Self-Publishing: The Art of Editing

Writing Freely Without Self-Editing

In phase one of editing, you’re still writing! One of the things I’ve learned to avoid is wearing my editor brain while I’m trying to write with my creative brain. I find that often times if I put the editor in the drawer for a while, I develop really unique ways of developing description and dialog. Also, when the creative is in charge, the plot often unfolds in surprising and pleasing directions. My approach is to let the creative side finish the book before the editing brain steps in.

When done…

I usually intentionally give the manuscript a break for a few days. I have found that finishing the writing is exciting and my brain is still mulling things over for days after I finish. I keep my notepad around to capture ideas. I think I’m always aware of the limitations of the manuscript at this point and I suspect my subconscious is still trying to resolve areas of concern. After a week or so, I update the manuscript with the changes that come to me and then I kick into basic editing mode. Running spell-check and grammar-check here is a good practice that will save you time later on. I tend to just use the capabilities built into LyX or even MS Word, but I know there are tools out there like Grammarly that could be helpful. I just don’t usually want to deal with them. I also format the output a few different ways at this point and export PDF files from LyX. I like to see what the book looks like in 9×6 format and I also tend to output a version in 8.5×11. The latter is likely to become the basic for early ebook (epub) formatting. This allows me to do editing on my Kindle later in the process.

Editing Pass One

My practice is to focus on specific areas during different editing passes. During pass one, I have fixed the gross spelling and grammar issues and am interested in making the characters likeable and developing action. These are targeted forays into the manuscript looking for Character Point-of-View, descriptiveness, and dialogue improvements.

  1. Character Point-of-View. This is something I feel strongly about. I want the reader to be able to see inside the head of my characters, no matter how the book is narrated. Here I try to remove words that give the reader reminders that they’re reading about someone else. This can prevent them from being fully engaged with the character and the story. Some of these words trigger the reader back to the fact that they’re an outsider in the story. I look for words like “felt”, “experienced”, “knew”, “seemed”, “watched”, etc. Each of these words are easy for writers to use to describe what is going on in their characters’ thought processes, but they weaken the story because they are reminders to the reader that the character is being described to them. Instead, my goal is to challenge the readers to infer from thoughts or dialogue what the character feels/sees/things/knows.
  2. Descriptiveness. Sometimes it’s tempting to capture descriptions of characters early and in one place. Then it is done and you can continue with the story, right? This seems artificial to me, so I like to sneak description in throughout the book. This way the reader’s knowledge of the character is always unfolding. Something later in the book like “As he spoke about the invasions, his dark, wiry beard trembled with the stress and concern that he unwillingly carried. His deep amber eyes captured the light of the flickering candles as he glared at the inattentive listeners.”
  3. Dialogue Action. Sometimes dialogue can be very simple, but I aim to add action to the dialogue because I think it makes it more interesting. Something like, “This is why we do this,” he stated flatly, moving the salt shaker around on the table and gesturing with his broad, left hand. “We have no other choice.” See the action in the middle of the dialogue? I look for opportunities to insert actions into the dialogue early on in editing.

Editing Pass Two

My second pass through editing normally involves either reading the work out loud to myself or others or it might involve sending it off to a friend to read for fun. Normally at this stage I mostly find gross errors that I made and didn’t detect during the first pass.

Editing Pass Three

View of the Bound Editing Manuscript of my upcoming book, “The Eyes of Gehazi”

At this point, I generally send an 8.5×11″ formatted PDF file of the book to someplace like OfficeMax to print and bind. This usually costs on the order of $20 but is well worth it. That bound manuscript accompanies me almost everywhere I go for weeks. Having it printed on paper causes me to think about the work differently for some reason. Often during this pass I find places where I’m overusing my “favorite” words and phrases or where I’m using the same words too closely together. In addition, I put effort into eliminating “lazy” words throughout the manuscript. These are words that tend to be passive and they include the classical passive voice (“were eaten”, “is changed”, etc.) but also words that imply passive uncertainty like “he thought”, “they considered”, “it possibly”, etc. I’m not sure if this is a formal rule, but lazy words and phrases tend to be boring. During this phase I also write ideas in the margins, develop more details about the setting and scenes, etc., using this printed manuscript. Once I finish this phase, the book is normally in really good shape.

Editing Pass Four

Often times I will formulate the book into an ePub format using Calibre for the fourth pass. This allows me to have a portable eReader format that I might send around to people to pre-review. It also allows me to complete my editing on my Kindle, which enables yet another unique way of looking at the book. When I find errors, I highlight them on the Kindle and add a note to remind me what I need to fix or improve. At the end of this phase, I just look at the highlights for my book in the Kindle and fix the mistakes in LyX one by one.

Key: Avoid Over-Editing

Often times I have to decide that there’s nothing egregious in my book and though I could improve it, I probably need to stop. Sometimes I realize that my first intuition about how to pen a phrase was the best and I struggle to get back to my first revision! My opinion is that oftentimes when a writer is in the flow of writing, their first intuition might be informed by the System 1 thinking which makes rapid, subconscious decisions. Occasionally System 1 hands off an idea to System 2, which is more rational and deliberate. I think this is a picture of the creating brain (System 1) and the editing brain (System 2). This is the topic of Dr. Danny Kahneman’s book, Thinking, Fast and Slow.


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