Cleaning up messes is standard operating procedure for editors. Whether we’re handed story messes such as plot holes, writing messes such as head-hopping, or mechanical messes such as three different spellings of a character’s name, we’re ready to take on the work you need help with.
We just want to make sure you’re not creating more work than you really need help with.
Leaving your manuscript messes for someone else to take out is absolutely your prerogative as a writer. If you prefer to pay an editor to clean up the details, there are plenty of editors out there who’ll take your money to make that happen—with two important caveats.
Caveat #1: Suppose you’ve asked your fabulous copyeditor to keep an eye out for plot holes (a developmental-level task) or shore up any shaky writing (a benefit of line editing). Not only do those things represent a significant increase to the scope of a copyedit, but they by their very definition draw your editor’s attention away from copyediting. For a well-prepared manuscript by a seasoned author, combining editorial services can sometimes save time and money. But in all but the ideal scenarios, it compromises your editor’s focus. All too often, it leads to the kind of editorial triage that editors notoriously refer to as “polishing a turd.”
Caveat #2: But hey, say you and the editor already see eye to eye on what type of editing your manuscript needs, and they’re willing to do a little bit of this and that on top. Say you’ve also agreed that more mess means higher editing rates. Everyone’s square, right? Not so fast. If your level of preparation consists of whisking through your draft while repeating “let the editor fix it,” that’s exactly what you’ll get: an editor who spends their time fixing basics that a wordsmith like you should’ve already mastered.
Are you sure that’s how you want to spend your editorial budget?
Master the basics
Leaving basic errors in your manuscript is a choice to spend your money and your editor’s focus at a mundane level. Some editors enjoy chugging through the basics. More mistakes equal more money equals happy editors, right? I’m a trained copyeditor, a skill I bring to bear during your later edits—but my specialty is line editing, a level of focus we won’t reach if you’re still mangling dialogue mechanics. Leaving that in your manuscript would make me an unhappy editor.
Before you can polish your work, you have to move past Fiction Writing 101-level gaffes.
Editing can expose you to new techniques and skills, if you’re ready to work at that level. Before you can polish your work, though, you have to move past Fiction Writing 101-level gaffes. Fortunately, there are many low-cost and free ways of learning the basics.
Like a painter’s paints, language is your tool. If you’re naïve to the basics of the form and how to use your tools, your creative palette will be remarkably limited. Uninformed, unorthodox choices may seem exciting or clever when you try them, but your readers may be more widely read; they’ve seen those tricks before. Would you rather readers come to your book for the depth of the story and writing or for its quixotic lack of quotation marks?
Start by learning the conventions of the written word, especially as used in writing fiction. Everybody makes the occasional typo. We’ve all typed it’s for its in the heat of the moment; typos are one of the things editors are here to catch.
What’s not okay is failing to learn or care about the conventions of the language you write in. Nobody expects you to acquire an editorial level of knowledge and resources. But if you consistently struggle over where to put the comma in relation to quotation marks, slow the heck down and sort it out. Your readers, agents, editors, and publishers expect you to have mastered these things, as someone who works professionally with words.
The better you get at creating a solid ground floor for your book, the sooner your edits can move on to the next level.
Authorial style and voice
One of the most fruitful and enjoyable ways editors collaborate with authors is encouraging authorial style. Style isn’t a pastiche of tics that become “just the way I write.” Authorial style arises from mastery. It’s contextual, based on skill and knowledge and experience. You have to do the time, write the drafts, do the work.
Line editing can help you make huge strides in honing your skill. A sharp line editor’s help with the subtleties that lend shading and artistry to your writing is invaluable—like this from my editorial compadre Karen Conlin:
With "although," it's clear that the writer enjoyed the dinner. The noise was there, but it didn't prevent them from having a pleasant experience.
"But" is less cushioning. "… but the noise in the next room" was loud enough they were a bit annoyed. 2/
— Karen "The Dark Angel of Editing" Conlin (@GramrgednAngel) February 18, 2020
Now, I'm the first to admit that this is informed by my opinions on connotation. Yours may vary. However (there's another relationship!), the gist remains: Be aware of connotations when choosing your words, Readers will react to them, bringing their own understanding. #AmEditing
— Karen "The Dark Angel of Editing" Conlin (@GramrgednAngel) February 18, 2020
Before your editor can tackle subtleties, your writing must be fundamentally sound. When editorial triage and repair take priority, there’s no time or budget left for creative collaboration. So if you want to be able to stretch and grow, make sure the manuscript you send in for editing is the best you can make it.
