Thursday, March 14, 2013

How To Edit Your Story: A Handy Checklist

Whether you’re writing an article, short story, or even a novel, editing is an important part of the writing process that most people ignore. And by “important,” I mean, “you must do this if you want a chance of getting published.”

“But wait,” you say, “I’m not an editor. I’ve never edited anything in my life.” Great! Neither had I before I started editing my own work. It takes a lot of work, sure, but it’s nothing too complicated. Here are some guidelines for how to self-edit your story.

  1. Don’t. Seriously. This is the first step. Write everything first, then make changes later. There are some exceptions to this, of course, but in general, it’s better to have a finished product before you start editing. It will be terrible. That’s normal, even for really famous writers. But there will be a story to edit, which might not happen if you start editing four paragraphs in, decide you’re a terrible writer, and give up.
  2. Wait a few days at the least, preferably a week or more. Clear your brain and get some distance from the story.
  3. Read through the story once with the idea that you’re trying to remember what it’s about. Fix typos and grammar mistakes that you notice as you go, but don’t stop and look up random hyphen rules or whether or not to put spaces between ellipses. Try to get a sense for the general flow of the story.
  4.  Give the story a second read-through, probably on a different day. Make comments with the Track Changes tool if you’re working in Word. (If you don’t know how it works, here’s a tutorial. It’s an amazing, wonderful thing sent directly from God to editors.) This is the time for comments like, “Need a better transition between these sections,” “This character’s dialect needs to be more consistent,” and “Plot flaw: I really don’t think this is realistic.”
  5. As you have time, make those changes. Start with the easy things: the phrases that need to be reworded to sound less awkward, a character’s name that should be changed because it sounds too similar to another character, and so on.
  6. Now it’s time to tackle the big things. Start a new document and copy your story into it. When you’re messing with major stuff, all kinds of things could explode, and you might wish you could take everything back. Good news—if you do it this way, you can. Now, feel free to be bold. Rearrange whole sections! Cut out your first page and write a new ending! Kill a character! Kill ALL of the characters! Okay, maybe not. But you get the idea. Never get so attached to your story that you can’t make major changes.
  7. After you’ve figured out what large-scale changes you want to keep, read through the story again, because typos and other simple mistakes can creep in during re-writes. By now, you should be able to stop and look up those picky grammar and usage rules that you don’t have memorized. The Chicago Manuel of Style is a great place to start. Also, take a look at the most common problems editors have with manuscripts. Look for them. Fix them.
  8. Stop. Again, I’m being totally serious. After you’ve put in a good effort on several editing passes, you’ve done a thorough self-edit. There will always be ways you can improve, but at a certain point, you need to pass the story on to someone else to get a different perspective on it, even if you don’t think it’s perfect yet. It won’t be. That’s kind of the point.

If you’re tired of your story by now, congratulations! You should be. Most writers don’t spend nearly enough time editing, and if you do, your story will be far ahead of everyone else’s. It can be an exhausting process, but it’s worth it.

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