Welcome to Part III of our editing-focused series, After the Draft. We’re entering the final stretch of our series of steps you can follow – regardless of experience – when editing books so that your final self-edited draft is ready to begin moving up the chain toward publication.
In this edition, we’re tackling some of the more conceptual (read: you’ll have to think a lot!) edits along with a few final nips and tucks as you approach the finish line.
The end is almost in sight, so maintain your stamina and it’ll be done before you know it!
If you haven’t followed this series from the beginning, we highly recommend it. Check out the previous entries using the links below.
Editing Books: Should Writers Do It Themselves?
We’re repeating this advice in each of our After the Draft articles – but with good reason. The answer to this question is generally a resounding “Yes!”
As you’ll see once we reach the end of this guide, enlisting an experienced human editor to assist with your novel is an invaluable – and essential – part of the process. This doesn’t mean you should skip any and all self-editing, however.
It only makes sense to deliver the best self-made version of your story to a human editor. It’s both kinder to the editor themselves – since they don’t have to wade through mountains of grammatical errors, purple prose and rookie mistakes such as puffed up dialogue tags – and to your wallet, since early layers of polish helps ensure fewer rounds of more meaty changes recommended by your editor.
Fewer rounds of editing also means a quicker path to actually getting your book out into the world – so yes, it absolutely makes sense for authors to make their own book edits before heading further up the chain for additional help.
You’ll also want to enlist the help of beta readers for early feedback. And just like with your human editor, you’ll want to ensure they get the best possible version of the book that you can create. Otherwise, their feedback is less likely to be helpful in terms of the story you’re telling and the experience you’re delivering.
With that said, let’s kick off our third round of editing!
1. Let It Rest… Yet Again!
You guessed it. Just like the lead-in to the first and second stages of editing books, it’s a good idea to let it rest for a short while before heading into this final run.
You’ve been working hard so far. Give yourself a little break to reorganize and center yourself, clear your head, and then step back into the fray.
Important: Do these next things one at a time
Just like before, we’ll reiterate the importance of following the next steps one at a time if you truly want to turn your book editing into a systematic process, instead of jumping back and forth in confusion.
Stick firmly to one specific element through each pass of the manuscript. Consider your mind as a machine programmed to tackle one specific target from beginning to end. Once complete, you simply change the target and start again.
2. Dramatize, Don’t Summarize
You’ll hear it touted time and again as “the first rule of writing”: show, don’t tell.
This is a concept that often escapes the understanding of many a beginning author, which is why it’s useful to boil it down to a simpler phrase:
Dramatize, don’t summarize.
For this particular inspection of your manuscript, you’re going to comb through it carefully with an eye for detail. That is, whether you’re actually being detailed in your dramatization of the story’s action, or if you’re merely summarizing, painting things broadly and swiftly in an effort to get your point across.
In an easy sense, the difference between “showing” and “telling” can be found in the difference between showing your reader a character behaving surly, speaking aggressively and throwing their weight around, or merely telling your reader “Michael was filled with rage.”
Remember, the reading experience should be one that actively involves the reader and their mind’s eye. Trust them to read between the lines and figure out what’s going on within the seams of your dramatization. Stimulating storytelling is often about building context rather than delivering straight information.
But that doesn’t mean it should be 100% drama 100% of the time.
In most cases, you of course want to show – to bring the drama to life and have your characters and world truly express themselves. But sometimes, telling is just fine. The trouble can start when you’re trying to figure out which approach is most appropriate at certain points in your story.
One way to help you decide is to think about the importance of this information or scene to the plot. If the events are of lesser importance than others, you don’t necessarily want to get bogged down in the moment-to-moment minutiae of what’s going on. A little telling will help the pace move faster so we can get to bigger things.
On a similar note, telling helps to figuratively speed up time, where showing helps to slow it down. If you’re writing for a slow-mo effect with a certain action in a scene, for example, you’ll want to frame that action with shorter, more “telling” paragraphs that don’t get too deep into detail, before really sinking in once you hit that slow-motion moment.
Figuring all of this out can be a brain-burner. It’s never an exact science, so simply do your best as you make your way through this particular edit.
Utilizing AutoCrit’s Showing vs. Telling report will help point out areas of concern for you, as will the integrated Pacing report – which can catch slower-paced paragraphs where you might be showing a little too much and pulling back on your story’s pace.
