Once your novel draft is done, it’s time to get down to self-editing fiction. The story may be the stuff of imagination, but the details still matter when editing a manuscript. This work must be done before you format your book.
Over the years, I have encountered many manuscripts in my work as a copyeditor and proofreader for publishing houses and small presses. I learned how to edit a book by doing hands on work. Along the way, I’ve discovered common errors that writers can catch much earlier when self-editing fiction and save themselves the heartache of mistakes in the printed book.
As a novelist, you may be making things up, but there are so many things that have to be correct when self-editing fiction so that your reader trusts you. Small errors add up to ruin the magic escape of the book.
A classic editing mistake in film is Jackie Chan’s Rumble in the Bronx, which was filmed in Vancouver. There are some shots where mountains appear in the distance. The problem with this is that you can’t see mountains from New York City. As a writer, you want to avoid the equivalent of mountains in the Bronx when editing a manuscript.
Read on to learn about the four cataclysmic mistakes writers make when self-editing fiction. By the end of this post, you’ll know how to edit a book.
Eliminate Misspellings When Self-Editing Fiction
I was once asked to proofread a reprint of a book that had many scientific terms. The text had been pulled from the UK edition and the production editor assured me that the proofs were really clean so editing this manuscript should have been simple.
I take proofreading very seriously because I want to safeguard the reputation of the author. I want their book to be the very best it can be when editing a manuscript. So I took the time to check the species name of an animal that appeared on the first page. Within one click I discovered that the word was likely misspelled. Then I crosschecked the spelling of this animal against several resources to determine it was definitely wrong. Now I was on high alert, the same way I am when self-editing fiction. These proofs were not as clean as expected. From there on, I discovered many other misspelled words.
It may sound like really simple advice, but I urge you to take the time to run spellcheck on your manuscript when self-editing fiction. You can catch many glaring typos and errors using a tool that is easily accessible in your word processing program. Always use the free resources that are available to you when editing a manuscript.
When self-editing fiction, during line edits, you must google every single proper noun and place name that appears in your novel. It doesn’t matter if you are sure it is correct, always check it. Never assume that your memory is perfect.
The takeaway: run spellcheck and google every proper noun and place name in your manuscript when self-editing fiction.
Address Continuity Issues and Anachronisms When Self-Editing Fiction
Have you ever read a book where a character has one name when the book begins and another by the end? Or discovered geographic inconsistencies within the story? Or a character uses a piece of technology that did not exist within the timeline the book takes place?
When these continuity issues happen, it means the writer did not do simple research, failed to use maps, and did not make a timeline to reference when self-editing fiction.
I once wrote a story that took place in the 1990s in Vancouver, Canada. At one point a character dials a phone number on a payphone and I needed to know whether he had to punch in seven digits or ten at the time. So I did a bit of research about when the 778 area code was introduced to Vancouver to determine what action my character needed to take. I found an article that stated that the new area code was introduced in 2001 and wrote the scene with this knowledge.
The takeaway: If you are writing about a real place, refer to a map. Or create a map for your fictional setting. Write down a simple timeline to plot out the chronology and input any historical research pertinent to your story. Create a document listing all the characters and settings in your novel. Refer back to these documents when you are self-editing fiction to make sure that you are eliminating any continuity issues or anachronisms.
Rewrite Awkward Dialogue When Self-Editing Fiction
In fiction, you have a chance to craft a dialogue experience. When people speak to one another in your novel, it does not have to be true to life, with all the ums and ahs and pauses and stumbles and stutters. You do not have to fill your dialogue with ellipses and stop and starts and em dashes. And you do not need to use filler words or add in dialogue that does not advance the plot or reveal character. Think about the reading experience when self-editing fiction. Unnecessary punctuation and exposition gets in the way of snappy dialogue.
When I self-edit fiction, I like to read it out loud, especially if there is dialogue. I think about whether the sentence needs to be so wordy and look for words I can trim out. One piece of advice I remember reading from Greg Hollingshed is to write dialogue as if the speakers are not listening to each other.
The takeaway: Take the time to read your dialogue out loud to ensure that it is snappy when self-editing fiction. Think stage or screen, and not real life. Remove any unnecessary punctuation that is meant to denote awkward pauses or people cutting each other off while speaking. You want your reader to stay with the experience of two people speaking to each other when editing a manuscript.
Avoid Needless Errors When Self-Editing Fiction
Once when I was an intern at a publishing house, I was assigned a check on a set of digital blues. This was the final moment to check formatting before telling the printer to go ahead and print the book. I wasn’t even supposed to read the novel—I wasn’t editing the manuscript—but it was a slow day and the story was compelling so I read the entire thing as if I was self-editing fiction.
In one section of this book, there was a reference to a classic poem by Samuel Taylor Coleridge. The author referred to it as “The Albatross,” but because I had studied English Literature, I knew the title was incorrect. I did a quick check and confirmed my suspicions: the poem referenced was the “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” This was not caught by the author, editor, copyeditor, or proofreaders when editing the manuscript. A simple search uncovered this error and prevented embarrassment for everyone involved in putting the novel out into the world.
The takeaway: Do not assume that you know everything. Google every single fact and reference in your manuscript when self-editing fiction.
By taking the time to pay attention to these four areas in your novel when self-editing fiction, you will be ensuring that you are sending out the best possible book to agents and editors. By the time your novel is published, you can rest assured that the reader will have a great experience with your story because you have done the work. You have learned how to edit a book.