How To Meet The Challenge of Editing Your Manuscript
As a novel writer, the editing process seems mysterious, daunting, and unmanageable when you view it through your creative writer lens. You are right, manuscript editing requires a different mindset and separate skills.
If you approach editing with a perspective that aims to make your story the best it can be and arrange the editing process into manageable chunks, you will find that editing is a skill you can learn to make your story ready to go out into the world so you can be a successful published author.
Create Your Editing Mindset
Creating a critical mindset is the first step in the editing process. As an editor, you will examine every part of your story to make it seamless and engaging from the first sentence to the last.
You need to establish a distance to apply your critical eye to your novel. You can build your critical distance with a few simple steps.
When you take off time from your own story and practice critically examining other stories in your genre, you get your mind in gear to examine your own story with the same critical distance.
Gather your notes, take a deep breath, and pull out your novel manuscript. You’ll work through the editing process from the big picture down to the tiniest details.
Start with The Big Picture - The Content Edit
As you prepare to reread your story after your break and critical exercises, plan on making changes. As wonderful as your story is, you can make it better. Your aim is to make your novel as professional as possible.
You’ll be going through your story at least three times. The first pass at editing focuses on the story elements. There’ll be time enough for details like punctuation, spelling, and grammar after you make your changes. The story editing, often called the content or development edit, looks at your story structure, character arcs, dialogue, and scene sequence. Keep asking yourself, does this work in the story?
You’ve just read three great novels in your genre, compare your story to these examples. Know those professional authors, went through this very process before they sent their manuscript off to their professional editor.
Print out your manuscript formatted for lots of white space—wide margins, double spaced. You will hold it in your hands, make marks, and read it as a book. You’ll be entering “track changes” in your word processing software later.
Now you will use your personal editor’s blue pencil. Yours may be red or purple or green or any color that shows up against the black print. Some authors use different colors for different editorial changes—grammar and spelling, character arc, plot, scene changes. If this is your first time editing, pick a contrast color like red and start reading your story. You can refine your system later as you become familiar with the editing process.
Questions to Ask As You Read
In this first editorial read you’ll be scrutinizing your story. If you find smaller issues like grammar or spelling mark them knowing they may disappear as you make editorial changes. Be looking for ways to make your story as crisp as possible.
Does the first page hook you? Does it plunge you into the story? Does it clearly reflect the genre? Do your protagonist’s words and actions introduce his or her character?
Notice pacing like chapters or scenes that rush the story or get bogged down with detail or long descriptions.
Does each scene move the story forward? If not, mark it for deletion. If you need an element from the scene, think about where you can include it in a different scene.
Does the story have a clear three-act structure? Is your protagonist confused and thwarted in the first part of Act 2? Does she take the reins after the midpoint? Once the story reaches the climax, does it take too long to wind down?
Is the story predictable? How could you improve the twists, turns, and reversals to challenge your protagonist?
Do two characters have names that start with the same letter? If so, find a new name for one character.
If your story feels overpopulated, combine two characters with similar motivations to keep your reader from being confused.
Do your subplots integrate with the overall story? Are the spaced throughout the storyline?
Is the voice consistent throughout the story? Is one passage in a different tone?
Do you need to research a location or an object to give it more punch?
Does each character speak in a recognizable voice? Would your reader know who is speaking by the way the character speaks? Does the dialogue reflect subtext rather than always being on point?
Is the point of view consistent throughout? Is each scene told from only one point of view? If your story is told from multiple points of view, is it clear who is “speaking” in each scene?
Content editing is a long process. Plan to spend at least a week going through your story looking for every way you can tighten your story to give your reader the best experience in your genre.
Before you go to the next stage of editing, rewrite your story making the changes you noted during your critical editorial reading. Take as long as necessary to make your changes. Remember you are doing the hard work of becoming a professional writer.
The Language - The Line Edit
Once you’ve made your story changes, it’s time to look at the language you use to convey your story. Now you are looking to refine the language in the text. You are not looking so much for mistakes as the best way to structure your sentences and paragraphs to improve the readability.
You want the language to be fluid, clear, and pleasurable for your reader.
Language Questions to Ask
Are your words precise rather than general? Have you avoided clichés?
Do you repeatedly use the same words or sentences?
Are there run-on sentences? Sentence fragments?
Is the same information repeated more than once?
Does the tone shift?
Is the phrasing natural?
Is the language bland causing readers to skip a passage?
Do you use strong verbs rather than describing an action with adverbs?
After you read through to line edit your manuscript, you can use software tools to help you with your language editing. Hemingway app helps you with sentence structure to make your writing bold and clear to improve your story’s readability. ProWritingAid examines text for several writing style elements including readability, grammar, clichés, diction, and dialogue. The premium version integrates with Microsoft Word and Google Docs so you can edit in your document.
