Note: NONE of this will ever replace the expertise of an experienced, professional proofreader or editor. You should never forego professional editing services if you want to stand out and be taken seriously as an author. However, these tips can help you get your manuscript in tip-top shape before you send it off to red-pen purgatory–so they have less work to do and you can get your work out there faster.
5 Tips for Managing the Workload:
1. Go at it while your mind is fresh. If your brain is too fried for you to formulate a proper sentence, then it’s probably not the best time to start editing your work. You’ll miss mistakes that will seem glaringly obvious to you when you’re awake and ready for the job at hand. Try editing right away in the morning–or, if you’re more alert at night, do it then. Just make sure you’re awake and ready to tackle some tedious work.
2. Move in waves. Have you done one pass but still don’t feel confident with your work? Take a break for a few days (or a week, however long you need to recharge), and come back to it for a second pass. Keep moving in waves until you’ve done all you can do on your own.
3. Focus on different elements: First structure, then prose, then proofreading. If you read through and see that one chapter just doesn’t fit with the overall piece, you might need to cut it. Alternatively, you might discover that it seems choppy and needs some better transitions. After you’re satisfied with the pacing, start digging into your prose. Tighten up descriptions and get rid of the fluff. After you’re happy with that, proofread for basic grammatical errors.
4. Focus on one section at a time. Don’t feel like you need to do everything all at once. Focus on chapters, or even scene by scene. Some people madly go through half their manuscript before figuring out that they have changed so much they now need to go back and start from the beginning again. Just focus on it bit by bit and you’ll feel a lot better.
5. Don’t overdo it–editing is different from writing. If you find yourself feeling like you’ve changed so much that your unique writing voice has all but disappeared, you’ve overdone it. Editing is polishing your own natural way with words–not erasing all semblance of character and humor that go into it. I’m guilty of this a lot. I end up sterilizing my own work sometimes because I just keep redoing things that honestly don’t need to be redone. But I fear making mistakes or sounding pedestrian at times, so I start slashing everything. Don’t do this! Learn to be confident and trust in your writing. It’s your own voice–it just needs to be edited to make it as clear as can be.
4 Tips for Catching Common Writing Cliches:
6. Slash the purple prose. Purple prose is when you write words and sentences that are so extravagant that your reader becomes lost in trying to decipher exactly what the hell you’re trying to say, rather than staying absorbed in your story. While you might think it sounds impressive to use such flowery language, your reader will just get frustrated and toss your book aside. If you want to write obscure words and play with pretty sounds and sentences, you might be better suited to trying this with poetry.
7. Don’t kill the tension with unnecessary words. It’s important to know how your character is feeling in the scene–is she scared? Does he have butterflies in his stomach? The reader needs to know those things so that they can feel what the character is feeling. But you don’t need to remind us every paragraph. Keep the tension and excitement flowing, but you don’t need to update the reader throughout the scene. If someone’s nervous, we’ll assume he’s nervous until his piano recital is over. Then he can feel the relief flooding in.
8. Letting passive voice make your story oafish. “The table was flipped by the doctor. He had gone completely mad with power, and his wife had tried to escape.” Okay, that’s alright. But doesn’t this sound much better? “The doctor flipped the table, completely mad with power. His actions terrified his wife so badly that she took off running.” A good way to tell if your story has a bunch of passive voice is the repeated usage of the word “was”.
9. Squash most dialogue tags. If you’re writing things like “‘Oh, stop it, you!’, she laughed“, or ‘What do you want?’ he growled“, try to get rid of those tags and replace them with “said”. Said slips through your mind. Some dialogue tags are annoying at best and completely jarring at worst, and you don’t want to do anything that will pull your reader from your story. Alternatively, you might try “‘Oh, stop it, you!’ She laughed and batted his hand away”, or “‘What do you want?’ His lip curled in anger, his teeth bared like a growling dog’s“. Those kinds of descriptions paint a much more vivid picture and don’t throw the reader for a loop.
3 Tips to Help You Be Thorough:
10. Print your work in 12-point Courier font, double-spaced. Courier is an easy font to read and it’s wide enough that you’ll be able to write notes and make corrections without turning your work into one big red scribble. This tip might seem weird, but there’s a reason people want manuscripts in simple fonts. Now you know why.
11. Use color coding to break your story apart. I love doing this. Go through and highlight your dialogue using one color, and your backstory or description in another. If you see huge chunks of one color, you might need to break that up. Especially if it’s description–you don’t want to subject the reader to an infodump.
12. Read your story aloud. If it sounds clunky out loud, it’ll probably be clunky in print. Make note of the natural inflections your voice takes when reading, too. If you’re struggling to discern a character’s emotions, you will want to rework that dialogue.
2 Tips for Basic Grammar Proofreading.
13. Check to make sure your punctuation is correct. The number one thing you should check for is commas. Are they in the right places? You can change the meaning of an entire sentence with a misplaced comma. I’m sure you’ve seen the whole “Let’s eat Grandma!” vs. “Let’s eat, Grandma!” meme. It’s true, though! You should also avoid using too many exclamation points. It’s distracting and makes your story read like a cheap local ad for used cars.
14. Check your work for violation of verb-tense agreements, errors in verb conjugations, and redundant words. I tend to make a lot of errors with tense. It’s so easy, particularly if you write in multiple tenses for different works, to randomly switch from present tense to past. Make sure your tenses are consistent, and that your verbs all fall into place accordingly. Check for errors in verb conjugations–it might seem like an elementary error, but first drafts get sloppy! Finally, check for redundant words. You don’t need to say “She whispered quietly,” because how else would a person whisper?
1 Tip to Rule Them All (Sorry.)
15. Stop when it doesn’t make sense anymore–and then send it to a professional. Once you’ve done as much as you can do, you need to pat yourself on the back, pour yourself a stiff drink, and send it off to the pros. You’ve made it as easy as you can for them, and they’ll appreciate it. When you get your manuscript back, read through the edits and take a peek at their notes. If they give you tips on how to improve your grammar for future projects, take that to heart. You’ll improve with time.
So there you have it! 15 tips to help you self-edit like a boss. If you liked this article, don’t forget to subscribe! Good luck with your editing and self-publishing endeavors!
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