Before you send off your manuscript to your editor or beta readers, it’s important to get it in tip-top shape. No beta reader or editor wants to slog through careless typos and errors that could have easily been fixed by the author.
I know what you’re thinking… but Allison! Isn’t that what editors and beta readers are for?!
The answer is no.
From time to time I do some beta reading. I’ve seen some really awesome manuscripts. But I’ve also seen some really horrible ones, too. I don’t mean horrible as in the story was bad; there were just so many typos, silly grammatical errors, or careless plot holes…so many that it just made me absolutely hate the story itself, and made me internally curse the author. It was very apparent that the author had done zero proofreading or editing.
All authors should take the time to edit their work once the first draft is complete (yes, even if you were self-editing along the way). A sloppy manuscript only screams, “I’m lazy and I don’t care what you think of my writing!”
Okay, maybe not quite like that. But every sloppy manuscript I’ve read made me doubt the author’s ability as a writer. Every careless error detracted more and more from what could have been a really good story, usually to the point of my being totally fed up and wishing I could just stop reading it.
Editors will also appreciate your efforts. It saves them time from having to correct the little, silly errors such as typos, when instead they could be focusing on the bigger picture of your story — plot and characterization, or the voice and syntax of your writing.
This doesn’t mean you need to have a Ph.D in English. I do suggest picking up a reference book for English grammar. English for Dummies is a good one; it explains grammar rules in simple terms and offers good examples.
Once you’ve brushed up on basic grammar and punctuation, here are some suggestions for editing your work. I did all of these (pretty much in this order, too) after I finished my first draft of Waiting for You. But do what works for you!
- Step away from your story
Once you’ve finally written those glorious words — The End — take a break from your first draft. After you’ve spent God only knows how many months of grueling over every scene and chapter, it all looks the same. Your brain knows what it’s supposed to say or sound like, so that’s what your eyes see when you proofread. Step away from it for at least a week. A month is great if you have the luxury of time (and not having a deadline). You’ll be able to come back with fresh eyes.
- Proofread your manuscript in various mediums
If possible, read it in different mediums: print out your manuscript or load it onto your e-reader. If you print it out, mark up that bad boy with colored pens and markers (I’m a nut when it comes to colored pens). If you use your e-reader, load it as a .mobi or .epub file, and you should be able to “highlight” any troublesome passages. Also, make note of any phrases or words that you’ve used too much, as well as those pesky adverbs.
- Read it aloud
Seriously, read your work out loud. You’ll be able to hear any clunky clauses or phrases, or dialogue that doesn’t quite sound genuine.
- Read it backwards
You’ll be better able to pick out errors, as your eyes will be able to read each word on its own, rather than taking in the sentence or clause at once (which, like previously mentioned, your brain already knows what it’s supposed to say).
- Use your word processor’s handy dandy search bar
Once you’ve gone through your manuscript a few times, go back into your word processor (or Scrivener, if you’re in the cool club), and use the search function to find any of those phrases or words you made note of. Reread those passages to see if there’s a more appropriate word or description you can use.
- Nix was, said*, very, etc.
Or any other “weak” verb or adjective. I heard the tip some time ago to search for the word “was” — it was actually very eye-opening. I found that I was using the imperfect tense in a lot of places where preterite tense conveyed the action much more crisply. (i.e. “His hands were trembling.” vs. “His hands trembled.”) This also goes for the word “very.”*A note on dialogue tags: Tread carefully when it comes to your dialogue tags. If you find yourself having to replace a ton of dialogue tags for stronger verbs, or find yourself using a lot of adverbs, you may need to rework the dialogue itself. While using strong verbs for tags can be great in small sprinklings, your dialogue and your character’s action before/between/after should convey their emotion strongly enough that it doesn’t necessarily require a different tag.
- Those-Which-Must-Not-Be-Mentioned… That’s right. Adverbs.
A lot of writers will cringe and hiss at you if you even utter the word “adverbs.” While it’s true that too many adverbs are a red flag that you should find stronger verbs and descriptions, I’m of the mindset that a few minor adverbs here and there are OK. You can’t seek and destroy every adverb in your story; you’ll end up with choppy passages and forced, awkward writing. If you find yourself scouring a thesaurus, just stick with your adverb. In a lot of instances, it’s extremely apparent when a writer had to look up a word.
Be sure to check out Showing versus Telling: 10 Resources to Help You Show, Not Tell
Take your time with edits and revisions. There’s no need to rush through them. Once you’re ready to work with beta readers and editors, be sure to keep an open mind to their input. You might find that all your betas have the same suggestions on a certain character or scene. Be receptive and respectful of critique, but also be sure to give your betas feedback as well.
What other steps do you take to get your manuscript ready for beta readers and editors? I’d love to hear your suggestions in the comments!