Once you have performed your content and line editing, is a good time to get feedback from other people. It is easy to get lost in your own story. Feedback from other people who read in your genre can help you spot content and language gaps you may miss. The more readers the better at this point. You want as much feedback as possible to catch any places that detract from the flow of your story.
If you are a member of a writing group, you can present your new passages for feedback and comments from members of the group.
This is a good time to get beta readers involved in your story. These are non professionals who read in your genre and will give you honest feedback about your story. You want these readers to share anything that gives them pause while reading your story from a passage that isn’t clear to a typo.
The Proofread - The Copy Edit
This final editing process and takes a fine eye for detail. You’ll want to do this in small batches because it is easy to overlook details if you spend hours working through the manuscript. You’ll be looking for consistency as well as grammar, spelling, punctuation, and syntax.
The copy edit is what many people consider is editing a manuscript. But, as you have learned, this is the last step in editing your book.
A copy of The Chicago Manual of Style is your guideline for editing a professional book manuscript. Don’t guess. Look up questions you have.
What To Spot in Your Proofreading
Double check spelling, grammar, and sentence construction (syntax).
Make sure your usage is consistent. Throughout your book hyphenation, numbers, capitalization, and fonts appear in the same manner.
Check for ambiguous statements or incorrect facts. Remember how you checked your research during the line edit?
Internal consistency. Is your blonde always blonde? Does your stutterer lose his stutter? Is your setting consistent when it shows up in various places in the story?
Mark your printed copy and then go to your writing software to make changes. The search and replace function will help you spot every use of a word to make it consistent throughout your manuscript.
One Last Check - Read Aloud
However diligent you are throughout your editing process, hearing your story read aloud can help you find awkward sentences, repeated words, and typographical errors.
There are several options to help you hear your story. Text to Speech Reader has a Chrome extension that will read your text. Natural Reader provides several voices so you can hear your text read by male and female voices with different tones and inflections.
Open your manuscript so you can make edits as you listen.
From Writer to Professional Author
Taking the time to edit your novel before you send it out sets you apart as a writer who takes the publishing process as a professional. Every step in the editing process refines your story to appeal to your target audience. They are the readers who love your story and become your fans.
As excited as you are to get your story out there, taking the time to go through the editing process not only improves your story, it gives you a better understanding of what it takes to make yourself a professional.
Keep in mind that bestselling authors take these editing steps and then work with a professional editor to find the spots they missed. Publishing houses assign a professional editor to your book. Using professional book editing services works in the same way as beta readers but with a trained professional focus to give your book the best readability and flow.
The result is a professional book that can lead to you becoming a bestselling author.
Zara Altair writes traditional mysteries set in the time of Ostrogoth Rule in Italy in The Argolicus Mysteries. Argolicus uses his observation and reason, with help from his tutor Nikolaos, to provide justice in a province far from the King’s court.
Tips to Draw Your Reader Into Your Mystery
Create a mystery that gives your reader opportunities to play and active part in unveiling the suspect.
Mindset and Methods
Beginning writers often are so involved in the process of creating a novel, they forget the reader. Readers are an author's lifeblood. They post reviews which are critical in getting your book noticed. And, as an author, they send personal messages about your book.
So, while you are writing, keep your reader in mind.
Readers, including agents and editors, need to puzzle along with your sleuth. Give them problems to solve.
Zara Altair writes traditional mysteries set in the time of Ostrogoth Rule in Italy in The Argolicus Mysteries. She coaches writers on story, especially mysteries.
Tips to Make Supporting Characters Suspicious
Supporting characters are rich tools for misdirecting your sleuth. Characters because of their secrets, lies, and coverups lead the sleuth down trails that are dead ends.
How to Make Innocent Suspects Look Guilty
When you observe people, you'll notice actions and dialogue that you can use in your mystery. Keep them in your notebook, because there are ways to make your innocent supporting characters look guilty.
Obvious Motive - the character inherits the estate, or business or wanted the victim as a partner or was being blackmailed by victim or had been jilted by the victim.
Vanishing Act - the character can’t be found when the sleuth comes to question him. He may be innocently off on vacation or a business trip or a romantic tryst. Because your investigator can't find him, he'll appear to be deliberately avoiding contact.
Stonewalling - the character can’t remember or refuses to tell where they were at the time of the murder.
Contradictory Behavior - A character who claims to be clueless about guns has an NRA membership card in his wallet, a character who claims to have been in love with the victim was having an affair with someone else.
Eavesdropper - the character is overheard telling the victim "drop dead” or threatening the victim.
Emnity - the character hates the victim. They may be business rivals involved in a nasty lawsuit or the victim stole their spouse away.
Overeager - the character goes to the investigator and provides tons of information that implicates someone else. But, only some of the information turns out to be true.
Bad Reputation - the character is known to be a liar, or a swindler, cheats on girlfriends, deals drugs, etc.
