingers screwed up 'for'), form (I used to misstype 'from' frequently), could, had, almost, even, somehow, something, barely, nearly, only (wishy-washy words), still, there, manage, glance, feel/felt (not precise), would, like.
I look for all of these words in a chapter before moving on to the next, reconstructing sentences and reconfiguring wordings as I find them. I've been using this list for some time, so I've come close to completely weeding some of them out of my writing (I almost never use barely, barely ever use nearly, and nearly always remember to leave out almost). It feels great when I run through a chapter and find a few of the words either used sparingly or avoided all together.
Some writers might think it backward doing such a close edit on the first pass, because we are often taught our first edit should look at the big picture, taking into consideration storylines, tone, character arcs and such. This type of edit actually gives you that kind of view of your manuscript, because you end up looking at your book one sentence at a time, skipping some and reading others, and not in order. You will be surprised what you notice.
2. Editing software.
This is a new step in the process for me...well, not really new, but different. I recently found on-line editing software called ProWriting Aid, and I love it. The way it works is easy--you paste your manuscript into it (I usually do one chapter at a time), click 'analyze', and it spits out a number of reports for you. They include:
overused words, variation of sentence length, grammar (spelling, ending sentences with prepositions, etc.), writing style (passive verbs, repeated sentence starts), sticky sentences (locating unnecessary words in sentences), clichés (things that sound like clichés) and redundancies (e.g.-enter into), repeated words and phrases (that occur within a few sentences of each other), phrases summary (2 to 5 word phrases and how often you use them), diction, vague and abstract words (feel is a vague word, for example), complex words, alliteration analysis, consistency, time (to check the timeline in your story), dialogue (tag frequency), and homonyms (make sure you meant there, not their, or they're, or thar if you're writing about pirates).
It also provides a word cloud to give a visual of how often you use certain words in your story.
These are all things I try to be aware of, but sometimes get missed (a recent word cloud showed me the most used word in one chapter was bottle, so I ditched a bunch). Finding this software is the best thing to happen to my writing in a while and will save me a considerable amount of time, as well as allowing my editor to concentrate more on story.
The key to using this software is to remember it is not assessing your story, simply the pattern of words.
I take notes during both of these steps, noting either directly in the manuscript or in a notebook any new ideas, inconsistencies, or story and character thoughts, so I have them at hand when I get to step three.
3. The chapter read through.
My first read through is done chapter by chapter when I am done step two (i.e.- do step two, completing all changes, then do step three, then do step two in the following chapter, then step three...lather, rinse, repeat). In this step, I look mainly at pacing, tone, word choices and sentence structure. I also continue to take notes as in steps one and two.
4. The full read through.
Start at the beginning, work through to the end. My main concerns are story, character and consistency...the big things.
5. Send it to the editor.
You have to have an editor. Let me repeat that, in case you missed it...YOU HAVE TO HAVE AN EDITOR. Yes, this will cost you money, so start putting aside your pennies now. DO NOT be one of those indie authors who cuts corners and gives self-publishing a bad name, you hurt all of us when you do.
6. Returned from editor.
Make necessary changes.
7. Proofreaders/Beta readers
Have some people who like to read, know how to spell, and know what commas are, because something always gets missed. Have as many readers as you can, then don't be surprised when a missed word slips through everybody to be mentioned by the first person who reviews your book. Every published book--self or traditional--has at least one mistake. Electronic, self-published books have the advantage of being able to upload a new, corrected version.
Here's the thing you really need to know about has to be done no matter whether you choose self-publishing or traditional publishing. If you are an indie, good quality editing leads to better sales and reviews. If you go with traditional publishing, agents and publishers expect your best possible effort for their consideration--don't miss out on a publishing contract because you don't like editing.
Learn to love editing and sell more books.
(PS - I am in no way associated with ProWriting Aid. I discovered it on a forum and have been thankful for its mention ever since. There are other, similar tools available and I encourage you to do your own research)
Bruce Blake 
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