Preparing Your Manuscript for Editing
You’ve completed a novel. Congratulations! Having the stick-to-itness to actually get all those words on paper (or screen) is an accomplishment worth celebrating. You may be wondering what to do next. The first thing you should do is celebrate. No, really. Treat yourself.
Then put the manuscript away for a while. At least a week, but a few months isn’t bad either. You need to revise with fresh eyes. No matter your level of expertise or comfort as a writer, you need to look over your manuscript at least once before sending it to an editor.
Waiting to Hire an Editor
You might be tempted to fire your manuscript off to an editor the instant the ink is dry on your first draft. But this is not the best use of your hard-earned cash, or the editor’s time. Editing is expensive. Think of all the hours you put into writing that book. An editor is going to put in a similar number of hours working on it for you.
That’s a lot! Even if editors made minimum wage, that’s a lot. But the fact is that editors are professionals who have a lot of specialized knowledge and often have years of training, belonging to professional organizations, constantly honing their craft. Editors need to eat too, and very few of them charge minimum wage.
Even for a manuscript evaluation, an editor is putting in a lot of time—hours to read and assess your work, and then craft a thoughtful, constructive report—and that editor brings a lot of experience and knowledge to the evaluation. An editor needs to know the parts of a story and the building blocks of craft just the same as a writer does. In fact, a good editor will know the components of successful storytelling even better than writers.
And this is why good editors are worth their salt.
Yes, editing is expensive, and the more effort you put into honing your craft and polishing your manuscript before sending it to an editor, the more money you’re going to save on editing. You don’t have to worry about every typo, but your writing should be clear and your story should be well-crafted. Editors aren’t miracle workers, as much as they wish they were, so send them the best work you can to make it easier for them to bring out the true gold in your writing.
The Writer's Toolbox
If you’re a novice writer, you’ll want to expand your writer’s toolbox before you tackle your second draft. What goes in a writer’s toolbox? Your toolbox isn’t a physical thing (though it can include books) but the skills you develop to hone your craft. Things like world-building, plotting, creating believable characters, crafting compelling dialogue, developing the proper narrative voice, and so many more things.
Even if you’ve got some experience, brushing up your skills or trying to master something that has eluded you will make the editing process less painful all around.
You possess at least the basics of these skills if you’ve been able to put an entire novel together. You rock! Still, your work isn’t done. Every writer has room for improvement and needs to constantly work on filling their toolbox and keeping those skills fresh.
You might think having finished the story is enough in itself and editors can fix the rest. But remember, editors are not miracle workers. Whether you hire an editor or you are assigned one through traditional publishing, you need to give them the best you can before they can make it even better.
Readers really do know the difference, and if you’re writing with the intent of building a readership, you need to know the rules of good storytelling. They matter. You can break them, but not until you know them. This is part of what building your toolbox is about. So learn the rules and practice them. Not all the writing you do needs to go toward publication. You can write scenes for fun, just for you, to get a feel for your characters or setting and build your skills.
The first step to building solid skills as a writer is in reading widely. Then read deep into the genre you’re writing. Know the conventions and what readers expect. But don’t stop there. There are so many wonderful books on the craft of writing! If editors or experienced writers suggest writing books to you, read them. Know them. Apply them to your manuscript.
Two of my favourites are Chuck Wendig’s The Kick-Ass Writer (NSFW) and Noah Lukeman’s The First Five Pages. Blake Snyder's Save the Cat! is an incredible resource for structuring and outlining. Picking up a style guide to help with grammar is a good idea too.
By this point you understand why you need to wait before having your book edited by others, and you know just what skills you need in order to craft a strong story. There’s some good news/bad news here. The bad news is that it can take years to refine your craft to the point where an editor can actually help you. The good news is that it is completely worth it.
But you’ve climbed that steep learning curve and you feel like you know what you’re doing—well, at least to the extent that’s possible. We’re only human, after all. But you’re confident. You’re still learning, because that never stops, but you feel good about what you can do when you start putting words to a page. You’re ready to revise. Where do you even start?
The first thing you want to do is read through your manuscript with fresh eyes (remember, you’ve let this thing sit for a while). Don’t edit anything yet, but go ahead and take some notes to guide your revisions later. Read your manuscript in the same manner you would read any book. Make note of areas where there are problems with the writing or the story. Things like where there’s potential for confusion, where you feel something is missing, where someone’s acting out of character, where the dialogue is wonky, where the point of view slips, where you get bored.
Then go through your manuscript carefully with those notes you’ve made and with your writer toolbox open. You are going to have to make several passes of your manuscript—just like editors do!—focusing on one area of concern at a time.
Worried there are boring parts? Go through each scene and identify the conflict. If there is none, add some! Read just the dialogue and see if it makes sense. If not, fix it! If you didn’t make a timeline when you were outlining your novel (or if you’re a pantser and didn’t outline at all) go through the story’s events and make a timeline. Does it make sense?
Make no mistake about it, revising a novel is a lot of work. It should take you at least a couple of weeks to really fix up a draft of your book. If you or a beta reader has outlined a lot of major problems with your first draft, it could take you months to fix. You may even need to rewrite the whole thing.
This is perfectly normal. It can even be a lot of fun. (No, really.)
I’ve been writing and editing for a long time now and I’ve seen the same mistakes in my early writing and in the writing of other novice writers. These are some areas you should focus on in each pass of your revisions.