Guilt by Association - the character hangs out with unpleasant or unsavory characters or is married to someone who hated the victim.
Previously Suspected - the character was convicted of a similar crime though he always claims he was innocent.
Skeleton in the Closet - no one knows it but the character was once or still is a compulsive gambler, pedophile, alcoholic, drug addict, etc.
Crack in the Veneer - a kind, generous, flawlessly beautiful character, kicks a dog, slaps a child, or grinds an expensive piece of jewellery under his heel. Any action that seems completely out of character.
With these as starters you need to give the characters a secret and the lies they tell to cover up their secret. Building on secrets creates puzzles for your reader and sleuth to solve. Done well, the sleuth will solve the puzzle before the reader.
Zara Altair writes traditional mysteries set in the time of Ostrogoth Rule in Italy in The Argolicus Mysteries. She coaches writers on story, especially mysteries.
Find The Victim's Secrets in Your Mystery
The victim is a strategic character in your mystery. Spend just as much time developing this character as you do your protagonist and the villain.
Even though your victim is dead or soon dead, they are the character around whom the story revolves. The crime against the victim must be worthy of your story.
Know the victim’s secrets
create at least two and up to four secrets
secrets revealed through the story
physical clues and dialogue from other characters
some secrets may be red herrings that make another character look guilty
at least one will turn out to reveal the villain’s identity
Know The Victim's Secrets
Create at least two and up to four secrets about the victim. Then reveal them through the story through physical clues and dialogue from other characters.
Some secrets may be red herrings that make another character look guilty and at least one will turn out to reveal the villain’s identity.
Questions and Answers About Writing
Q: I have a story idea.
Q: I've finished my manuscript, now what?
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Basic Mystery Tropes and How to Start Writing a Mystery
I had fun with the first Mystery Monday. With an Ask Me Anything base, I answered a few questions as well as covering the topic for the day - Basic Mystery Tropes.
Links to Today's Episode
Ten ways to hide clues in your mystery.
The One Important First Step to Write a Killer Mystery
Have a question? Post it here in Comments.
Mystery Monday: Ask Me Anything
Join me on Facebook Live on Mondays for Ask Me Anything chats about writing and reading mysteries.
Great place for mystery lovers to get together.
The Word and Syntax Writer Wake Up
Nothing is perfect, especially when it comes to writing. You can always tweak for better wording. The time to tweak most is before publishing. Yes, it seems self-evident but searching for the mot juste that isn’t quite yet or refining the language of a sentence are part of the writing process.
Effective writing takes thought and time, and an ear for the vocabulary and syntax muse.
When you wake up with a new version of a sentence you wrote in your last chapter—yes, one sentence out of the entire chapter—you don’t write a note to yourself in the notebook near your bed. You get up out of bed, bring up the manuscript on the computer, and change the sentence. You do this because you know you won’t get back to sleep until you make the change.
The One Word
In the days before the internet and quick but boring results in an online Thesaurus, writers made telephone calls in the middle of the night. Who else would be up then? But, even if someone was already in bed, they woke up to talk about writing with sometimes devastating results.
What’s another word for phoenix?
And the conversation continued. If you need a translation for my fellow writer’s answer: It’s been done with excellence.
Here’s the modern day online Thesaurus answer.
Yep, pretty boring. As writers, we still need to hash out word ideas.
Now we have social media, where because it’s there 24/7, doesn’t require an immediate answer. You can post a question and although the response may not be immediate because your fellow writer lives in Bulgaria, you get an answer.
Because writing is a process, you don’t get immediate gratification, but sometimes just asking the question to another writer, gets the internal wheels turning for an alternative word choice.
Your passion shows when you care about that one right word or strengthening a sentence.
Connect with Writers
Connecting with other writers enhances your passion for writing. Writing groups can help you spot the sentence or paragraph that lags, or a better way to sequence events in a story, and even suggest the right mot juste.
One of the rewards of connecting with other writers is shared passion.
Zara Altair writes traditional mysteries set in the time of Ostrogoth Rule in Italy in The Argolicus Mysteries. Argolicus uses his observation and reason, with help from his tutor Nikolaos, to provide justice in a province far from the King’s court. Join the reader's list.
When Friends Become Enemies and Enemies Become Friends
Challenging your protagonist with obstacles adds intrigue and engagement for readers. Reversals, where what appears to be one thing turns into something else are great obstacles to throw at your protagonist. Just when the reader thinks they know, a reversal pivots the story. The protagonist experiences an unexpected challenge.
Action stories often have physical reversals such as a helicopter crash just as the hero is off to catch the bad guy. Character reversals imbue an emotional punch to any story genre.
Setting up character reversals takes a deep knowledge of your characters. You need a deep understanding of weaknesses and masks. For example,
Now think how your story would expand if both supporting characters were in your story. Will your protagonist see the manipulation of the employee? Will she triumph over the devastated woman by winning the man of her dreams?