Read more: Writing style—what it is and what it’s not
Storytelling and narrative technique
It would be easy to assume that self-revision mostly comes down to little proofreading, but novels are more than big bowls of word salad. Novelists must not only write fluently but must master narrative technique (point of view, dialogue form, characterization, description, and so forth) and story form and structure.
Every manuscript and every edit is an opportunity to grow. Your first few novels are your classroom. Get your practice in on techniques such as dialogue tag punctuation and balancing tags with action beats and interiority. Practice holding point of view until head hopping becomes an occasional mistake, not an ongoing malady. Settle into the idea of dramatizing more of your story than you explain or tell.
Writing and editing aren’t the only ways to hone your storytelling and narrative skills. Fill your creative and technical tanks by reading—classics, bestsellers, successes and failures. Read and learn from everything, fiction and nonfiction alike. Read every single day.
Read more: Best books on writing fiction
And yes, read still more: Learn to read like a novelist
Cleanup strategies to get your book ready for editing
“Help me help you!” is the battle cry of any collaborative editor or coach. You can maximize my ability to help you by taking care of as many of the basics as you can. The less time I have to spend fixing dialogue tag punctuation or correcting things you could have caught with a spell check, the more time and focus I have for story development and coaching your writing.
- I strongly recommend beginning your pre-editing revision with Janice Hardy’s At-Home Workshop: Revise Your Novel in 31 Days. Run the entire process from start to finish. Ideally, buy the book, which gives you so much more detail: Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft.
- You wouldn’t go wrong running the manuscript through Microsoft Word’s native spellchecker. The grammar feature can raise more questions than it solves, but spellcheck will help you catch many basic errors and spot inconsistencies. Here’s how to use MS Word’s spellcheck.
- ProWritingAid is a handy tool that can help you clear up not only many writing issues but some story-level issues too. I don’t recommend Grammarly, which is known to recommend questionable grammar and stylistic changes that are undesirable in fiction writing.
- When you’re in doubt about spelling or hyphenation, Merriam-Webster (Collegiate, 11th edition) is the record of choice. You can always use the free online M-W if you prefer; internal consistency is more important than any discrepancies in the listings between dictionaries.
- I also recommend the free online Consistency Checker from Intelligent Editing. It will help you with hyphenation inconsistencies, spelling variations, and more without adding the sort of misinformed grammar suggestions so common with programs like Grammarly. If you go looking around at the Intelligent Editing site, don’t be tempted by the more complex software designed for editors; that’s too granular. You want the free Consistency Checker.
- Trim the fat in any draft by running searches for the words on this list of 43 words you should cut from your writing.
- When you’re ready for writing-level revision, read each chapter out loud to yourself or use Words text-to-speech feature (another reason someone serious about writing should own an updated version of Microsoft Word). Reading aloud forces you to slow down and notice errors and awkward constructions.
- Work out of order so that you can stay focused on the material at hand and not on larger story concerns. Move one chapter at a time starting from the back of the book and moving forward, odd chapters first and even chapters last.
- Many of these steps will each take a day or more to accomplish. I know that. I know it’s a lot of revision to face. Writing novels is a long, tedious affair. You’ve come this far; it will all unfold in its own time, and you will get better at this. Godspeed and good luck.
One of the best ways you can support your creative growth in your early writing days is by finding a compatible editor who fits your style. I work from an ethic of creative development rather than a strictly production-oriented approach. This is why I spend time with prospective clients to ensure they share a growth mindset that fits my collaborative style.
If you’re looking for a straightforward editorial service like a basic copyedit, there’s a lot to be said for staying in your lane—you do your job, I do mine. There’s an editor for that, although it’s probably not me. That’s not my groove.
When you come to me for editing and coaching, not only do I want this book to be the best book you’re capable of writing right now, but I want it to set you up to write another book that’ll kick this book’s ass. When your edit becomes a chance to stretch every writing muscle you have (and build new ones you didn’t know could exist), your writing has no direction to go but up.
When you need a leg up, I offer short-term coaching on story development and writing technique and long-term coaching from concept through editing. For manuscripts that are ready for editing, I specialize in comprehensive assessments (a coaching-size version of a manuscript critique) and substantive and line editing.
Sound like the kind of help you’ve been looking for? Let’s talk!