Wednesday, August 24, 2011

On Writing and Publishing: A Writer Shares Her Limited Knowledge! Part III

Editing: A Necessary Nightmare, aka the Un-Fun Part of Writing

I admit it, this is such the un-fun part that I put off writing this post. However, don’t think that it is unimportant—this may be the most important step (excepting marketing, though that will be a waste of time if you’ve skipped this part).
Let me just begin by telling you that it is impossible to edit your own work. Not because you aren’t smart enough to do that . . . if you’re smart enough to have written the book, you’re certainly more than intelligent enough to edit. You can’t edit your own work for several of reasons:
1.       You are far too intimate with your story to see it in a detached way. Only someone reading it who does not know your story at all can read it with any kind of objectivity. They can point out holes in your plot, a lack of continuity in your story. You know all of the details of the story very well, and so sometimes forget to put an important element in that can be the difference between someone understanding just exactly what is going on in the scene. You can skip some details and still have a cohesive story, but what makes sense to you may not make sense to someone else. Also, you may have forgotten that on page 50 your character remarked on the chill September air, but by page 175 you’ve put them in the spring without the correct amount of time having passed. Or their blue eyes mysteriously became brown. Trust me when I say your readers will catch things like that, and the last thing you want is for some small detail to pull them out of your story.
2.        You know your characters too intimately as well.  Someone who knows absolutely nothing about your characters will catch when they aren’t making sense or aren’t fully developed. You understand your characters, therefore you know why they are doing the things they do. Someone else won’t know that and can tell you when you need further explanation. Or you may not realize that you’ve explained someone’s actions while in the POV of another who can’t possibly see them. Example: “She watched him walk into the house and from there into the bedroom.”  Not unless she’s got x-ray vision. And, oh yeah, while we’re on the subject . . . POV. Let’s talk about POV quickly. Quite simply: pick one and stick with it through the end of the chapter, or at minimum until you’ve come to a natural break in the scene where you can logically change. Please don’t have schizophrenic narrative where your reader never knows whose POV they are in! (Actually, this should be in the previous post about writing, but I’ll leave it here for now, and put it in the other later . . . I’m lazy that way. 
3.       You’ve just spent six month—or three years—on your manuscript. You’ve read and re-read it at least a million times. If there is an “and” where there should simply be “an” I can promise you won’t see it, no matter how many times and how slowly you go over the thing, word for word. And whatever program you’ve written it on won’t catch all of those, either. It can’t pick up the small things like that that are wrong . . . and sometimes it will tell you you’re wrong when you’re not. So don’t depend on your software to edit for you. Not even if it’s an expensive program that you paid big bucks for, because it isn’t human and is bound by the rules that have been programmed into it. Those rules don’t always apply. Have you ever read one of those emails that went around where it goes something like this:
 If you can raed tihs tehn you are amnog nienty precnet of the poulptaoin who can . . . etc.
The theory behind that is that your eyes are trained to only read the first and last letter in a word and automatically assume the word. Similar theory behind editing your own work—you’ve trained yourself to read it the way you meant for it to be, so you aren’t going to see “there” instead of “their” or “to” instead of “too”.
4.       Commas: commas have become something of a . . . I don’t want to say pet peeve, that isn’t right. But please, please have someone check your manuscript for commas—and make sure they know the correct usage of commas. I had a college English major beta read a book for me, and she pointed out my horrible comma habits. I have since become somewhat  . . . compulsive about them. I went online and read all about commas when she pointed it out, and it boils down to a few simple rules.
a.       Place one between a list of things, such as “She picked up a ball, a teddy bear, and a doll.” It’s incorrect to leave out that last comma . . . unless you’re writing a newspaper article. In that case, take it or leave it as needed for your space confinements.
b.      Use one before a conjunction (and, but, for, nor, yet, or, so) which separates two ideas. “He ran fast, but didn’t finish the race.” You don’t use one for a single idea. “It was not yet time for dinner.”
c.       Always, always use before names when speaking to another character. “Come on over, James.” Or if the character is in the middle of a sentence. “Come on over, James, and we can finish the project.” Don’t use one if you’re speaking about another character. “I didn’t like the way James talked about you.”
d.      Using the word “because”? You just may need a comma. “I was aware that John was quitting, because Dorothy had spread the news this morning.” This sentence says why the writer knew John was quitting. Take it out, and suddenly John was quitting because Dorothy had spread the news. I sort of think of it like this: if the sentence could be divided into two sentences and still make sense, use a comma. “I was aware that John was quitting. Dorothy had spread the news this morning.” vs. “John was quitting. Dorothy had spread the news.” Still makes sense, but doesn’t give you the whole story.
e.      Cities, states, countries need to be “commatized”. “I live in Salt Lake City, Utah, near the mountains.”
f.        Of course, you know to place them at the end of a quotation where you’re not finished with the character speaking. “Go on out to the barn,” he said, “and eat with the pigs.” On the subject, don’t capitalize after a comma! And if it’s two sentences, you should use a period in there. “Go on out to the barn,” he said. “I’ll be there as soon as I finish breakfast.”
g.       Use commas to avoid confusion in the point you’re trying to get across. “Downstairs, the toys had been scattered across the room.” There’s no such thing as “downstairs the toys” so obviously you need a comma.
h.      Starting your sentence with words like however, yes, well? Use a comma after the word. “Well, I don’t think that’s such a good idea.” “Yes, I did like the meal.”
i.         Think of the comma as a place to pause or take a breath in the narrative. That doesn’t mean there should always be a comma there, but there’s a good chance there should be. There is a great quote by Oscar Wilde which says I have spent most of the day putting in a comma and the rest of the day taking it out.” I laughed when I read that because that is definitely me. I tend to overuse commas. It’s better to err to the side of having a comma where you may not necessarily need one, than to have one missing and cause your reader to have to re-read the sentence a few times to make sense of it. Just don’t put them where they absolutely don’t belong.
j.        Here are some links that will explain commas usage far better than I can:
5.       You will not be able to see your run-on sentences. You should never have more than two ideas connected with an “and” unless you are giving a list. “She went to the store and bought some bread, and then went home to make a sandwich and drank a pop.” Too wieldy. “She went to the store and bought some bread. Then she went home to make a sandwich, and drink a pop.” Let someone else shorten them for you.
6.       You have a certain voice in your head, which makes it hard to see your bad habits. I have a bad habit of beginning sentences with and, or but. I can’t see them in my own work. I can in someone else’s, but not mine. Authors also have a tendency to use certain words too frequently, such as “smirk” or “discomfited”. You can always use the find feature to search them out, but that’s fairly time consuming to do for each individual word—and that’s only if you recognize that you overuse it.

