Few people can write a piece of work that is immediately lucid, concise and well expressed, therefore revising and editing is an integral part of the process of writing. It is vital to producing a polished piece of work that is professional and readable. This is true for fiction, non-fiction, short stories, articles, reports, family histories and, in fact, anything that you wish other people to read.
There are several stages of editing work for publication. First is the revising you do yourself on your own manuscript before submitting it to a publisher for publication. Self-editing is a constant process of self-improvement and good self-editing demands that you refine your work until it is as perfect as you can make it: where the voice, tone and pace are right for the subject; where every word is necessary, appropriate, precise and in exactly the right place; every sentence has its logic in relation to those that come before and after; each paragraph develops the plot or idea; and the structure of the entire work has a satisfying completeness.
Revising acts as a kind of quality control on your writing, a checkpoint for evaluating your work in terms of its impact on your readers. It can be a more effective process if you leave time between the writing and the revising to allow you to look at your work with fresh eyes.
Whether you are writing fiction or non-fiction, the following editing practices will help you improve your manuscript, bringing a different focus to each stage of the process:
Before you begin any detailed copy editing, analyse the structure of your work. Structural editing is perhaps the most exacting of all the editing processes because you have to examine how your piece holds together. This requires looking at its logical development, its continuity, the progression of ideas and, if it is a work of fiction, the development of characters and the evolution of plot. Regardless of whether it is fiction or non-fiction, it is important to ensure that information is revealed in the most appropriate, interesting or dramatic sequence.
Some writers prefer to draft an outline of their work before they begin writing. If you have not done this, you might find it useful. With a non-fiction work, you could do this in a linear series of headings and subheadings, but if your work is fiction, you could outline its structure by noting the links between characters, incidents and chapters.
When performing a structural edit, ask the following questions of your manuscript:
- Is the plot plausible and have you provided adequate clues for the reader?
- Does the narrative have a clear progression?
- Does each character and incident in the story serve a clear narrative purpose?
- Is each issue in the story resolved?
Eventually you will develop your own list of questions depending on the features of your work you think need special attention. It is useful to keep a list of these questions handy for all your work, irrespective of what you are writing.
When you are satisfied with the overall structure of your work, turn your attention to its stylistic qualities. During the process of writing you might not have been able to spot stylistic inconsistencies, but when you view your writing as a whole, the process of editing for style can begin. At this stage, asking the following questions will help you polish your manuscript:
- Are the language, tone and pace appropriate for the subject and the readership?
- Are there unintentional changes in style of expression?
- Is any chapter or section weaker, or less developed, than another?
- Are you using the same verbs, nouns or phrases too often?
- Do too many sentences open with repeated words or expressions?
- Are your sentences or paragraphs lacking variation, tone, length, or rhythm?
- Does the piece flow smoothly?
- Are you using the passive voice when an active voice could give the writing more vigour?
- Are you using difficult vocabulary for effect or is it truly necessary for your purpose?
- Can you think of better words or phrases to replace those you’re not happy with?
Some writers edit their work on screen, some prefer to work on a printed copy and others spend much time structuring and editing their work in their heads before they put anything down on paper. Whichever way you do it, it takes time to produce the sentences, paragraphs and style you are aiming for. Even the most talented writers spend years perfecting their craft.
Whether you are writing fiction or non-fiction, you need to check your manuscript for factual errors, such as incorrect place names, historical references, dates, or geographical locations. If errors go uncorrected they may be picked up by readers and reviewers, which is not only embarrassing for you as a writer but may also lead to the manuscript being dismissed as inaccurate. Such errors are distracting to your readers and serve to undermine the integrity of the text.
When checking for content, also ask yourself if any information needs to be added, whether you have too much information, whether it is presented in the right order and whether it is presented in the clearest way possible for the reader.
Check your text for any statement that could possibly be defamatory. It is not wise to leave such scrutiny to the publisher’s editor alone. You, as the writer, must understand the details, context and potential impact of what has been written. Moreover, most contracts assign joint responsibility for defamation to the author and the publisher. If you have any doubts about whether a statement in your work may be defamatory, mark it for discussion with your editor/publisher.
If you are self-publishing you could be taking a risk if you write anything likely to harm a person’s reputation, even if it might be true. In this case, you may wish to consult a solicitor specialising in defamation.
The most meticulous form of editing is copy editing. That is, editing for correct and consistent grammar, spelling and punctuation and for consistency of presentation, for example, in types of headings, punctuation marks and titles. Editing is done either on screen or by hand on a hard copy of the manuscript.
After you have finished your on-screen editing, check the hard copy of your text. It is usually possible to spot errors or inconsistencies on the page that are difficult to pick up on the screen. At the same time, check your layout to see if it could be improved and made clearer for the reader.
When copy editing, be sure to check:
- That the spelling of places and of your characters’ names is correct
- That punctuation is consistent
- That dialogue is strong, convincing and has a purpose
- That the sequence of events, dates and times is correct
- That each chapter is equally strong
- That the opening sentence of each chapter is compelling
When you can no longer see any ways to improve your manuscript, the self-editing stage of your writing has finished. However, this is only the first stage of the editing process. You have taken your manuscript as far as you can on your own. Now it is time to get outside help. See our Manuscript Development resource sheet for tips on the next stage of the editing process.
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