This article is one in a series on finding and working with a freelance editor. Part 1 details the types of edits available for novels, part 2 is where to find an editor, part 3 is things to consider when deciding on who you want to work with, and this is part 4.
There are steps you can take before the manuscript goes to your editor to ensure we (editors) are receiving the best, cleanest, strongest version of your story. I recommend self-editing before the editor gets the document because it gives us the chance to delve into your story and writing style to really polish the final product and help you level up. If you send us your first draft as soon as you type The End, we may end up spending time on things you could have fixed without paying us, and we don’t have the opportunity to do any polish work since we’re focused on basic story structure.
First, finish your manuscript and put it away. Get that happily ever after wrapped up then hide the document from yourself for a few days or even a few weeks to let your brain take a break from it. You need some space to find the objectivity to edit your own work. Read other books, catch up on some TV shows or movies you’ve been wanting to watch, maybe even start a new writing project. However you do it, ignore that finished manuscript for a little bit. I promise that your brain is still noodling on aspects of that story in the background while you’re focused on other things. That’s how brains work.
When you’re ready to start self-editing, open that document and do one of the following…
1. Print that bad boy on paper and grab your red pencil!
2. Change the spacing, size and/or font in the document
3. Forward it to your Kindle or phone, wherever you can read and take notes (Word has a mobile app, if that’s useful for you)
Basically, you’re tricking your brain into thinking this is a brand-new document that it’s never seen before. Your brain isn’t quite that gullible, but I promise that seeing the story in a different format does help it feel new.
If you didn’t do this while you were writing, step one is to outline your story structure and ensure you’re hitting all the story beats. I break structure into six foundational elements of goal, motivation, conflict, character arc, flaw, and stakes in my online course. Gwen Hayes reviews beats in her book, Romancing the Beat, which include story points like the meet cute, adhesion, and the dark night of the soul. Editor Jami Gold offers a spreadsheet (scroll down to find the romance-specific one) that calls the beats by different names than Gwen uses, but it’s the same format and it includes a formula to let you know approximately where in the story by word and page count each beat should fall.
Once you know your structure is sound, you can use one these books as a guide to edit your own work – Intuitive Editing or Self-Editing for Fiction Writers. Both books will walk you through big-picture story aspects as well as tighter line-editing tasks.
Welcome to your second draft! Celebrate it! Self-editing and revising means that you’ve accomplished twice as much as many new authors who finish the first draft and immediately fire it off to an editor. You now have a stronger, better story and your editor definitely appreciates the work you’ve put into it.
Next, you can send your revised manuscript to beta readers or critique partners. Keep in mind that these folks should not be your close friends or family members unless those people also happen to be widely read in your genre and are willing and able to give you critical feedback. Your mom loves everything you do, so she is likely not a good beta reader candidate.
If you have the opportunity to learn a bit about your betas or CPs, try to find out what they focus on or notice most often when reading. Ask them what they love about your genre and what frustrates them in the books that they don’t end up liking. Some readers keep track of timelines in their heads, and if you mess up ages or days of the week, they’ll catch it. Others adore deep characterization, where they feel they really get to know the main characters, their personalities, their backstories, and their thought processes. Still others may be sticklers for grammar and good at pointing out misspellings or clunky sentence structure. There are readers who want a tightly-paced novel, so if it slows down too much or gets boring, they’ll notice immediately that the pace is lagging. However your beta or crit group shakes out, try to have different types of readers giving you feedback so you don’t end up with three people who only point out your misplaced commas.
Be specific about what feedback you’d like from each of them when you give them the manuscript. Online you can find lists of questions you can ask betas to answer, if you feel that’s appropriate.
When you receive the feedback from your betas or CPs, take it with a grain of salt. Everyone has an opinion about something, and just because they say it, doesn’t make it correct. But do remain open to their critiques – you’ve asked them to provide feedback because you trust their reader instincts, so don’t ignore everything you don’t agree with. Take some time to consider the snags they are pointing out and decide whether revising your story with their points in mind will ultimately strengthen your story. If more than one person is pointing out the same thing, it’s probably something you should look a little deeper at.
Some famous author or editor said – basically – that others can point out where something isn’t working in a story, but their suggestions on how to fix it aren’t usually the right answer. Only the author can actually resolve the issue. That’s why my editing comments and letters generally offer a lot of questions and examples rather than a flat order of “Do A to fix B.”
Woohoo! You’re on your third draft! Celebrate some more! It’s a lot of work, but I promise it’s worth all the time and effort in the end.
Next, run that baby through a free online editor like the one in Word or Grammarly to catch any lingering grammar or spelling mistakes. These programs aren’t perfect and they certainly throw plenty of false positives, but I use Grammarly when I copy edit since human eyes and brains are fallible as well.
And now, finally, your manuscript is ready to go to your editor!
If this long-ass blog post isn’t clear enough, this self-editing process can take weeks or months to complete. When you book a specific date with your editor, keep the schedule in mind and be sure to give yourself enough time to do a couple rounds of revisions before the editor expects the document.
Especially for new authors, I don’t suggest setting or announcing a hard release date until your book is at the copy edit or proofread stage. Often you have no idea just how much work may be involved in your own revisions or what the editor is going to suggest. Maybe you can turn around their suggestions in a few days, but I regularly see new authors taking two to three months to work on the revisions from my developmental edit. And if you have children or a day job, all calendars should just be lit on fire because you know how impossible it can be to schedule writing around them.
The editor has your manuscript and now it’s time to celebrate again! You’ve done an incredible amount of work in writing this book!