I’m sure there are many more reasons to have a second set of eyes edit your work that I haven’t thought of. So, now what, you ask. Who is going to edit my eighty-thousand words?
Let me just start by saying not your mother, sister, friend, brother . . . not anyone at all that you know personally. Why? Because the love and/or like you, or at minimum don’t want to offend you. Therefore, they are going to give you glowing praises, tell you how absolutely wonderful your work is. It’s human nature. They won’t point out the clichés, the scenes or phrases that are just plain hokey.
Not to worry, you have plenty of other options. Of course you can always hire an editor. If you’ve got the means to pay for that, more power to you. I will just add one quick thought to this: I’ve read books that have either been “professionally” edited, or books that have been edited by their publisher—which we can assume is considered a “professional” editing—and they have many mistakes in them. That doesn’t mean a professional editor is a waste of money. That just means do your homework, read some things that have been edited by them, and if you still feel they are worth it then go for it.
If, like most fledgling authors, you don’t have that kind of money to spare there is still hope. A couple years ago I joined an online class on writing queries. In that class, I managed to eek out a polished query (which, incidentally, I never used since I decided to self-publish), but got something far more valuable. I was blessed enough to have been in the class with a couple of authors who wanted to stay in touch after the class. One of them, Cami, wondered if we would be interested in critiquing one another’s work. I wasn’t sure how that would work as she writes romance novels, and Jeff writes fantasy/dystopian novels. Let me just tell you that that works much better than if we all wrote the same thing, because we all bring something different to the table. I admit, in the beginning we all treaded a little lightly, not wanting to offend. That being said, it still helped a great deal with the grammatical type things. Now, two years and three novels each later, we have a great relationship based on being categorically honest with one another’s work. Recently, we added a third author to our group. The best thing is that one might miss a misspelling or something, but another will catch it. What makes sense to one, another will question. In other words, we are all different . . . just as your readers are all going to be. So my advice is to find yourself a group of three or four authors and trade critiques/edits. All that cost’s is your time by returning the favor. If you can only find one other, consider a college student who might be willing to work for nothing more that the credit and experience they will get in their classes.
I recently read of an author who reads aloud and records her entire manuscript when she finishes, helping her find the mistakes. I think that’s a fabulous idea—to a point. It might pick up the grammatical things, but can’t possible find the plot holes, the inconsistencies, the things that an outsider might not understand.
There is a free site called AutoCrit that you can use for some minor editing. However, I strongly advise against using something similar for your whole manuscript. Use it sparingly, and only to check yourself as you’re writing—definitely not for the whole manuscript. Remember, machines and software just can’t replace the human.
Now that you’re ready to edit, be prepared to spend some time on it. Polish your manuscript until it shines—because if it doesn’t shine, it might get lost in the pile. Once you’ve finished polishing the words, spelling, and grammar, you can get down to formatting. And here I groan once again, though there are many tools to make it much easier, which we will talk about in the next post.
Please keep in mind that everything I write here is nothing more than my personal opinion. It is certainly not the law. Take it with a grain of salt (see, I can sneak a cliché in) and then use what applies to you and your writing.
As always, all comments and suggestions are more than welcome. And, as always, I wish you a happy week! :o)