Creating character reversal requires a deep understanding of your character. You’ll go far beyond physical description and dig into their inner makeup. Reveal the patterns, foibles, weaknesses, and strengths that belong to your character over time. You want to go from how they first appear in body language and speech to the change that emerges to challenge your protagonist.
To know about your character, dig into the under layers and past experiences.
The more you add to your character’s list of inner turbulence, the more tools you have to reveal the reversal. In your story you will start with the appearance and gradually reveal the nature that changes the character’s action.
At some point in your story, an action or piece of dialogue will trigger revealing the character’s underpinnings, change their action, and cause your protagonist to rethink their next action.
Once you have given the reader a solid idea of your character, you can hint at the change to come. To make the reversal integral to the story, drop small hints early in Act 2. Use small clues that the reader and your protagonist may overlook—a gesture, a glance, a comment that doesn’t quite fit.
Build on the character’s underlying change so that by the time you are past the midpoint, their base character creates an obstacle for your protagonist.
Take Your Reader on the Ride
As you complicate the characters around the protagonist, you create problems. Obstacles are the meat of challenging your protagonist. Using character reversals challenges your hero to strive for the goal. A novel-length story provides ample space for you to challenge your protagonist with several character reversals.
Give your hero a bumpy ride. Your readers will love the ride.
Zara combines mystery with a bit of adventure in the Argolicus Mysteries in southern Italy at the time of Ostrogoth rule.
Photo by Ariana Prestes on Unsplash
Fallacies in Logic and Rhetoric
Errors in logic and rhetoric are a great basis for characters misrepresenting themselves, obfuscating the truth, and creating dialogue based on false information.
Especially in mysteries where the protagonist uncovers the truth using fallacies by placing them in the mouths of your characters will set your protagonist down false paths.
Think of your character's personality, what they want to hide, and what type of fallacious thinking they can use to state their case.
Two Fallacy Tools for Writers
Online, information is beautiful creates a reference that breaks down various fallacies in logic and rhetoric into categories.
The website Your Logical Fallacy Is created a downloadable poster of logical fallacies that you can print out for quick reference.
Either way, you'll have tools to help you give your characters the wrong ideas.
Politics and People: Story Conflict Root
Character and conflict are at the heart of story. These story elements are as important in historical fiction as they are in any other genre.
Characters are modeled on human beings. Because human nature is a given, as an author you have a wide spectrum of character traits to play with no matter what your genre. Put your character’s traits in opposition to a situation or a person and you create conflict.
Political Power Creates Conflict
In the Argolicus Mysteries the main character, Argolicus, may be solving a murder but the politics of the time creates complications, reversals, and roadblocks. The Ostrogoths rule Italy and Roman law prevails for Italians. Basically two rules of law one for the Ostrogoths and one for Italians.
The introduction to each story tells a story of relative international peace.
With few exceptions, the western world was at peace in the year 512 after Christ’s birth. Warlords were plotting in the Balkans either for the East or the West, but mainly for their own power. Rumblings in Persian borderlands perhaps threatened the Roman Empire as seated in Constantinople. The most recent disturbances—betrayals, if you will—of the Frankish kingdoms had been settled some five years. Bishops and clergy squabbled over textual interpretations of the Gospel, patristic writings, or Patriarchal proclamations, as usual, some in a huff, others with conciliatory leanings. Vandals had controlled northern Africa for almost 100 years. The Visigoths ruled Spain and traded with avarice. In Italy affairs of concern were mainly internal—the parallel Roman law and Ostrogoth legal systems ran under the regal Edicts guided by a sense of civility, providing structure for dispute resolution.
But the stories take place in the far south of Italy, far from the capitol at Ravenna. There is social unrest, the Church and nobles vie for power, and many poor people are displaced. While many people think of politics in a national way, local politics can impact individual characters.
Think of your local town where a do-gooder serves as treasurer of several local non-profits and finds a way to skim off a little for himself from each treasury, or the local manufacturer who spends time eyeing young girls in the schoolyard. These are people with local power who also have a darker side.
Whether your story is set in the present or the distant past, the characters are human. Human nature does not change. As a writer, you don’t have to look far to find people involved in politics who hide secrets.
The challenge in historical novels is to know the politics of the time well enough to weave it into the story. The human nature of your characters takes care of their actions. The politics is part of the background that sets some people in power and others who work against that power.
Politics adds dimension. The characters provide the conflict working within the political structure. Politics is part of the story world that adds conflict by displaying human weakness.
Zara Altair writes traditional mysteries set in the time of Ostrogoth Rule in Italy in The Argolicus Mysteries
Zara Altair, Author
The puzzle of politics, the mystery of murder in ancient Italy. After Rome, before the Middoe Ages, Italy belonged to the Ostrogoths.