You did it! You’ve seen through the whole process of writing a book, and that’s certainly cause for celebration. But as one chapter closes, so to speak, experienced authors will know all too well that another is waiting to begin. Once you and your manuscript have had some time to cool off, you’ll need to start the tedious task of editing.
Though it can be a long and arduous job, a thorough edit is crucial to any book’s success. Enlisting the help of a professional will make for a smoother ride, but a complete overhaul of your book won't come cheap. So to avoid paying editors to fix problems you can take care of yourself, first rid your manuscript of these four errors!
1. A shaky story structure
“When you write a book, you spend day after day scanning and identifying the trees. When you’re done, you have to step back and look at the forest.” This is the advice that literary legend Stephen King gives to aspiring authors in his memoir On Writing. What he means is that the first step in any successful edit is to look at your book as a whole.
Though it’s essential to tidy your prose further down the road, the first round of editing should focus on ensuring that your story structure is complete and compelling. Big changes can be daunting (which is why lots of authors jump straight to the minutiae), but now’s the time to roll up your sleeves and get to work — your book will thank you for it.
One way to assess your big-picture plot is to make a note of every scene in your manuscript, either on notecards or using writing software. Describe what happens in a couple of short sentences and jot down any advancement in the plot. To make the process more visual, try color-coding the scenes according to character, plot thread, and theme, so you can clearly see what the scene is advancing, what might be hogging the limelight, and what could use more airtime.
By looking at your manuscript as a whole, you’ll quickly recognize any major structural problems. Don’t make the mistake of assuming you’ll have none! Whether you’re a plotter or a pantser, it’s nigh impossible to write a book without going off script: perhaps you got carried away with a character’s backstory, or inspiration struck and you took an unexpected turn. Discovering errors as large as a pacing problem or tangled plot thread is painful for any writer, but it’s always better to fix them before hiring a developmental editor — who would charge a pretty penny for a whole structural rewrite.
2. An unmotivated cast
You can never be told too often about the importance of character motivation: what your character wants is what drives the narrative arc. Without this, your story wouldn’t exist.
Every single character, but especially the protagonist and antagonist, should have a multilayered chain of motivations. For example, you might say that Harry Potter wants to defeat Lord Voldemort. Sure, but to truly understand his motivation, you need the ‘in order to’: what influences are driving this desire? Harry Potter wants to defeat Voldemort, in order to save the Wizarding World. Why? Because he wants to protect the people that he cares about. Why? Because he grew up without parents and now treasures his relationships more than anything.
A well-rounded character will have a whole set of varying motivations. For example, Harry is also motivated by the desire to fit in and make friends. You can think of your own character’s motivations like a hand of playing cards: if they’re going to act, they must first ‘play’ a motivation. Picture each scene through their eyes and ask yourself what reason they have for acting the way they do.
As the puppetmaster behind your characters, you’ll have a much deeper understanding of their motivations than an editor, so it’s best to save the expertise of editors for other tasks. And if you do come across a scene where your character’s motivations are unclear, the error should hopefully be fixable with a quick clarifying tweak, or the addition of a scene or two. If not, perhaps that scene is unrealistic and you should cut it!
3. Small descriptive inconsistencies
Once you’re happy with your characters on a big-picture scale, it’s time to take out your magnifying glass and zero in on all the details.
Little descriptive details are essential to character development. They bring your cast to life and lend insight into what they’re inclined to notice about their surroundings. However, if these details are inconsistent — if your protagonist’s neighbour is six feet tall on one day, for example, and struggling to peer out the kitchen window on another — then your believable characters begin to crumble.
Of course, it’s easy to see how small descriptive inconsistencies can slip through the cracks. When you’re writing a novel with a large cast and interlacing plot threads, minor details about secondary characters and infrequent settings are hard to keep track of. And if you, the author, find it difficult to remember these details, you can understand how long it might take an editor to comb through — which is why it’s best to check your manuscript for overlooked errors before hiring a professional.
As you read through your manuscript you might create a master document of easily ‘forgettable’ details — perhaps for each character and location — to refer back to. And if you want to double-check (because it’s always good to be thorough) you can go through your list and use Command + F to search your manuscript for each instance of that detail.
4. Lots of excess fat
I always like to bring my posts full circle, so let’s end with another writing quote from the esteemed Stephen King. “When your story is ready for a rewrite, cut it to the bone. Get rid of every ounce of excess fat.” If you want to know what this looks like as a number, the general rule is that you should be cutting around ten percent. I know that sounds like a lot of hard work down the drain, but trust me, you will end up with a stronger manuscript.
If you’re unsure where to start and what to cut, then you can find ‘how to edit a book’ checklists online, or you can try an online editing tool like ProWritingAid or Hemingway. But don’t worry — whether it’s filter words or whole characters, there is always a way to trim your novel.
As you nip and tuck your book in preparation for hiring a professional editor, the most important thing to remember is to be patient. The more careful and thorough you are during your self-edit, the less money you’ll have to spend on a professional editor — not to mention, the more time they’ll have to elevate your book in more nuanced, interesting ways.
Eve Lynch is a writer with Reedsy, a marketplace that connects authors with the world’s best publishing resources and professionals. In her spare time, Eve enjoys travelling with friends and reading literary fiction, so she’s often on the lookout for scenic new places to sit down with a book — or maybe do a little writing of her own!
If the cast is unmotivated, the reader will be as well.
There's always a little cutting, but fortunately I'm such a bare-bones writer that I don't have a ton of excess.
I've literally just stopped writing my scenes out onto index cards to eat lunch and read some blog posts. Spooky :-)
My problems usually come because I don't have enough descriptions, not because they conflict. Nice post.
Great advice. My very first writing attempt was very easy to cut in half because there was so much useless description. Now I have to remember to add some in! :)
Particularly in reference to story structure. One reason beta readers are a must. They can usually spot a plot hole better than us who are too close to the manuscript.
Thank you, Eve. Great tips and useful article.
My editor has helped my manuscripts go on a diet over the years, cutting off lots of fat. Great post!
What an excellent post! Thanks you Lee and Eve!
I love to write my books but find editing so time consuming yet it has to be done.
Good post Lee.
Great post, thank you.
Superb post. I find that seeing the forest from the trees only comes when I sit down to write a short synopsis, as I did today. I do this after the second draft, and then it becomes clearer what to do on the third.
Cutting the fat sure is the way to be.
Hi Lee - excellent post from Eve - so pleased you've posted it for us ... we need to consider those who are there to help us - by ironing out most of the challenges before asking for advice. Stay safe - Hilary
Excellent tips! I often ask myself how a scene moves the plot along to keep myself from meandering about in the story. I think as writers we often enjoy the world's we create and have a tendency to hang out in our scenes needlessly.
This is a wonderful post that I'm passing along to my writer's group. You've summed up the essential parts of every good story. Thank you.
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