So I've been quiet for a while, because I'm almost done with a new book, a m/f paranormal. Right now, I'm doing a run of self-editing before I send it to my editors. I would be a rich woman if I had a dollar from every author who asked, "Why? Your editor will catch your mistakes."
The absolute bottom line is this... The more time I spend making my book perfect, the quicker it will be published. The more time I spend self-editing, the more mistakes my editor will catch. The more time I spend correcting my own crap, the easier it will be for my editor to catch inconsistencies and areas that need more work.
There is no downfall for taking the time to self-edit. And when I'm done with that, it will go to a friend for a copy edit so it's even cleaner.
So what do I do when I self-edit? Here are 12 steps to consider.
1. Run a spell check.
Such a simple thing that so few authors actually do. A spell check will also catch some words that are used improperly, extra spaces between words, wrong punctuation, and more. You'll find it in Word under the Review tab, all the way to the left (most versions, anyway.) You can always Google it for your version or word processor.
I wouldn't rely on spell check for grammar. Word often tells you to use wrong words and it has have no clue how to use commas or a semi colon. So don't even look at that unless you KNOW your grammar like a pro.
2. Look for "filter" words
I'd never heard it called this until I had a chat with my senior editor. I try not to use these as much as possible, but some authors will use them for the rough draft and replace them during editing. I'm lazy, so I just avoid them.
Filter words to look for: Realize, thought, knew, saw, wonder, look (I HATE THIS WORD), feel/felt, can/could, decided, sound/heard, touched, was, MOVE.
I saw the train moving along the tracks as I was standing there on the tracks, and I wondered if I should move. I heard the whistle blaring and felt scared.
The train thundered along the tracks, the ground shaking as the whistle blared, practically bursting my eardrums. My heart pounded, my palms sweating as I leaped out of the way.
3. Brush up on your grammar and punctuation!
If you don't know the rules to good grammar, now is the time to go revisit them with a cup of coffee and a biscuit (I'm hungry.) Commas are a big one, so if you can only focus on one, start there. A clue--if you don't know what an Oxford comma is, then you need to study. If you have absolutely no clue how things are punctuated, there are websites and books that help.
- Most publishers follow the Chicago Manual of Style (CMOS), and you can purchase the book or go to their website and use the online manual. You can also get an online subscription for a year and access all of the web stuff.
- I love Grammar Girl, a blog that gives lots of quick and dirty tips. You can Google that stuff and get a gold mine of advice.
- Grammar Bytes! is a fun site with a lesson and grammar games. You get to win fake diamond rings or if you lose, get eaten by alligators or hit by a speeding meteor.
4. Zero in on repetitive words
Look for words that are repeated over and over. There could be several on a page, there could be just plain overuse. Some of these are filter words, but they're also repetitive. In a love scene, you'll want to vary body part usage so it's different. Some repeat offenders: Push, pull, reach, move, felt.
5. Put a halt to the pronouns
In sections of the book that have a lot of cause and effect (like sex scenes) you'll want to look for too many sentences that begin with pronouns. She did this. He did that. They did this together. And opting for a character's name does NOT fix the issue. The sentence will need to be rewritten.
She finished dinner. He smiled. They both enjoyed their meal. (If you look, these are also the same length sentences, which makes it choppy. This short passage also lost the POV character in the monotony.)
Example: With a sigh of contentment, Tanya placed her napkin on her lap, happy and satisfied. How long had it been since Bill had smiled at her like that? She couldn't recall, but that tell-tale crinkle around his eyes said he enjoyed his meal, too.
The next few checks aren't as easy to fix as the above, but they are something I do check as I go along.
6. Vary your sentences!
Sentence lengths should vary in the book, and can be used to convey pace. So a longer sentence slows things down, and a shorter sentence speeds thing up. However, you want to try vary this so it's nicely balanced. Too many short sentences make the story choppy. Too many long sentences tends to feel monotonous.
7. Set the scene
I'm a very visual writer and reader, so I want to know immediately where the scene is set, who's there, what they're doing, how much time has passed since the last scene or chapter, how they all got there. In a movie, you see all those things, so it's good to know immediately so you can picture the scene.
