Editing Your Fiction Manuscript

I really love editing my manuscripts—as much as I enjoy writing them! Part of that enjoyment is knowing that I can make good (or crappy) writing great through editing (and re-editing) my work. There’s a feeling of such satisfaction when the words sound and feel right, when you know that they’re going to have the impact you want them to have.

I find that for me, editing is less overwhelming if I go through a chapter, or the entire manuscript, looking for just one thing—one weakness I need to fix, one story thread I want to add or emphasize. I still end up changing the language as I go to make it more powerful, no matter what I’m looking for, but with only one conscious focus, the editing seems easier. I make several passes of a manuscript, looking for something different each time.

Here are some things that I’ve found really helpful and important in doing a good edit. These are the things that work for me; everyone has their own ways of writing and editing, and like any advice, it’s important to take what works for you, and leave the rest. I hope you’ll find some helpful techniques here that you might not have known about.

Put your work away before you edit it.

I’ve found that it helps to have at least a few weeks, if not a month, of time away from your work before you start editing it. It helps you see the work more clearly, with fresh eyes. Things you might not notice if you worked on it right away stand out when you’ve given yourself time away from a particular manuscript before editing it.

Read Your Work Aloud.

This sounds simple, but it’s very important. In reading aloud your writing, you can hear when something isn’t working, when you stumble over a phrase or a word, when something is awkward or just isn’t giving you the right feeling. I read almost every revision over, aloud, and it helps me hone my edit.

Look For Your Blind Spots.

I think every writer has a blind spot. One of mine is that I leave out a lot of physical description of the world around the characters in early drafts, focusing more, instead, on the emotional life and reactions of the characters. I know and accept that I do that when I write, especially in early drafts. So in editing my work, I try to see where I can sprinkle in some description and still have it sound natural (without becoming an information dump). Recognizing your blind spot/s, and then working on them in an edit, can bring greater fullness, depth, and life into your writing.

Look For Your Overused Habits.

In some manuscripts I’ve read from others, I see them using the same body language for various characters over and over—she blinked, he blinked; he clenched his fists, she clenched her fists. It becomes repetitive, monotonous, and even irritating. I’m guilty of that myself; I know I tend to use many of the forms of body language that I myself use. It helps to recognize what words, habits, or body language you tend to gravitate to, and try to replace some of them for fresher examples. Once you know your overused phrases, you can also do a search and replace to find them easily.

Make Sure Character Names Are Different.

Some readers get confused if the names of your characters start with the same letter, especially if there are many characters. It can help to make sure that your characters all have names that start with different letters.

Try To Avoid Cliches and Stereotypes.

I think clichés shouldn’t be used unless you’re intentionally putting them into a character’s dialogue to make a point about a character. Otherwise clichés stand out like a sore thumb. (grinning) When you find clichés, see if you can rewrite them so that they’re fresh or just get rid of them. Same thing with stereotypes. If you find a stereotyped character, see if you can add—or subtract—components, to make them more unique.

Avoid Big Clumps of Description or Exposition.

Big clumps of description or exposition slow down a story, or halt it altogether. It helps to break up description with dialogue, action, and body language. This can help to keep the reader engaged in your story.

Look For Consistency And Inconsistencies.

If a character has blue eyes in one chapter, you want to make sure they don’t have hazel eyes in another chapter. And sometimes it’s easy to get ahead of yourself, since you, the author, know what’s going to happen. Make sure that things happen in order in the story, in a way that makes sense. That’s true for the big things—a character shouldn’t know a car was stolen before it was actually stolen; the personal things—a character shouldn’t have a reaction to something before it actually happens; and the small things—a character should see things in order, the way people look—such as the face first, then the shoulders, downward, unless there’s a good reason not to (such as a sexist man noticing a woman’s breasts instead of her face). It’s also important that, if you have a story thread, that it should continue throughout the book, not suddenly be dropped.

Make Sure Your Characters Stand Out On Their Own, Are Believable.

Sometimes characters come across sounding too similar. There are a few ways to fix this. One is to figure out whether you actually need two characters that do the same thing. Sometimes you can meld them into one character, and it makes for a more interesting story. Other times, you may need to work on how to make each character unique—not only through their body language, mannerisms, ways of speaking and thinking, but also in what they do, how they act and react, and what they believe in. Give them their own hobbies, habits, and back histories.

Make Sure Readers Can Relate To Your Main Character.

For me, that means making my main character likable, and putting my character in a situation that creates reader compassion. I try to make sure that my main character has both flaws and good qualities, and that she is likable enough that I would want to read about—or meet—her.

These are some of the things that I look for when I edit. I hope they’ll help you, too.

© Cheryl Rainfield, 2011

I wrote this article for NaNoEdMo (National Novel Editing Month) ; it will be appearing on their site in March.

About Cheryl Rainfield

I write the books I needed and couldn't find as a teen. I write teen fiction--paranormal fantasy and gritty realistic fiction. I'm the author of SCARS (WestSide Books, 2010) #1 ALA QuickPicks, and Governor General Literary Award Finalist, HUNTED (WestSide Books, Oct 2011), STAINED (Harcourt, 2013), The Last Dragon (HIP Books, Sept 2009), and Walking Both Sides (HIP Books, 2011). I also enjoy drawing, surfing the web, connecting with people I like, doing crafts, and being with my dog.
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2 Responses to Editing Your Fiction Manuscript

  1. Joe Lunievicz says:

    This is a great and helpful article. I follow all of the advice that you give in my work (though I didn’t always – it took me years to add on all the techniques you list here).

    My favorite is reading the work out loud. The third full manuscirpt I finished I read the whole manuscript out loud to myself over a two day period. Me, cups of coffee, a comfortable seat, privacy and my book with breaks for snacks, lunch, and dinner. Besides being able to “hear” the rhythm and cadence of the sentences and fit or dissonance of the words, I find it gives me the chance to hear the overall narrative flow of the story. This is a great technique to help do a final edit. Thanks for the helpful article.

  2. I’m glad you use reading aloud, too! I find it so incredibly helpful. And it’s good to take breaks, the way you do–and also, especially, a comfortable chair! Thanks so much for reading my article, Joe, and leaving a comment. (smiling at you)

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