Wonder Boi Writes

Self Edits: Work and Rewards

I’m back from an amazing trip to the UK. It was two weeks full of fish and chips, castles and cricket.


My family and I had so much fun seeing so many wonderful places and meeting some great folks. I won’t make you all sit through the thirty-minute slide show of all our pictures (they’re all on Facebook), but I think the pictures are worth a look.  I am biased, though, because they are full of memories for me. I’ve actually been using them as rewards for getting my work done the last few days. Ten pages of editing earns me ten minutes of looking at vacation pictures.I cling to that reward system like a life raft. I’m not sure if that’s because the reentry process is so hard or if it’s the editing that’s killing me. Probably the combination of the two.

I am sure any of you who’s ever been on trip like ours knows about the reentry to real life and the come-down associated with it, but I realize that most readers haven’t been a party to the grueling work of an in-depth self edit. In fact, I’ve met some authors who aren’t familiar with the grueling work of an in-depth self edit, and while I envy them a little bit, I’m not going to lie. I judge them a little bit, too. I know, I know. It’s not Christian to judge, and everyone has her own style. Maybe some people can really write flawlessly the first time out, but I think that’s rare. When I hear an author say she finished a novel and sent it right off to her editors, or gave it a quick read then sent it off, I want to shake them, and I bet their editors want to do worse. I went to an “Editor’s Pet Peeves” panel at GCLS, and every single editor there said that the more authors self-edit their work before sending it in, the more a professional editor can do with a manuscript. If they spend their time fixing obvious flaws that you could have/should have caught, they can’t get to the major nuanced aspects of their craft that you (should!) pay them the big bucks for.

With that in mind, I spend one to two months of full-time work on self edits, and let me tell you, I earned lots of picture breaks along the way, so those of you willing to sit through a detailed recap of that work should get a few pictures along the way, too. Here’s one to go on:DSC02521

Now for stage one of self edits: The initial read through.

This is pretty much what it says. The first time, I read the entire document from start to finish. I generally try to do this in a couple days, much the same way a reader will (hopefully) read the book. I fix little things I notice and make notes about big-picture issues like dropped threads, inconsistencies, places where the story lags. Then I send it to my beta readers to look for the same types of thing. I do not give them vague instructions like, “Just be brutally honest!” A) Vague much? B) No one wants brutality exacted on their fledging project. I want constructive cricism in very specific areas. Grammar is not one of them. Neither is word choice or personal preference like “I don’t like redheads.” I want to figure out if the story holds a reader’s interest, if the characters are likable. Do you root for them together? Are their motivations clear (even if you don’t agree with them)? Are there any places you get more? Any places you felt like you didn’t get enough of? And I use betas who generally read and like the type of writing I do. I want someone who knows my genre, not someone’s ex-English teacher to fix my dialog punctuation here. Occasionally I’ll use a beta with a specific skillset to give more specific feedback. I had some life coaches take early looks at LoveLife, and Spanish-speakers who read Spanish Heart. Mostly, though, I use readers for big picture feedback.


Stage two: The Read Aloud

Once again, this is just what it sounds like. I read the entire book out loud. This gives me a chance to hear my characters’ voices for the first time. It is the single best way I’ve found to check authenticity of dialog (short of having professional actors read it on stage). This also is the best way to catch sentences that go on too long or sentence structure that gets too repetitive.  I also tend to find which long narrative passages work and which ones are just too wordy.   And when I find a problem, I fix it right then and there. My manuscript loses several thousand words in this pass, and it takes a full week or more because of all the stopping, tweaking, and rereading. Also, one can only read aloud for so many hours a day before one’s throat starts to hurt.DSCN4855

Stage three: The Writer’s Diet

The writer’s diet test is a tool that takes a sample of your writing and analyizes it for certain types of words that generally signify trouble. It counts “to be” verbs, abstract nouns, prepositions, adverbs, and waste words (it, this, that, etc.) and rates each area in health terms from “Lean” to “Heart Attack.” It’s available for free online, and I don’t know why more writers don’t use it. No, that’s not true. I know why. 1) A lot of people don’t know it exists. 2) It’s tedious and time consuming. Now you know it exists, so that’s no longer an excuse. As for number two, put on your big-girl panties and act like a professional. Do you think YoYo Ma doesn’t practice because it’s time consuming? You think Michael Phelps doesn’t find all the laps he swims to be tedious? If you want to be your best, you have to do the work. And I want to be my best, so I plug my entire 90,000-word manuscript into the tool 1,000 words at a time. Generally, I expect every single thousand-word section to come back as lean. If it doesn’t, then I tweak it until it does. I generally lose another couple thousand words through this process due to that fact that waste words are a real issue for me. “To be” verbs used to be a problem too, but after several years of using the writer’s diet I’m not nearly as dependent on them. Still, this stage can take another week, depending on the length of the manuscript and the state of the writing.

