While this short post is no substitute for years of experience, the basic editing tips below will give you a good grounding in the pernickety art of copyediting.
Even if you’re planning to hand over your finished novel to a professional editor, by first cleaning up the prose yourself, you’ll be able to significantly reduce costs. Any editor worth their salt will provide you with a free sample edit before giving you a quote. This not only gives you a chance to assess whether or not they’re a good fit, but also gives them an idea of how much work needs to be done on your novel. The more errors they spot, the more they’re likely to charge.
So, without further ado, here are my five basic editing tips for writers:
1) Checking for inconsistencies
Having a character change eye colour halfway through a novel can be incredibly jarring for the reader, breaking the illusion of reality you’ve worked so hard to build up. To avoid these kinds of continuity errors, compile a list of all the main characters along with their identifying features. What colour are their eyes? What’s their hair like? More importantly, what’s their backstory? Add as much information as possible. Have they dyed their hair while on the run from the police? If so, when will their natural colour start to come back through? Every little detail counts.
In addition to your character list, you should also write a timeline, both at the planning stage and once you’ve finished. All writers swap around scenes, which is why it’s essential to check that the action follows a logical progression once you’re ready to edit. This particularly applies to pantsers. Even if you’re able to produce a compelling narrative on the fly, you still need to check that it’s coherent afterwards.
2) Familiarity breeds complacency
My second editing tip is to take a break. The closer you are to a text, the more difficult it is to spot any errors. This is because your brain loves to take shortcuts. It thinks it knows what’s there already and simply skates over lines without properly examining them. So, when you’ve finished writing your final draft, put the manuscript away for at least a month before picking it back up again.
Once you’ve left it alone for long enough, it’s time to get out your red pen to do some basic editing. I’m not kidding about the red pen. At this stage, you need a printout of your novel. When I worked as a copyeditor for magazines, we would always make hard copies before going to press. Nine times out of ten something would jump out at us that we’d completely missed on the screen. Again, it’s about tricking your brain into seeing the text afresh. If your printer is out of ink, or that seems just too damn wasteful, print the novel as a PDF and read it on a tablet, or use Calibre to convert it into MOBI format and pop it in your e-reader. I guarantee you’ll spot more errors this way.
The English language is rich and varied, but as we’re all creatures of habit, we have a tendency to repeat ourselves. On a micro level it’s important to weed out clumsy sentences like: Making cakes made him feel very happy. And rephrase them: Making cakes filled him with joy. However, on a macro level, it’s easy to be blind to those words or phrases that you tend to roll out time and again. For instance, my characters frown and sigh a lot. So, when I’m done with a novel, my first step is to make a note of all these repetitions and search for them in Word to see how many times they crop up. Then I cut them right back, replacing all these overused words and phrases with something more creative.
Rather than have a character sigh over their solitary evening meal, perhaps use some other method to show they’re feeling lonely. Maybe they could check their phone for messages, or perhaps they can watch their neighbours having a party outside and push their fingers up against the glass. Challenging yourself to reach for something more creative is an excellent way to grow as a writer. By making your descriptions more specific, the action in the novel will feel more immediate to the reader.
Be as ruthless with clichés as you were with repetitions, ‘He had a hangdog look’, just won’t, ahem, cut the mustard. I actually enjoy eradicating clichés because, as with eliminating repetitions, this process forces you to be more original.
A hangdog, incidentally, was a rough sort who looked as if they were fit for the gallows. However, unless you’re writing a historical novel, antiquated references to the hangman’s noose should have no place in your prose.
What you really want to say is that a person looked utterly miserable for some reason or another. For instance, you might write:
He looked like he was about to go to the dentists for a root canal.
This sentence is much more specific and, more importantly, relatable.
If you can’t think of anything to replace the cliché with, then use simple language. Another option is to play around with the cliché and make it your own by extending it. For instance:
On Instagram his life appeared to be a bed of roses, but those enviously eyeballing it through a small screen never thought about the thorns sticking into his flesh.
Redundancies can be repetitions in disguise. You’ve used different words, but it still amounts to repeating the same thing. Be ruthless with these. For instance, a free gift, should simply be a gift. After all, gifts are, by nature free. Likewise, a closed fist is just a fist.
Other redundancies are devoid of meaning. Stuff like ‘basically’, ‘in actual fact’, or ‘for what its worth’. Often used to pad out speech, giving the speaker a moment to pause and gather their thoughts before launching into a sentence, they shouldn’t be used in prose. Of course, if you’ve got a character who compulsively uses ‘basically’ when they’re nervous, by all means keep it in. If not, cut it out!
When to call in a professional
As I touched on earlier in this article, improving your editing skills will help you become a better writer. So, once you’ve got to grips with the basic editing tips in this post, try tackling punctuation next. For a grounding in the subject, I highly recommend you get your hands on a copy of Eats, Shoots and Leaves by Lynne Truss.
A final word of caution here. Even the most eagle-eyed editor is often blind to their own mistakes. You should never submit work without getting someone else to read it. And if you’re going indie you should always hire a professional editor to check the text through before publishing. To read about the different stages of editing, check out the services I have on offer. If you feel I might be the editor for you, don’t hesitate to get in touch. Sample edits are always free with no obligation to proceed.