On Monday, I shared my five top tips for editing your own writing, from a writer’s perspective.
Today, as promised, I’m following up with five top tips from an editor, thanks to the willingness of professional (and respected) freelance editor Nicola O’Shea.
“Nothing beats feedback from an objective reader (that is, not a family member or friend),” says Nicola. “But I hope these tips help you get your manuscript in the best shape possible before you hand it over to other readers.”
An editor’s 5 top tips for editing your first draft
- Get some distance. Put your manuscript completely away for a month, then read it through in one go – preferably on hard copy and resisting the temptation to tweak. You’re looking for places where the story feels flat, where the pace drags, where your characters are passive rather than active, where plot lines fall away without being resolved, for long blocks of narrative text without any dialogue. Mark these spots and come back to fix them only once you’ve completed your full read.
- Examine your point-of-view (POV) choices. Are you telling this story through a first-person narrator (‘I’ voice); or one or more third-person (‘he’, ‘she’, ‘they’) narrators? Does your choice of POV limit the story in any way? (E.g. a first-person narrator must be present for all plot events, unless you can find another way to present that information.)
If you have a lot of POV characters, ask yourself what each POV is adding to the story. Usually you can remove secondary POVs and limit yourself to main characters’ POVs.
Are you in control of the POV within each scene, or does it jump around between characters (‘head-hopping’)? Ideally you’d stay with one POV per scene or chapter.
- Create a scene breakdown. This is a summary of the plot events in each scene, the characters involved in them, and choice of POV. Use this skeleton structure to track your main characters’ story arcs and motivations, and to look for missing scenes or unresolved plot lines. Examine each scene individually to make sure it has a clear purpose and structure, and contains some kind of conflict.
- Read your dialogue aloud, or ask someone to read it to you. If you can hear your dialogue as it would be spoken, you’ll be more likely to notice whether you’ve let a character speak for too long, or whether their vocabulary and sentence structure are too elaborate. Most people use contractions in dialogue (we’ll, I’ve, wouldn’t, let’s) and often speak in fragments rather than complete sentences.
Look out for characters over-using each other’s names in conversation; filler text (e.g. hellos and goodbyes); or characters telling each other information they already know for the benefit of readers.
- Tighten your language. Once you’ve completed your structural revisions, turn your attention to your language. Run a spell-check and decide on each change individually; then search for misused homophones that the spell-check won’t pick up (they’re, their, there). Remove adverbs that repeat the sense of the verb they’re attached to (the TV blared loudly; she shrieked piercingly); cut filler words like totally, very, actually, completely, probably, and started to or began to before a main verb (e.g. she started to walk downstairs becomes she walked downstairs). Look for passive constructions (he was asked to leave) and consider making them active (they asked him to leave).
Nicola O’Shea has been a book editor since the mid-1990s, and a freelance editor since 2004. She helps authors prepare their manuscripts for submission to publishers or for self-publishing; and regularly freelances for Australian publishers.
Nicola offers Skype feedback sessions, in which she’ll read the first 5000 words of your novel or memoir and then offer feedback in a 45-minute session on Skype. $195. For details and to book, click here.
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Or check out So You Want To Be A Writer (the book), where my co-author Valerie Khoo and I have distilled the best tips from hundreds of author and industry expert interviews. Find out more and buy it here.