So, you’ve finished writing a first draft and now you’re wondering how to start editing your manuscript? It’s a daunting task, that’s for sure—especially for first-time authors.
Bestselling indie authors understand the importance of having their work read by a freelance editor. In fact, many will schedule their manuscript in with a reliable freelance editor several months in advance of completing—or even starting to write—their first draft.
You understand the importance of working with a freelance editor, too, but you also know it just isn’t a possibility right now. We can’t all afford to lay down the money for manuscript editing before our books have even made their first sale. It’s a fact of life, and bills, and another month of family birthdays on the horizon...
Don’t worry, I get it. This is the reason I aim to keep my rates as low as possible, to offer a more affordable book editing service to independent authors—but sometimes, of course, even discounted rates can be out of reach.
If hiring a freelance editor isn’t an option, and you’ve got to tackle the challenge alone, here’s some of my best advice on how to start editing your manuscript.
1. Take a break!
It might seem counterproductive, but in all honesty, taking a break and leaving the draft alone for a while is one of the best things you can do before your start to edit your manuscript.
Whether it’s a few short weeks, or even several months, time away from your project will help you to gain a fresh perspective and generate new ideas. You’ve spent so much time immersed in the story while writing, probably reading the same lines over, and over again, that by now, you wouldn’t be able to spot a continuity error if it leapt out of the page and bopped you on the nose.
Give yourself some time out. Allow your mind to defamiliarize a little. If you can’t stand the thought of being completely idle, work on a new project in the meantime. After some time, you’ll return to your manuscript with fresh eyes and just enough disconnection to be able to spot the errors and figure out how to correct them.
2. Find some beta readers
Beta readers are wonderful, helpful, charming creatures who love to assist authors with their work before it’s published. They often do this for free, or in exchange for a free copy of the book once it's published, though some more experienced beta readers may charge a fee. Some might even be happy to perform light copy editing for you, too (though, be mindful that it’s always best to employ a trained freelance editor for this task).
There are many places you can find beta readers online. Goodreads has a huge list, broken down by genre and interest. There are also Facebook groups devoted to connecting authors with beta readers, as well as dedicated websites, forums, and groups.
Just be sure to find beta readers who have read widely in your genre and are knowledgeable enough to list your manuscript’s strengths and weaknesses. It’s no use finding a Sci-Fi beta reader for your MC Romance novel, after all!
3. Evaluate the plot
An easy way to evaluate the plot in a first draft is to grab a notebook (or open a Word doc) and do a full read-through of each chapter, making a bullet-point list of events as you go.
Pay attention to whether your plot follows a logical route through beginning, middle, and end. Can you easily pinpoint the climax of the novel, each event leading up to it, and the eventual resolution? Or do you find yourself struggling to establish a pattern between chapters?
Consult your bullet-point list. This will help to give you clarity over the order of events in your novel, so you can decide whether some scenes could be merged or split, or even if anything could be cut completely.
Some writers prefer to write each event on a Post-it note, so they can literally ‘move around’ each scene and map the plot on a timeline.
Helpful tip: If you do decide to cut some scenes or events, don’t delete or throw out the bullet-point or Post-it note. Instead, separate these events into a list of their own, and after you’ve figured out the rest of the plot, go back and read through each scene you’ve decided to cut. Is there any information crucial to the plot that you’re removing? Are there any lines you can salvage, or is there any important dialogue you can slot in elsewhere?
4. Keep an eye on consistency
It doesn’t matter so much whether you put spaces between your ellipses or prefer “towards” over “toward”—the important thing is that you are consistent in your choices.
If you’ve put spaces between each ellipsis in the first half of your novel, but later on switch to closed ellipses, you’re going to annoy the grammar nerds in your audience. Worse than that, you’re going to make yourself look amateur.
For all these instances, a simple ‘Find and Replace’ search on Microsoft Word will do the trick. Run a search for every possible variant, and when you complete your final proofread, look out for any discrepancies. Your future self and your readers will thank you for it later!
5. Get to the point
A good first draft will always need rewriting. What a crazy thing to say, right? You’re probably wondering why…
Well, your first draft serves the purpose of allowing you to figure out the story before condensing it for your readers. If any writer claims they don’t need to rewrite at least some of their first draft to make it more succinct, they’re either being lazy, or they haven’t read through their work with a critical eye.
Drafting a novel for the first time can leave a lot of room for overindulgence. Whether that presents itself in the form of over-describing each character or writing ten pages to draw a conclusion that could have been reached in three, don’t be too hard on yourself. All of those words you’re about to cut from your manuscript served the purpose of cementing the story in your mind. Without them, you wouldn’t now have such a clear idea of the plot, characters, or setting.
With that in mind, it’s time to go through each chapter with a fine-toothed comb and highlight any overindulgent areas that could be shortened. I’m thinking of scenes like that entire page of narrative while your protagonist was waiting in line at the coffee shop before meeting the guy at the register who gave her the wrong change, meaning she couldn’t afford the bus home.
Do we really need to know the colour of the walls in the coffee shop, or the detailed history behind her choice of a peppermint mocha? No, probably not—we just need to know the part about the guy getting flustered when she compliments his hair and handing her a five-dollar bill instead of a ten.
(Unless, of course, the guy behind the register is about to become a central character in the story. In that case, we can keep the description here, and maybe lose the three pages following, where your protagonist describes every person walking by while she waits uneventfully at the bus stop. Oh, look! Is that the same guy from the coffee shop walking toward her? Now, that’s the bit we’re interested in.)
Be clever with your words. Get to the point instead of dragging a scene out unnecessarily. There are some details that might have been important to you while you were establishing the scene as the author, but your readers don’t need that much of an information overload.
If you find you’re still struggling with how to start editing your manuscript, I offer affordable book editing services for independent authors, and I’m always looking for my next project. Why not send me an email to check my availability, at firstname.lastname@example.org?