When you have a story on your fingertips, the hardest part isn’t writing it,
it’s editing out the errors.
I always struggle with checking my work for flaws. After all, I know exactly
what I want to say and what I’m trying to convey. And there lies the problem.
When I read the fruits of my labour, I read what I know. I fill in the blanks
as my eye moves across the page. I see the unwritten words that I meant to
write instead of what’s actually there. And worst of all, I don’t notice the
parts omitted because my mind’s eye takes over. These are the pitfalls that
catch out many writers.
So, how do we avoid them? My answer comes in four parts.
1, Read out load.
If you’re anything like me, you’ll cringe at the sound of your own voice
telling your story. I always start in a whisper; mumbling the words that I’ve
read a thousand times in my head. The slightest noise in the house stops
me–embarrassment or shyness, call it what you will. But the truth is, until you
are comfortable hearing yourself reading the words aloud, there’ll always be a
chance that you’ll miss something.
To add to this, you must speak with the emotion that you’re trying to
invoke. Read it like you’re telling the story for the very first time. You must
feel it in order for your readers to feel it. I’ve heard of writers crying at
their own writing or seething in anger at a villain’s actions. This is because
the words that appear on the page are born from raw emotion. And this is what
you should aim for. When you read it out loud, the words should magnify the
Choose a chapter, read it out load and use the tone and cadence you
intended. If anything trips you up, highlight it and fix it because this is
what will pull the audience out of the story.
2, Don’t dwell on things.
Have you ever watched a movie/T. V show and there’s a baby crying? Then, the
baby is still crying. Then, the baby keeps on crying–we get it! There’s a baby
crying. A similar phenomenon happens in writing.
It’s a wintry day and the character’s breath floats on the chilled air–great,
we can visualise how cold it is. There may also be a crunch from the frozen
grass beneath his/her feet as they walk across the whitewashed field. Lovely,
I’m there. But do we need a full page of narrative to explain how cold it is?
Probably not. I read a book recently that did just this and the first time it
happened; I didn’t really notice. But the second time caused an eye roll. Then
the third, fourth, fifth, etc; I realised the story could’ve been captured in
half the number of pages. Not only does this waste time, but it removes the
reader from the story. They want to keep moving forward, not dwelling on
something that doesn’t really do anything other than show off the observational
skills of the author.
We can say the same for dialogue. Keep it on point. There’s a lot said in
real life that is said without words. But that doesn’t mean the reader wants to
hear about all the little shifts and glances and gulps of a character during a
Choose a chapter, read it out loud, and if you think this is happening,
remove it and read again. If it doesn’t negatively affect the story, the book
can survive without it.
3, Sharing your work for feedback.
I don’t claim to be the next great novelist, nor do I proclaim to be the
font of all knowledge, but I know enough to know that I don’t know enough (if
that makes sense). I know I need a second and third set of eyes.
After finishing my MS, I printed it off and give it to a beta reader (my
mother-in-law). She read it and looked for main storyline continuity. The only
thing I wanted to know was, does it make sense? Yes, she circled spelling
mistakes along the way, which was handy, but her primary job was to highlight
passages that didn’t quite ring true or strayed from the path. She gave me
excellent feedback that gave me plenty to think about and plenty to fix. God
Now I needed a new set of eyes. A well-read friend did the second
read-through. He made notes on all the characters and kept an eye out for
continuity issues. This was brilliant and is something I have done ever since.
It’s not just about giving a character blue eyes in one scene and then
referring to his brown eyes in another. It’s also about ensuring the
characteristics are maintained throughout. And even though there is always an
element of personal growth for character as they move through the story, it has
to be in-keeping with their personality and the journey.
Choose a chapter, read it out loud, and think about the character’s actions
4, Paying for professional help.
After acting on their feedback, I was ready to read the book to myself. The
story had morphed into something more refined, but I was still at a
disadvantage. I was the author and scanned far too many sentences to be an
effective editor. This is why the next step is so important.
Employing a developmental editor is worth every penny and will save you from
yourself. Although my two beta readers had picked up some big mistakes, they
are not trained professionals who can detach themselves from the story long
enough to look out for trouble. I researched several editors and looked at
books they had worked on in the past. This helped me narrow down my list.
*Here’s a tip that I cannot overstate enough. You are not looking for the
cheapest option. You are looking for the best for your budget. You really do
get what you pay for. *
My Dev editor charged around £485 for an 85k words manuscript. I waited for
her to fit me into her calendar and the work was done within ten days (which
was what she quoted). When it was finished, she provided me with a word
document with tracked changed, and a document with the implemented changes.
However, I didn’t use the second document. Instead, I worked through the
tracked changes one by one. The reason for this was to make amendments and
maintain my voice in the narrative. Although my editor has a Master’s
degree in creative writing, her voice is different and a reader will notice the
Another point to make here is that just because your editor suggests a
change, it doesn’t mean you have to change it. That doesn’t mean you should go
into battle with your editor. It simply means that your work could be
better and they are suggesting a way to improve it. But never forget,
you are in control of the story and can publish what you want. Your editor will
be paid whether you listen to them or not. They have no bias or agenda when it
comes to your work. They know grammar; they know format; they live and breathe
writing–so why would you pay them for help and then challenge them? Take each
point and consider why it was made.
This is where the finer points are massaged out. The copy editor will dive
into each word and sentence. They will take a good manuscript and turn it into
a great one. Again, research your editor and be prepared to pay for their
experience and knowledge.
Your copy editor will look at trends and tenses and writer’s style/voice,
and they will tell you where you waiver. They will tell you when you are wrong
about a small detail. They will even research the very cuisine from the deepest
Mongolian village that you mention on page 212, and tell you if you are
describing it right or wrong. They are your safety net.
BUT……. They are also human.
Very few people can confidently say “my book is flawless.” I promise you
that one day, when you think it’s ready to go, you will find those two words
that merged during editing (likethis). Or, like in my case, I found “but to not
long enough” on page seventeen. It should’ve read “but not long enough to,” but
we all missed it. However, my proofreader spotted straight away. She also found
two conjoined words that I created during my amendments.
It is because of my beta readers, editors and proofreader, that I was able
to publish a novel. How good it is is not up to me to say. There may still be
errors in there somewhere, but between us, we worked and worked to give the
readers something that I hope they enjoy.
I never thought I’d see the
physical book from my mind in someone else’s hand but it’s happened. I’ve
signed it for them and thoroughly enjoyed their honest review. And I promise
you, if you keep writing and think about these steps when you finish your MS,
you will experience the same feeling.
We are writers.