No matter who you are, no matter how many published manuscripts you have, everyone needs their material edited and sharpened. Here are a few tricks of the trade when it comes to editing your own material.
Find Another Set of Eyes: I was talking with one of our Samizdat authors today and he made an interesting observation. “I’m amazed. I went over the manuscript six times before sending it to you and with one read you found more areas to sharpen than I did.” The reality is that no matter how hard an author works on refining a manuscript, allowing fresh eyes to read through it can always sharpen it more. Find someone you trust to read what you’ve written, especially someone who is new to the project. Allow them to ask questions—ask them to be brutally honest about the manuscript. What you will find is that a fresh pair of eyes will see issues of logic and narrative development more readily than someone who has lived the with manuscript for a longer period of time.
Edit in Phases: The truth of the matter is that editing takes time. It is not something to be rushed. Good editors know that a manuscript is going to need several passes. One pass at a manuscript cannot address every issue that arises in the editorial process. While it may seem easier to edit a manuscript for grammar, punctuation, spelling, and content development all at one time—good editing happens in phases. Edit one thing at a time. You might want to make the first pass the time you look at the big picture, addressing the content development. Does the piece flow properly? Does it lead the reader along smoothly? Does it draw the reader into the story? Subsequent passes should address areas like grammar, punctuation, and spelling.
Spell Checking Made Easy: In regards to spell checking a document, one of the first realizations is the “spell-checker” on your word processing program cannot always be trusted. While it may catch some of the major issues, correctly spelled but grammatically wrong or misplaced words slip past. The best way to spell-check a document is to look at every word, working from the back of the document and working forward, and from bottom to top. This keeps you spell-checking individual words out of their context. Spellchecking in sentences can often “trick” the mind into seeing what is not there.
Pace Yourself: Editing a manuscript is not a race to an imaginary finish line. Good editors know their personal pacing and often edit in short chunks of time, not for long periods. When I am editing a manuscript, I rarely spend more than four hours at a time. This allows me to get into a good rhythm, while making sure I avoid getting fatigued while editing. Editing is different than merely reading for pleasure, as your mind is more active and more engaged. This heightened engagement with a manuscript makes the reading process very different from pleasure reading.
Wash, Rinse, Repeat: It’s a fallacy to believe that once you have finished editing a portion of a manuscript, that bit is finished. Good editing does not completely edit a manuscript only once—it revisits the process multiple times. This allows for the most smooth and “clean” document possible. Not only does an editor often visit the same section of a book multiple times, they often do it on multiple days, allowing for the portion being edited to sit and resonate with the reader for a period of time. In addition, it is not unheard of to revisit an earlier portion of the book after editing a later section.
Editing Resources: And finally, no one knows everything there is about proper usage and grammar. All good editors have certain go-to references when they need help. Here are a few reference works that every writer should have on their shelf:
The Chicago Manual of Style, 16th ed. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2010.
Fowler, H. W. A Dictionary of Modern English Usage. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009.
Garner, Bryan A. Garner’s Modern American Usage, 3d ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009.
Merriam Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage. Springfield: Merriam-Webster, 1994.
Strunk, William and E. B. White. The Elements of Style. 4th ed. New York: Longman, 1999.
Zinsser, William. On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction. New York: HarperCollins, 2006.
Happy writing (and editing)!
// Mike DeVries