3. Get Active
In our next editing run, we’re going to tackle passive voice.
If you’re unfamiliar with passive phrasing, this is when the subject of a sentence is acted upon, rather than taking the action themselves. For example, “The door was closed by John,” versus “John closed the door.”
A simple way to remember this is that for a sentence to be “active,” the subject itself is taking action. A common, but highly effective, tip for locating passive voice is to simply add the phrase “by zombies” to the end of a sentence. If the sentence can be understood correctly with that addition at the end, it is very likely a passive sentence.
But why is passive voice a problem? Well, storytelling is an experience. Active writing grants immediacy and involvement, whereas passive writing feels distant, disconnected – and therefore rather bland.
Tracking down passive phrasing in your manuscript takes only a matter of moments using AutoCrit’s Passive Indicators report. To jump straight to each instance of true passive phrasing, simply tick the Passive Phrasing (Auxiliary Verb + Past Participle) option. There, you’ll find each passive phrase leaping off the page with a blue highlight.
Passive voice does have its uses, so don’t feel like you absolutely have to rephrase every single instance. Much like repetition, passivity can be used for effect.
An example would be someone attempting to deflect blame. Saying something like “Mistakes were made,” either in dialogue or narration that’s embedded in the character’s perspective, gives a sense that they refuse to take responsibility; they believe outside factors are to blame.
Another place where passive phrasing can be used for effect is when removing the sense of agency from a person, place or thing. When you truly want to deliver the feeling of someone or something being acted upon – victimized, for example – the effect can be bolstered by adding passivity to the writing.
In this example from Lee Child’s Blue Moon, the opening chapter sets the scene through a combination of telling (speeding up to get background information across before the real action begins), with added passivity included to lend the sense of a city at war – dominated by the human factions that control and divide it.
4. Be Consistent
Consistency checks ahoy!
So far, you’ll likely have made a swathe of changes to your manuscript – some small, some larger – which is why consistency checks are best left until after the majority of edits have been made.
Thankfully, this one is quite simple: you’re making sure that you’re sticking to your chosen tense and point of view throughout the novel.
Is the story written in past tense? Watch out for slips into present. (Dialogue is an exception, as people can talk in all sorts of tenses – past, present, and future.)
Is the narrative written in first person point of view? Watch out for slips into second or third person.
Tense shifting is often a problem in early drafts, and now’s the time to fix it as much as you can. Don’t be too disheartened later on, though – even the best get caught out once in a while by a sneaky tense shift that slips the net.
AutoCrit’s built-in Consistency reports help make that less likely, though, with a quick breakdown of your story’s primary detected tense, plus active highlighting of passages so you can easily see spots where the tense has changed.
5. Look for Overwrought Imagery
In our previous editing run – the simple line edit – we were on the lookout for repetitive use of phrases, and this often includes metaphors.
Now that you’re no longer being repetitive, you’ll want to check that your use of metaphor and simile – and other poetic sides of your description – aren’t overblown or overwrought.
What do we mean by that? Well, we use simile and metaphor as a literary method of quickly drawing both a mental image and a sense of context, essentially taking a cognitive shortcut in the reader’s mind. They can be lyrical, of course, but you don’t want them to be too much of a reach nor too flowery.
Read through your manuscript and mark each of your similes and metaphors, then go back and consider, honestly, whether they feel natural and relatable. If they feel uncomfortable or like you’re reaching too far, you don’t necessarily have to change them right now – but keep them listed on a separate sheet for when you get feedback from your early readers. Does anyone else think the metaphor doesn’t quite work? Perhaps it made them laugh for all the wrong reasons.
As part of this check, you might also want to look out for overuse of cliché metaphors. Cliché phrases such as “Bull in a china shop” or “Everything plus the kitchen sink” can be fine – they’re clichés nowadays because they’re so often used, and therefore well understood – but overuse can make your writing feel unimaginative.
Keep an eye on how often you use literary techniques such as metaphor and simile, also. One or two in a paragraph may be fine, but a simile in every single line is a sure sign of hackneyed overwriting.
6. Read for Flow of Action
The finish line is in sight… and now we’re doing a more fun-focused read of the manuscript!
