So how does an editor begin an edit and what do they look for? How can you, as a writer, edit your own work – before you send it to on to a professional editor for that final polish?
TIP ONE: Think like an editor
Every editor is different and will have a differing agenda and remit. Always bear in mind that an editor will be looking for what is good in a piece of written work, not for reasons to reject it. They will be reading text and seeing ways to improve, polish and make the words shine. That doesn’t happen by accident.
TIP TWO: Be organized
My edits begin with a notepad and numerous sharp pencils – all within arm’s reach of a range of dictionaries, grammar books, style guides and a sturdy thesaurus. Yes, I have these resources online too, but find a hard copy easier and more intuitive to use when I’m immersed in text. I don’t rely on spell checks and certainly not an online thesaurus, which is always too limited. I can always tell if someone has changed a word and used the Microsoft Word thesaurus because the available options are so limited.
TOP TIP THREE: Be consistent
Not always as easy as you think. If you’ve grown up in, say, the UK your grammar rules will be different to those of the USA. If you’ve lived/ worked in a global environment it’s very easy for those rules to be become blurred as you’re exposed to other ways of doing what you’ve always regarded as ‘the only way’. Or if English is your second language this creates another layer of uncertainty. You also have to think about your readership – if your readership is global which English will you use? Decide whether you’re going to write in UK or USA English and stick to the correct grammar rules and spellings of whichever you chose.
TOP TIP FOUR: Create your own style guide
This is something you should ideally have been working with from the moment you began writing your book. If you are writing with a specific publisher/ publication in mind check their style guidelines – if you can’t find their guideline online read other books/ websites/ printed matter from the same publisher/ publication and figure it out. Or create your own. The overarching word here is consistency – in format, structure, timeline, pace, technical accuracy, spelling, grammar.
TOP TIP FIVE: Create a Table of Contents
Some writers regard the Table of Contents (TOC) as an unnecessary convention. To an editor it’s the skeleton around which a book is structured and formed. It should list all the front and end pages outside the body of the book, as well as the contents of the book itself.
Your TOC should be a roadmap for your reader – a glance at the TOC will give them an immediate overview of your book, particularly if it is non-fiction. It’ll also be a snapshot of the plot for many fiction books.
TOP TIP SIX: Be authentic
Authenticity is something that can’t be faked. You have to write openly, honestly and with integrity to really connect with a reader. And maintain it across a whole manuscript. If you don’t believe in, or feel, what you write, your reader won’t either. Always allow yourself time to find your voice and writing style before you begin a big project.
Authors’ writing improves the more they write – I’ve generally found an author’s authentic voice and style falls into place around a quarter way into their book. They often go back and rewrite the first part of a book so it matches the authenticity and strength of the later writing. An editor has to ensure every part of a written piece of work is authentic – and when it’s not, how to put it right.
TOP TIP SEVEN: Watch for discrepancies in style, flow, and pace
This is a continuation of the above Tip – having found your voice, your writing style should flow and be maintained throughout your writing. Pace can also be an issue – how many books have you read where, after hundreds of pages of a great story, the end arrives at breakneck speed and loose ends are tied up in a few pages. Or a great action paced sequence is replaced by slow ponderous writing that doesn’t fit and you never finish the book. An editor will spot where the writing is weak, the flow disjointed, or the pace wrong and know how to strengthen it.
TOP TIP EIGHT: Check for technical and factual accuracy
Whether you’re writing fiction/ non-fiction, a book or an article, you must write with authority. Check for technical accuracy and check your facts – using Wikipedia isn’t good enough. If you skip this fact-checking step and make an error, someone will spot it – and when they do it will reflect badly on you and your credibility as a writer.
TOP TIP NINE: Be clear and unambiguous
All writing should be clear and unambiguous, period. Every sentence you write should count and add value and texture to what has gone before. Don’t overuse metaphors and similes, and avoid clichés and jargon. Avoid those qualifiers which add nothing to the meaning of the text – for example: that, even, simply, actually, despite the fact that, although, just, then. If the text reads well without them, and the meaning remains the same, you don’t need them. And exclamation points/marks should only ever be used in dialogue.
Don’t write over-long paragraphs – visualize how the text will look on the printed page of a book. White space around your words can have as much impact as the words themselves – think how effective a single line paragraph can be in the right place.
Watch your spelling and don’t rely on spellcheck – it won’t pick up those bloopers where the spelling is correct but word wrong – ‘His sole flew up to heaven’. So flag words such as sole/soul, there/ their, compliment/ complement, bough/bow, threw/through, lode/load, rode/road, raw/roar etc., and watch those realize/ specialize/ finalize words that are also correct using an ‘s’ – use an ‘s’ or a ‘z’ but not a mix of both.
TOP TIP TEN: Know when to stop
This is the hardest part for any creative person, whatever their medium – knowing when a project is finished, knowing when to stop tweaking and polishing. As a rule of thumb, if you are changing text without it adding value to what is already in place you need to stop. Walk away for at least two weeks before looking at it again with fresh eyes and before you have a last read through and final edit.
This final read through and writer edit is your last chance to cut anything superfluous. Cut then cut some more. I’m completely in touch with Hemingway when he said: ‘The most essential gift for a good writer is a built-in, shockproof, shit detector.’
Once you have a first Final Draft of your manuscript send it to a professional editor, even if you are self publishing. However good your own edit, you may have missed, or not been aware of, things a professional editor will notice immediately – the correct publishing conventions, where the text needs improving or tightening, where there are inconsistencies in text and formatting, where your voice is different, or the pace inconsistent.
You will have been involved in the text and writing for so long it will be difficult for you to spot the obvious discrepancies, even if you have a reading team to edit for you. Unless they are professional editors there will be editing and publishing protocols they are unaware of.
It’s these things that give you credibility and authority as a writer, and which will set you head and shoulders above the rest.
BA (Hons) English Literature/ Language (UK)