Common problems to watch for:
Dialogue. This one is huge, and is a deal breaker if not done well. Make sure there’s enough of it, but not too much of it. Don’t forget to add dialogue tags, but don’t go overboard with them. Said is enough in almost all situations. How the character is delivering their dialogue should be obvious from the context and the words themselves (and maybe a bit of punctuation). Don’t forget that your character’s body language and actions during the conversation are part of dialogue. Don’t have two people speaking at each other in a vacuum. Show where they are in the setting while they speak. Your characters should sound different, especially if they’re from different cultures or generations. The things they say should be true to their personality and not a bad plot device (hint: avoid exposition!).
Setting. The most common problems with setting are that it is either over-represented (Holy infodumps, Batman!) or under-represented so that it seems like your characters exist in a void. Keep description (of all kinds) short and focus on something unique about what you’re describing. I know what a house looks like, show me what’s different about this one.
Point of view (POV). This is one of the trickier elements of writing, especially, it seems, for third person narrative. Make sure you aren’t head hopping. Make sure you stay consistent in whichever POV style you’ve chosen for your narrative. Make sure the narrator, if writing in a limited POV, is only showing things he or she would actually have access to.
Telling. Another big one for writers of all levels. While some telling is okay and often necessary (your novel would be a bloated beast if you showed everything) too much telling makes the writing feel flat and deprives readers of depth.
Anachronisms. Unless you’re writing satire or time travel or some quirky historical fiction, these can make the writing clunky and confusing and pull the reader out of the world you’re carefully crafting. Don’t give your 1920s flapper a cell phone. Send your medieval villager to a market, not a grocery store.
Pacing. This is probably one of the biggest problems I frequently see. Early drafts of novels often start off too slowly and fail to grab the reader’s attention. Get to the action quickly. If you want to keep the pace interesting, remember for each scene to start late and end early.
There are, of course, plenty of other things to watch out for. At the end of this blog series (in a couple weeks' time) I'm going to provide a list of resources to help identify and correct the problems outlined above, and other common errors that writers are prone to.
The Value of Critique Groups
If you’ve used all of your writer tools and have done all the self-editing you can but still feel like your story has problems, you still have options before you hire an editor. Critique groups are a great way to get editing advice, meet other writers and read some cool stories for free. They are a precursor to working with an editor, and give you a fair idea of what to expect if you’re nervous about a professional edit.
Good critiques will help you identify all of the issues outlined previously. They help you get out of your head, so you can see more of the issues in your novel that you’re normally too close to identify. A good group with writers at different levels of capability will help you grow the most as you learn from writers with more experience and learn by helping others.
Learning how to articulate the issues in other writers’ work will help familiarize you with them and strengthen your own writing. Once you’ve trained yourself to see the weaknesses in other people’s writing, you’ll start seeing it in your own.
The downside to these groups is that they’re a real time commitment. If you want other authors to put effort into critiquing your work, it’s only fair to reciprocate. It can be nerve-wracking when you first start, but remember that every writer in a group has to start somewhere and a good group will be welcoming and understanding.
You can also run into difficulties when you’re given conflicting feedback or confusing advice. As with all feedback, it’s important to remember that this is your story and you can choose what advice to take and what to ignore. Follow your instincts and make the changes that feel right whenever you’re unsure of the feedback you’ve received.
Professional Etiquette and Editors
You’ve put a lot of work into your book, so make the most of your editing experience. Be sure you’ve got the right editor, and you can check out my previous article on the subject if you need some guidance. In the process of finding an editor, and once you’ve hired someone, be sure to keep the relationship running smoothly.
Be friendly and courteous, remember that you are talking to a professional, one who likely has a busy schedule. Being professional doesn’t mean being overly formal or “stuffy” but it does mean treating the other person with respect. Respect their knowledge and their time. Reply to emails promptly and concisely, answering all questions and addressing all concerns. Do your best to bring them the cleanest manuscript you can, and then give their feedback careful consideration.
Editors love words and love books or they wouldn’t last long in the business. They want to help you bring out the best in your book. They are on your side. That said, a lot of editors sometimes let their ego get in the way, so know that it’s all right for you to disagree with your editor. The final call is yours to make, but make sure you're disagreeing for the right reasons. (Hint: the right reason to disagree is because it's what's right for the essence of the story, not because you're attached to a particular scene or plot device.)
If you’re working with an editor, especially on a larger project, you should have a contract. This protects everyone involved. If the relationship goes sour for whatever reason, either party should be able to easily terminate the agreement. Usually this means the editor is paid for any work they’ve completed and the author is provided with that work.
If you haven’t hired an editor yet, but have had some conversations with one, or a verbal agreement to hire them, let them know if you back out or choose to hire someone else. An editor’s job is a fine balancing act between multiple projects. If they’ve made room for you in their schedule, let them know you’ve changed your mind.
The most important thing to remember is to be professional and respectful, even if the other party isn't. Don't try to bully editors or bring drama into the process. The industry is smaller than you think, and editors talk to each other on a global scale. The EAC's Editing Goes Global conference in Toronto or the Editors' Association of Earth on Facebook are evidence enough of that.
If you’re looking for more information on what to expect out of a professional editor, check out the EAC’s professional editorial standards.
The Artful Edit by Susan Bell
Line by Line by Claire Kehrwald Cook
On Writing by Stephen King
The Forest for the Trees by Betsy Lerner
The First Five Pages by Noah Lukeman
Writing the Breakout Novel by Donald Maass
Fiction Writer’s Workshop by Josip Novakovich
Save the Cat! by Blake Snyder
The Kick-Ass Writer by Chuck Wendig
Eats, Shoots & Leaves by Lynne Truss
The Canadian Press Stylebook
The Chicago Manual of Style (16th ed)
The Elements of Style by Strunk and White and/or The Elements of F*cking Style by Baker and Hansen
The Copyeditor’s Handbook by Amy Einsohn
You can also check out the Links page here on the site for useful websites for authors.