How to be your own best editor: Part III

This is the third and final post in a series of posts about what I did to ensure that the historical mystery I just published, Maids of Misfortune, was professionally edited. Part I detailed how I worked to develop the skills to be my own best editor. (A necessity for an indie author, but as discussed in numerous blogs, increasingly a necessity for traditionally published authors as well.) Part Two described the actual process I went through as my own developmental editor.

This third post enumerates what steps I followed to substitute for the copy editing that traditional publishing houses provide. Again, I want to thank Alan Rinzler for his definitions that distinguished between the job of developmental editors and copy editors, “who take a manuscript that has already been developed and correct the spelling, grammar, punctuation, and in some cases fact-checking.” Choosing a freelance editor

In order to ensure I had a clean, well copy-edited final manuscript I followed these steps:

  1. Read my manuscript through, focusing on grammar and punctuation.
  2. Read my manuscript out loud to someone else.
  3. Assembled a team of readers with different strengths to copy-edit for me
  4. Corrected the manuscript after first printing-when new errors were found

Step One

When I was doing my developmental editing I had looked for basic grammatical errors, but I knew that I was missing things, particularly in those sections I was rewriting extensively or writing for the first time. So, after all the rewriting was done, I went through the manuscript word by word, checking every comma, looking for misplaced modifiers, scrutinizing the rhythm of every string of dialog, and making sure that every rule of good writing was followed consistently.

In this process I used Microsoft Word’s little squiggly red and green lines that indicated that there were misspelled words or grammar problems to double-check my own editing.  I also used the useful search and replace abilities of Word to make sure that I had caught all the places where I still had two spaces instead of one between sentences. This function was additionally useful to check that the name changes I had made from previous drafts had been applied.

Step Two

Last year I attended the 2009 California Crime Writers Conference, and one of the most frequently offered pieces of advice at that conference, by writers, agents, and editors, was to read your manuscript out loud. I had never done this before, but who was I to ignore the one point every professional in the business actually agreed on.

Serendipitously, soon after I returned from that conference, a friend asked if I would like to read my manuscript to her. Years earlier she had been part of a writers group that read their work aloud and she had enjoyed the process. As a result, over 4-5 lovely sessions lasting several hours each, I read Maids of Misfortune to her. This was a wonderful experience. First of all, I got immediate unfiltered feedback. She was able to tell me at the end of each chapter if she felt confused or if the story dragged. Even better, I could see when the writing was working. When she laughed at the right places, shivered over a tense scene, professed to be unable to tell who the murderer was, and even delayed leaving so I could read “just one more” chapter before she had to go, I got the kind of positive feedback a writer seldom gets. This alone was worth the sore throat from hours of reading aloud!

I also discovered a number of bad writing habits. I found little repetitive phrases and words that I had never noticed. Yet, when you say a word or phrase out loud, over and over, they come right out and hit you in the face. I also found sentences that were grammatically correct, but still too long or awkward. I found missing words and punctuation that my mind had simply filled in when I read to my self. It was a humbling but very useful process-and one I will never forgo in the future.

At the end of this process I had the manuscript as clean as I could make it. Nevertheless, I realized that to be my own best editor, I also needed to turn to others for help at this stage. No one, even a professional copy editor, can catch every error on their own.

Step Three

My next task was to assemble a team of readers. While I had asked members of my writers group and friends to read my manuscript before, this was the first time I was asking them to copy edit. In the past I had actually asked them not to do so–since I was most interested in hearing their opinions about characterization, plot development, and voice. I had been able to do this in part because I had confidence that my basic writing skills were good and that I wasn’t asking them to read a hopelessly messy draft.

If you are a beginning writer, you might want to ask someone whose writing skills are superior to yours to read and closely edit at least a portion of your work. This will tell you how much cleaning up you should do before asking anyone else to read the manuscript.

I think that a writer has to be careful not to abuse the friends, family, and other writers that they turn to for help. This means making sure you have solved the problems you do recognize before asking anyone else to read your work. It also means being careful not to over use readers. Reading another person’s manuscript and writing up thoughtful comments is hard work. While friends and family usually love the idea of being part of the process–if you ask too much of them, there will be diminishing returns. Each time they read a draft, the less they will see wrong with it–or conversely–the more frustrated they will become if they didn’t see improvement.

I was fortunate because my writers group hadn’t seen a copy of my manuscript in over four years, and some of the other friends I turned to hadn’t seen a copy in over ten years. As a result, I knew that they would be coming fresh to the work. I was also confident that the draft they were reading was so improved from the previous drafts that I wasn’t asking them to do anything very painful. However, again, if you are just starting this process–you might think about keeping some people who have expressed interest in reading your work in reserve for subsequent readings.

I was also fortunate in having potential readers with different strengths–a kind of editorial board with multifaceted skills and experiences. I would recommend that all writers think about developing this sort of support group.

I gave my manuscript to people:

  • Who are published writers (and this can mean non-fiction articles and books, short stories, fiction)
  • Who edit other people’s work (teachers, editors, administrative and research assistants)
  • Who teach writing (high school, college, private workshops)
  • Who read extensively in my subgenres (mystery, romance, and historical fiction)
  • Who are knowledgeable about my subject material (Nineteenth century and Women’s history)
  • Who are good with detail

In all, I had six people read my manuscript. Many of them had overlapping areas of expertise. For example, all three of the members of my writer’s group are published authors, teach, and read mysteries. Did I need all six? I think so. While all of my readers caught small typos (interestingly about half of the errors were caught by more than one reader–the rest of the errors were caught by single readers–and therefore wouldn’t have been caught without their input.) More importantly, my reader who loves light romantic fiction was able to point out the few places where I undercut the hero–something the rest of my readers wouldn’t have noticed, while those readers who were historians were important resources to ensure I didn’t get the facts wrong.

After going through the responses from all these readers, and making all the needed corrections and changes, I had a polished, well-edited manuscript that was ready to publish. However, it turned out there was one final step.

Step Four

After I published my book (as an ebook and print on demand paperback), and the first few friends began to read it, one of those readers found typos. Twenty-two to be exact. I felt terrible. How could I or my selected board of editors not have found them?

But, being an indie author who has self-published. I was in a vastly superior position to an author who had gone the traditional route. I didn’t have to wait for a reprinting (which might never come) to make corrections. I could take my self-published work back, make the corrections, and reissue a corrected copy (or electronic files), with only the loss of about 2 weeks. And in the future, I will make sure that reader–the one who turns out to be very good with detail—gets to read the paper proof copy of any book I write, before I publish, so in the future I may get to skip step four.

In conclusion

As I look back at these three posts, I confess there really isn’t much original material, since most of what I did has already been discussed in the numerous blogs that give advice about writing and publishing. However, I hope readers have found some benefit in a detailed description how one author has tried to follow that advice. I also hope that the message has been clear that those of us who are independent authors and publishers must take responsibility for the professional level of our work, but that this can be done without expending a great deal of money.

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