Caveat – This tool is just that, a tool, and as with any tool it can be used poorly. The writer’s diet test should in no way take the place of your common sense or artistic integrity. When writing LoveLife, fir example, my life coach character was often high in “to be” verbs in scenes when she was quietly reflecting. Well. no kidding: a person who is meditating should have a lot of “be” in them. Sex scenes are generally high in prepositions because a lot of things go in and on things. Use the tool as a scalpel, not a blunt instrument, people, but even in those exceptional scenes, nothing should reach a “flabby” level.


Stage Four: The Don’t Make The Same Mistake Again Phase.

I learn something (read “many things”) new with every novel. I’ve worked with some very good editors and received wonderful feedback from readers and reviewers as well. When I learn something while reviewing one manuscript, I write it down for use in all futures ones. I now have a list that’s four pages long of little mistakes I’ve made in the past. Once I’ve done all the major overhauls, I break out that checklist and go one by one down the whole line. One of the first notes I got was about writing out the word Okay instead of OK. So item number one, I do a find-and-replace function for the word “OK.” There are several like this. Then I move on to words I frequently misuse, “lose/loose,” “further/farther,” “peak/peek.” Once again, tedious, but not too hard. Then I move on to contractions. I don’t use them enough, so I run a search function on every single combo (she is, he had, we have, etc.). I scan the entire manuscript over and over checking for these words and deciding on a case-by-case basis if they need to be combined. This is another area that’s gotten easier as the years have gone on because I catch them more and more on my initial read-aloud, but I never catch them all, and that’s my goal.

Then I move on to my commonly over-used words. My list is more than half a page long (Look, smile, take, process, grin, curves, etc.) I don’t know what yours are, and only you can decided how many is too many, but I do a “find all” and highlight them, then go through the entire manuscript to cut them down. The same goes for filler words (Just, that, really, very) the writer’s diet will tell you when you have too many of some of those, but their version of “too many” is too generous for me. Many times they can be removed from a sentence without changing anything else, and if they can, then they should. No mercy: slash them. If they can’t be removed without changing the sentence, then you have the harder task to deciding if that sentence should be changed or not. Only you can make the call, but one thing highlighting does is show you where they are clustered, and if you have whole paragraphs lit up like Christmas trees, you might want to consider cutting the cord to that one.   This take can take a week or more depending on the shape the manuscript is in. It’s also one of the grumpiest stages of the process for me. Don’t try to do it so fast your eyes blur, or you lose your will to keep improving. Build in breaks and have chocolate on hand.


Stage 5: Punctuation Purgatory

The worst of the worst for me. This will not be bad or even necessary for those of you are grammar/usage wizards (in which case, I envy you) but I have a mild form of dyslexia, and one of the strategies I developed to cope is whole word/phrase reading. Breaking things down into parts is impossible. I read whole groups of words as one, which makes spelling a weakness. (Thoguh I raed tihngs lkie tihs as fi nthoigns worng). It also means I don’t see punctuation most of the time even though I know most of the rules for using it. If you give me a sentence and tell me where the comma goes, I can tell you, but if you show me a sentence where the commas are misused and tell me to find the mistake, I absolutely cannot. Most people would just say, “Peace out, Girl Scouts,” with something like that and to be honestly for my first five books I did. I had WAY too many other things to worry about. Also I have a wife who has a Ph.D. in English and teaches grammar at the college level, so I’d just hand it over to her. However, this doesn’t help me get better, it doesn’t help my manuscript get better, and quite frankly it doesn’t do much for my marriage either. She actually threatened to take the comma key off my computer because it frustrated her so badly. So I decided that since it was my manuscript, I owed it to myself to give it my best, even if my best will never be perfect.

Now I do a find-all function on every single use of what I like to call “common commas situations” like the words “and” and “but” or quotation marks. Then once the are highlighted, pulling them out of the larger grouping of words, I can examine each instance individually and apply those comma rules I know (mostly) independent of the story. Did you catch that? I take every single “and,” every single “but,” and every single quotation mark in the entire manuscript, highlight it, and check to make sure it’s punctuated properly. Maybe you don’t need to do this. For your sake I hope you don’t, but I’m willing to bet we all have our weak spots, and if I can go that far to overcome mine, I hope you understand my lack of patience when it comes to authors saying they don’t have time or inclination to do the same with their own.

Will I catch every single comma? Every single typo? Every single mistake? Absolutely not! My wife will still proofread the manuscript before it goes out. My editors will still find things. Our final page proofers will still find things. That’s their job, but I want to make damn sure I’ve done my job to the best of my (sometimes limited) ability before I ask the same of anyone else, because at the end of the day it’s my name on the book.


Stage 6: The Final Read Through

Another self-explanatory one. This is my last chance to read the book from start to finish before it goes to my editor. Hopefully it’s in good shape, and this is a fun read with just a bit of polishing, but don’t worry, this isn’t the end, because once your editor gets hold of it, you’ll get to go through this whole process all over again.



August 7, 2014 - Posted by | Uncategorized

1 Comment »

  1. Thanks so much for the information – I feel like I have been on vacation with you all!

    Judith A Comella

    Executive Director

    Golf Association of Florida


    Comment by Judy Comella | August 7, 2014 | Reply

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