When seeking publication, the best strategy is to help others help you achieve your aims. The author who presents a thoroughly professional manuscript to an agent or editor has a huge advantage over other writers who don’t.
To effectively self-edit, an author must acquire editorial distance—no easy task. Begin by narrowing your focus to specific aspects of your book. Read on, and ask yourself whether the issue being discussed applies to your work-in-progress.
- Review your book’s scenes and chapters and study when and how your characters are introduced or described.
Meeting your characters should not slow down the action with too much personal info or intrusive flashbacks. Consider whether there might be a better way to convey the same information using dialogue or action. Watching what characters do and hearing what they say may provide readers with a richer introduction. (It can also be fun to learn about characters by what others say about them.)
Everything you know about a character need not be on the page.
You may have done an Enneagram or studied your character’s horoscope, but much of your work as author can remain hidden. Let your knowledge inform the character within the story.
Your reader can—and even should—fill in some of the blanks. “Show don’t tell” is a cliché, but when a book gets boring it’s often because there’s too much description or exposition. Readers should be informed as unobtrusively as possible about any necessary backstory or events that occurred before the book’s start.
As for the info needed to operate the plot, scan your pages to see if there are instances of the dreaded info dump. Too much exposition is sometimes found tucked into an interior monologue—making it truly dull. Take preventive measures so your readers never ever start skimming.
- POV consistency is key.
On the Career Authors site, we’ve been a bit obsessed with Point of View—probably because we’ve seen so many good books go wrong because of POV problems.
We’ve warned authors that—despite Dan Brown’s novels—omniscient POVs are frowned upon by most American agents and editors. Writers sometimes think an omniscient POV will be the easiest to execute, but that’s not the case, and the result can be a muddled mess.
First-person POV and third-person POV are the more common in commercial fiction these days. If writing in first-person POV, make sure your character is strong and unique enough to hold the reader’s attention over an entire book. First-person POV is intimate and up close so your character must be engaging and appealing. Readers should want to remain at their side.
Less intimate third-person POV straddles between first-person closeness and omniscience. Writers using this POV must determine their own narrative distance—for example, how much your character’s emotions inform the narrative.
The most common POV problem is inconsistency—for example, a third-person POV becomes omniscient and jumps to another head.
Review your manuscript, make sure each scene stays in a single POV.
- Balance character and plot.
Too much character can slow a story’s pacing. Too much plot, and readers may feel a lack of anyone to care about.
Telling details offer authenticity and nuance, but are you including too many descriptions? Make sure that everything on the page—about the characters or otherwise—is relevant to the plot. Does it advance the story in some way? If not, you risk boring readers.
Also, consider if when you are sharing relevant info is optimally dramatic. Everything interesting about your character need not be right up front. At what point of the book will certain plot or character revelations have the most impact?
When reviewing your book, try to read it as if you are doing so for the first time. Examine the text with a cold eye: What do you spend time on? What might you spend too much time on? You might want to cut a subplot … or maybe one is needed.
- Create effective dialogue.
Compelling dialogue is key to a successful commercial novel. Dialogue brings characters alive, but when you are writing dialogue, it’s only so realistic.
Your job is to make dialogue read realistically on the page while conveying your intended meaning.
Written dialogue is fake.
It’s more focused than real speech. However, dialogue shouldn’t sound too perfect. If you read your dialogue aloud, does it sound natural or stilted? A fictional conversation should have rhythm. Mimicking speech patterns makes dialogue ring truer, but often just a touch of accent or nuance is enough. Avoid cartoonish accents or patois.
For realism, use more contractions or fragments in your dialogue. Keep an eye out for fancy words that people wouldn’t normally vocalize—like vocalize.
Be sure there are no huge blocks of dialogue or lengthy speeches in your novel. If there are, break them up with characterizing action and expression.
On the other hand, don’t slow down or make a tense dialogue exchange clunky by adding too many interruptions.
Study your dialogue to see if characters might be explaining things that in reality would go unsaid.
Also, writers sometimes make the mistake of relying on dialogue tags to help clarify the meaning of what’s being said. A character replies mournfully or someone else gasps their dialogue. Don’t do this.
You are advised to stick to the basic “he said/she said,” and to avoid adverbs ending in -ly.
Instead, work on bettering the actual dialogue itself to convey your intended meaning.
Read your dialogue out loud—or ask someone else to read it to you—and see if it rings true, if it has rhythm. Note where there are glitches—and revise.
- Balance interiority and action.
Readers often get acquainted with characters by being privy to their thoughts—but don’t get lazy and rely too much on these inner musings. Mix it up with action and dialogue.
Think about how important your character’s feelings are to each specific scene, then decide how much interiority to include in that scene. Be subtle.
If you are writing in third person, don’t intrude with first-person thoughts. Keep a consistent POV.
And if writing in third person, you can likely dispense with tags like “he wondered” or “she imagined.”
Also, you need not set off interior thoughts with italics.
- Deepen the beat like you mean it.
Beats are bits of action—sometimes physical gestures— scattered throughout a scene. Maybe a character walks to a window and looks outside.
Inserted beats help writers pace their dialogue. With telling details or imagery, beats can also link dialogue to setting—but don’t go overboard and let interruptions bog down a conversation. Don’t muck up the rhythm with too much description.
It’s okay if your reader does some work; they’ll be more invested in your story. Peruse your prose and trim out pointless beats:
For what narrative purpose does your character go and look out the window?
How does that action contribute to the character’s story?
A beat should do more than break up prose. It should add greater meaning to your story.
- Stay conscious of pacing at the paragraph level.
Look at your book’s paragraphs. Are they extra-long? By that, I mean more than half a page.
Shortening paragraphs can make the story feel more dynamic. A tense scene might have shorter paragraphs, shorter sentences, and terser dialogue.
Or you might want to give your reader a break from the action. Lengthening short paragraphs can chill the text.
Examine your scenes and determine what mood you mean to convey within it.
- In this scene, what experience do you want to provide your reader?
- In this scene, how do you want to make them feel?
- Would breaking up some of your paragraphs improve the reader experience—or possibly improve reader comprehension?
- Avoid the Department of Redundancy Department.
Scour your text for repetition. Make sure you are not stressing or repeating any point to excess—this can get tiresome, even irksome.
Also, consider repetition on the macro level. Are some scenes—or possibly even chapters—too similar to others, or making the same point?
Does your character’s interior dialogue focus too much on the same thing? Sometimes a writer’s single characterization—like their character’s nervous stomach growls—is used to noticeable excess.
Keep your prose lively. Avoid crutch words and vary your character descriptions.
You may have a great story idea, but if your manuscript looks and reads like a professional’s best effort, publishing pros will be more eager to do business with you. Polish the gem ‘til it gleams.
What gives you trouble when reviewing and editing your own manuscript? What are your editorial blind spots? Share with us on Facebook.