This time around, you’re going to read the book from start to finish with an eye on the Flow of Action, which you could also refer to as Order of Information.
When you’re laying out detail bit by bit within a scene, each element you introduce is like a building block that’s helping to paint a picture – and the wrong block in the wrong place can bring the whole thing crashing down. Make sure that the details you offer to the reader come across in a natural flow – that they make logical sense in the order with which you present them.
A simple way to approach this read is by considering your presentation “shot by shot,” like a movie. Does it make sense that we’re presented with a certain detail before we get the detail of something else? Think of your intentions at certain points, and how this might be presented visually on screen. A character introduction in a film, for example, might show a shot that tracks from a character’s feet, straight up their body to their face. This might be used to show how “cool” or strong they look in their gear – presenting them as powerful.
On the other hand, if the writer and director want the character to appear silly, the order (or “flow”) may be different: a shot of cool boots on their feet, then a shot of their face sporting cool sunglasses and slick hair… and then boom, a shot of a supremely silly belt around their waist. There’s the punchline.
The order in which this information is presented feeds directly into the effect it has on the audience.
Look out for spots in your manuscript where things don’t quite arrive in the correct order. Think of a scene where we’re embedded in the perspective of our main character. They’ve just entered a building, and they take a look at the carpet as they enter.
And now you jump to outside, with different things happening which your main character can’t see.
This kind of switch can feel abrupt and jarring. Instead, think of it logically as a physical experience. When you walk into the foyer of a building and look at the floor, where would your sight naturally go next? In most cases, it will drift up, taking in the straight view of the surroundings. If the building is particularly magnificent in terms of height, or holds striking elements up high, your view would likely drift on up there, only to come down again.
Therefore, it feels natural to paint detail as the character walks in with an order like this:
- The flooring.
- The people and layout straight ahead.
- The huge glass elevator at the back of the foyer.
- Tracking up as the eye follows that massive glass elevator, moving up, up, up, as people travel to the upper floors.
Unfolding detail in this way embeds itself in the human experience of the world, and comes across more fluid and natural in terms of flow.
This particular stage is something of an experiential read. You’re making sure that, visual by visual, image by image, movement by movement, the information that’s laid out throughout your story works in a coherent flow. This is so readers can easily imagine the events without stumbling (unless your intention is to be challenging and avant-garde).
7. Enlist Beta Readers
Whether you have a circle of book-hungry friends or belong to a writing group, now’s the time to bring on board a handful of beta readers. These brave souls will be tasked with reading your book from start to finish and offering their honest feedback and constructive criticisms.
Some of these criticisms are likely to lead to further edits and story changes if you agree with what has been said or, for example, a major plot hole comes to light that you previously missed.
When offering your book to beta readers, make sure not to mention anything you’re already worried about. Telling people about specific concerns will naturally make them focus on those elements – and they’ll be eager to confirm your fears or simply think a little too much, dredging up problems that aren’t necessarily worth the effort.
It can be useful, however, to provide your beta readers with a questionnaire to complete. Break this up into sections such as plot, characters, writing style etc. with space for your readers to fill in their feedback about each topic, free of direct prompts.
Once your beta feedback is in, it’s up to you to decide which points you want to take on board, and the nature of the changes you’ll make in accordance with queries or recommendations.
8. Engage an Experienced Editor
At this point, your self-editing efforts should well and truly have paid off, leaving a version of your manuscript that feels better than ever before: cleaner, tighter, and more gripping throughout.
Now that you’re happy with what you’ve produced, it’s time to move on and enlist the help of an experienced human editor. Some editors will offer developmental feedback when editing books, while others may work exclusively in a line-editing capacity, helping you further tighten your prose. Many will fall in between, offering the best combination.
Either way, be sure to check out the authors and books with which your prospective editor has worked, to ensure they have experience with your story’s genre and audience. In many cases, you’ll be able to book a short test edit through the editor’s website, just to make sure the two of you gel in terms of content and the type of feedback provided.
Ultimately, the choice of editor is yours to make. Before you reach out, though, make sure to give yourself a massive pat on the back, because…
You did it. Your self-editing run is now complete.
There’s still a little way to go before your book is truly ready to battle it out in the marketplace, but you’ve claimed an achievement that so many dream about but so few carry through…
You’ve finished a book.