UPDATE: I just found a great bullet list of editing do's and dont's. Check it out here!


  1. Cindy, you nailed it. Point by point your explanations make it easier I hope for everyone interested in writing, editing, publishing. From my experience one can never know enough grammar, enough crafting tools. I published my first novel in March and I had not one, not 2, but 6 different people editing the book for grammar, misspelled words, etc. The latest is a friend of mine, a former 4th grade teacher, who picked my novel apart. I was sick to my stomach for two days, seeing all the red marks on my novel. I freaked out because the book had been for over 4 months up for sale and I could only see my readers buying the book to find those errors (I asked a few of them, even pointed them to the exact misspelled words, but they said they didn't catch it, too engrossed in the plot to observe anything). I stopped the sales immediately, spent a whole day editing and re-submitting the book for the edit proof.
    If you get tired staring at your own work, put it aside, have someone else edit it. Then pick it up again and see it with fresh eyes. If you are a perfectionist like I am, you'll still find edits to do.
    And yes, continue to write even when you get frustrated.

  2. Good points, Cami. (Did you listen to the last line you wrote? lol)

    All other readers of this post: check back Friday for Cami's interview on the blog here to read more about this amazing author.

  3. Trust me, it's been a challenge for a while now, thanks to your amazing suggestions. Imagine you want a good cup of coffee, but to get it, there are a few steps you have to take to ensure success: pick the right coffee brand, add the cold water, turn on the coffee machine... and wait for it to brew that hot, smooth yet strong, dark yet awakening... in case you wondered, I'm the stage of "brewing".

  4. Very detailed post. Paying for a completely objective editor was one of the best things I did with my novel.

    Interestingly enough, I also think this addresses the reason my agent of seven years and I had to split ways. She had seen every reworking of my novel, and even though it might have changed drastically over the years, she still had those original (and admittedly pretty grim) versions.

    And the English teacher in me loved your comma discussion, especially for dialogue :)

    Paul D. Dail A horror writer's not necessarily horrific blog

  5. Paul - I'm amazed at how many people consider this almost unimportant before publishing, or even before sending to an agent. I myself think this is the most important step. First impressions are everything. If you put an unedited book out there, people who read it are not likely to ever read your work again, no matter how much editing you do on future projects.

    I read a self-pubbed book a few years ago, because it sounded absolutely fascinating. It was completely unedited. I pushed through to the end, but was so put off by the poor editing (which included not just grammar mistakes, but repetition of words or phrases ad nauseum, and a schizophrenic storyline and POV's) that I would not read her books again. Too bad, because I think she had a really great concept with poor execution. I left a generous review which was still the worst one I've ever left, and received a response that as I had purchased the $2.99 version it was unedited. The $9.99 version was the edited version, and I should repurchase the more expensive version to see the changes! I was horrified by the response. If it were my book, and I had put out an unedited version, I would send the new, edited version FREE to all readers of the old one, hoping to change their minds. So on top of a humungous lack of editing, it was topped off with an even larger lack of tact. (Of course, I would never send out a completely unedited version.)

    I don't mind if a book has a few errors, especially if the book is good. But seriously, unedited = unacceptable.

  6. Wow! You have got to be kidding me. An unedited version?? (and I don't use double end punctuation lightly :)

    That's nutty. I guess I should consider myself fortunate that as a high school English teacher, I catch enough of my own mistakes to get past most readers.

    Then, of course, there are the rules we break as writers, but as I tell my students, you have to know 'em before you can break 'em.

    Then there's Cormac McCarthy. Did you get a chance to read my recent post about him? I love his stuff, but as a grammarianazi (just made that one up), it took me awhile to get into it.

    Paul D. Dail A horror writer's not necessarily horrific blog