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Be a self-editing ninja with these tips

Learn editing discipline by identifying your weak spots

Growing up with journalist parents, I learned early on how to look at my own writing with a critical eye—how to focus on the message, mine the draft for my best work, and get rid of the flab. Later, working full time as a writer and editor, I learned from more mentors how to nip and tuck and style and polish copy in genres ranging from technical reports to news articles to marketing brochures. Sometimes a total reconstruction was necessary; other times just a little revamping and proofreading were required.

Little did I know then that the editor’s eye I developed over time would become one of the most valuable resources in my indie author toolkit. I never edit as I write the first draft. That way I can just enjoy the process and feel totally free and creative. From the second draft to the very last draft, however, I look at the manuscript with an editor’s eye. I’ve learned some time-saving ways to keep the draft as clean as possible as I head toward the finish line. Here are some of the editing techniques I deployed to get my Mira’s Way manuscript in good shape before I sent it to the editor for one last pass.

Ninja self-editing tips and techniques

Use self-editing books for fiction writers. I spent most of my writing life as a nonfiction writer/editor, so I had a steep learning curve when it came to editing fiction.

My favorite self-editing book is Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Brown and Dave King. Examples of the great tips in that book:

Watch out for overuse of the dreaded “as”: “As she got out of bed she noticed the sun streaming through the window.” “The dog barked as it trotted down the street.” “She laughed as she tossed her hair.” You get the idea.

Dialogue tags. Don’t go crazy with this kind of thing: “He snorted.” “She snarled.” “He growled lustily.” “She huffed angrily.” Instead, keep dialogue tags simple. Stick mostly with “He said,” “She said” and only rarely venture into adverb territory.

Another standout book for me is The First Five Pages: A Writer’s Guide to Staying out of the Rejection Pile by Noah Lukeman. I studied this book carefully when I wrote The Girl from Oto and I am still mindful of Lukeman’s advice when I think about pacing, tension, and dialogue.

Read your manuscript in several different forms. Read it on your computer screen, but even more importantly, print it out. Format it in different ways: as a basic manuscript or in  paperback novel format (if you use Scrivener, compile and export it in different styles). You’ll be amazed at how many new things jump out when you read the words in different fonts and style settings.

Read your manuscript out loud. This is so important. You will catch a zillion little errors when you read your work aloud. I also use my computer’s speech function to save my voice. Here’s how to enable that on a Mac. Non-mac computers also perform this snazzy trick. Some people swear by reading the manuscript backwards. I’ve never tried this. If you have and you think it’s useful, let me know.

Know your “issues” and watch for them. Yeah, I’ve got issues. And one of them, as my teenaged daughters know well, is that I really can’t stand the song called “Issues.” But more importantly, I have a couple of writing issues that don’t seem to go away. One is repetitive words. Apparently I can’t get enough of “swirling,” “shimmering,” “gleaming,” “snaking,” and “whirling.” I have a real soft spot for “skittering.” And don’t even get me started on “staring,” “glanced,” “gazed,” and “regarded.” You can only use “looked” so many times, people! But still. It can get…excessive. So I watch for the words that I use too often and eliminate or replace them as much as possible. A related issue is narrative redundancy. It’s incredible how many times one can say the same thing in a slightly different way. It’s even more incredible how often one can read those redundant passages without noticing how redundant they are.

Fact-check. As a writer of historical fiction I am always checking and re-checking facts, place name spellings, etc. I try to do this as I go along draft by draft. I learned the hard way that if I get lazy and type in a misspelled word planning to fix it later, it can evade even the most ardent proofreaders and make it into the published book! That’s right, Herotodus—sorry, make that Herodotus—I’m talking about you. But the beauty of being indie authors is we can go back and fix those typos and republish our books instantly, so it’s not the end of the world if a typo makes it past our eagle eyes. Deep breath. Repeat.

Use a style guide. This is a trick I learned from older, wiser editors long ago. Using your style manual (I use Chicago Manual of Style, 17th Edition), make an alphabetical style guide for the document you’re editing. That way you won’t scratch your head every time you see the word “baroness” and wonder if it should be capitalized or not. As I read through my drafts, I make of note of each instance where I’m unsure about correct spelling/usage of a word or phrase or numeral or title and I insert it into my style guide (this is particularly important for the historical narrative). This guide is a critical part of the proofreading process.

So there you have it, my ninja list of self-editing techniques. Go forth, self-edit, and most importantly, hire an editor, too!

*This article contains the use of affiliate links. If you click on a link and buy something, I will get a few cents. Full disclosure!

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