Even if your chapter is merely a scene that's been broken up to start a new chapter, you still need to set that new scene. Though we like to think everyone turns the page, the reader may have had to feed her kids or run to the bathroom. I hate picking up a book and having no clue where I am, and I hate going back to see.
Also, you want to set the scene in the new point of view character, you'll want to set the scene from their eyes, so we see it as they do.
Finally, when you introduce a character or location as a scene shifts, you need to give the reader a picture of that again even if you'd done a description before. So Johnny walks in, what is he wearing and what's his state of mind? Is the fountain behind him off or on? Are the lanterns lit, or is the sun high in the sky? These little details matter.
8. Too much is NOT a good thing.
I tend to write a lot of dialogue and then sprinkle in the introspection and stage direction as needed. Others like blocks of narration. However, there are some warning signs to look for.
Too much dialogue with no tags or stage direction.
This becomes "talking heads." That means the reader just hears the dialogue and forgets what the background is. Are they in a restaurant? At the zoo? On a space walk? Sprinkling in these details along dialogue can help ground the reader and help see more. The POV character can also give some internal dialogue about events going on.
Too much narration between dialogue lines in a dialogue scene.
Good flowing dialogue should zip right along. If there's a line of dialogue, a paragraph of narration, then a line of dialogue and another paragraph of stage direction, the pacing will bog down. Try to put dialogue close together, and then put narration in a spot where the character isn't required to answer or the dialogue isn't closely linked. This will help with flow.
Too much introspection or narration.
Dialogue moves the story forward, and narration slows it down a bit. Too much narration is not good. If you look at your book and notice a lot of pages with no dialogue, there's probably an issue and the story is going to bog down in pacing.
9. Read your story aloud.
Reading your story aloud will catch any missing words, pacing issues, and dialogue issues. You can also read it backwards.
10. Print your manuscript and go old school.
Sometimes, changing from a computer screen to a hard copy is enough to catch those last minute mistakes.
11. Change fonts or read on your e-reader.
Lastly, you can catch mistakes by changing fonts or loading the document to your e-reader.
First, simply changing fonts and margin sizes makes a huge difference. We catch a lot of mistakes during galleys (the last print proof before publication) because it's in a different font or format. I always write in a different font, then change it to something else when I edit, then use TNR for the publisher.
You can load a Word document to a Kindle by emailing it to your Kindle's email address (located in your Amazon account if you don't know it.) I'm not sure if you can do the same for Nook, but it's very easy to make a PDF for any reader. You may need to download Adobe (it's free.)
12. Fix your formatting...
This last one is important, because all of this stuff takes time. If you can learn to set up your document in a professional manner, you won't need to go back and fix things. Word sometimes does funky things with a new document, so you end up with huge spaces between paragraphs, end up having to tab your paragraph indents or worse, five spaces... And perhaps you're still from the typing world where two spaces after a period is the norm. It's no longer correct, so you want ONE space.
Quick look at formatting (because I could be here all night):
- 1" margins, readable font, 12 or 14 point, double spaced
- Indent paragraph spacing to .5" DO NOT TAB OR DO SPACES
- No block paragraphs or spaces between paragraphs
- Remove double spaces after periods by doing a FIND (hit space bar 2x in the field. It will be blank but your cursor will move) and then REPLACE (hit space bar 1x.) Do this a few times to get rid of extra spaces.
- For the love of small creatures, use a Page Break at the end of each chapter. DO NOT do a section break. DO NOT hit enter until you think it's great. Go to the INSERT tab, then hit PAGE BREAK.
- Don't use fancy bookmarks, fonts, colors, underlines. Someone has to take all that crap out to publish your book. Just don't do it.
Here is my handy formatting screen shot to show you how to do this stuff!! The HOME page in Word is where you find all of this formatting goodness. Go to the paragraph part part right below, and click the arrow. That dialogue box will pop up. Make your box look like mine. You'll click the boxes to get what you want. But everything should be set at 0 on the left, SPECIAL click FIRST LINE, BY is the default .5", then set to double spacing.
If you've done these steps, you're ready to send your manuscript out into the big, bad world. Congrats!