Rodney Jones, author of The Sun, The Moon, and Maybe the Trains (Red Adept Publishing)
How to edit before you submit your manuscript to an editor:
As is true with anything, editing skills improve with experience. The first novel I wrote, I read over about twenty times, changing this word and that, cleaning, tightening, strengthening sentences and paragraphs until I arrived at a point where I thought it was ready to send out. I took the route of seeking an agent. I sent out a couple dozen queries and sample chapters, and in return received an equal number of impersonal rejections. I went back to my MS, took a hard, critical look at it, concluded that the entire plot structure was wrong, so then reorganized it, did another dozen read-through-edits, resubmitted it to a different group of agents and was rewarded with more rejection. I continued this process, spending close to three years editing—scrutinizing each and every line, nearly a hundred times. I then put the book aside and started writing The Sun, the Moon, and Maybe the Trains. Everything I learned from writing and editing my first book made writing the second one that much easier. The point I’m hoping to get across here is, if you love writing, don’t give up, you’ll definitely improve. And if you want to hook an agent or a publisher, the same patient approach applies there, as well.
I suspect that every author eventually settles into their own methods for editing. I’m largely a self-taught writer. I’d read several books on the topic, became an active member of online writer’s forums, and studied the writings of respected published authors.
I’ve compiled a list of steps that I use when editing. The ‘content’ edit may only require one pass, whereas, if you’re anywhere near my level of non-expertise, the line edit will most likely take many more. I’ve attempted to organize the list in an order that makes sense, placing the ‘content’ steps first, followed by the line editing. I don’t think the order within the two groups is that important, though.
The content edit:
If you haven’t already done this, make a timeline of key events as you go through your manuscript. This can help you identify issues with sequence. Also create a chapter by chapter synopsis, briefly describing each scene. You might end up with about a dozen pages. I consider this a pain in the ass, but it will help you grasp the working of the plot. It’ll help you wrap your mind around the story as a whole.
Check for loose ends. Characters who you may have described unnecessarily, and ideas that might have been introduced early on that were left dangling: the knife lying on the floor, the log skipping merrily across the neighbor’s lawn. Also look for characters who play a significant part in the plot who might suddenly crop up in a later chapter without prior introduction. If possible, add a scene in an earlier chapter introducing the stray character.
Pay attention to transitions from scene to scene and chapter to chapter. Does one flow into the next? Does something more need to be added for the sake of smoothness? Of course, if you are skipping over a significant block of time, you’ll want to indicate this with some kind of line-break, such as ***, or a chapter break.
The line edit:
You may first need to break your manuscript down into searchable blocks of text—perhaps a file for each chapter. When editing individual chapters, be sure to copy the edited chapters into the full MS as you are done with each one. An updated, full MS is invaluable when using ‘Find and Replace’ to fix repetitive errors, or changing names of people or places, should you, for example, decide to change the MC’s name, which is likely scattered throughout.
Using the ‘Find’ tool, check for commonly switched words: are our, they’re there their, to two too, then than, we’re were where, your you’re, etc.
Search for overuse of weak and or passive verbs: go, get, got, went, was, were, has, had, has been, have been, am, are, is, will be, etc. Often there are stronger options to use in their place. Sentences starting with ‘there was’, ‘it was’ can often feel dull. Get and got are my all-time least favorite words.
Search for repeated verbs—the same verb used two or three times within a paragraph, or unusual (less common) verbs used too frequently.
Look for overuse of dialogue tags, and switches in style and tone of tags. ‘She said’ is universally preferred by readers and writers. Stick to a simple standardized tag as much as possible. I prefer ‘said’ and ‘says’ even in the case of questions, though some editors take issue with this. What about ‘said she’, or ‘said Nancy’? No. This is archaic in tone. Did people ever really speak that way?
Avoid mixing one character’s dialogue with another character’s action within the same paragraph. This can cause confusion about who is speaking.
Look for overuse of adverbs, particularly: suddenly, and very. Adverbs are often used to tell a story rather than show a story. I try to limit adverbs in the narrative to no more than two per page—as few as possible. Occasionally, though, an adverb works better than a detailed action, such as when you want to paraphrase.
Look for strings of dialogue that might benefit from breaks of action. What are the characters doing with their hands, their eyes? Their body language can often say things that don’t need spoken. Don’t say it if you can show it.
Look for unnecessary use of progressive tense. She ‘skipped’ rather than she ‘was skipping.’ Though, she may be ‘skipping’ in order to convey a continuation of action, in which case the progressive tense may be necessary.
How do your characters move about? Do they walk, step, or simply move from one location to another? Should they instead get there by some other means, such as, hustling, scurrying, moseying, rushing, sauntering? Maybe? Usually people simply walk. Try to give the reader a vivid picture of their movements.
Eliminate any word, phrase, sentence, or paragraph that states the obvious.
Break any or all of these rules whenever it suits your purpose.
One last note:
It’s unlikely that your manuscript will ever be perfect. I work mine to the point where I think it is ninety-eight percent there, then set it aside for a week or two. Is it ready? Take one last look before sending it out. You may find a blatant error within the opening paragraph. Don’t rush it.