Editing Tips for the Indie Author

By Joe Moore

Back in the days of legacy publishers ruling the world, getting a contract meant that your book would be edited by staff editors. First by the acquisition editor, then the copy/line editors and maybe additional content editors. It was mostly out of your hands. A lot has changed with the wave of indie publishing. Writers that can afford it can hire a freelance editor—there are many available. A simple Google search will reveal numerous sources. Most indie writers with a limited budget take on the task themselves. The last thing you want is to self-publish your masterpiece if it’s filled with mistakes. To make it as good as it can be, I’ve listed a collection of DIY tips on editing your own manuscript.

There are a number of stages in the editing process. Starting with the completion of your final draft, they involve reading and re-reading the entire manuscript many times over and making numerous changes during the process. It’s in this phase that you need to make sure your plot is seamless, your story is on track, your character development is consistent, and you didn’t leave out some major point of importance that could confuse the reader. At this stage, you’re taking the job of the content editor, so you must pay close attention to content. Does the story have a beginning, middle and end? Does it make sense? Is the flow of the story smooth and liquid? Do your scene and chapter transitions work? Is everything resolved at the end?

Next, check for clarity. Legacy publishers employ professional proofreaders. In your case, this is where beta readers come in handy. If it’s not clear to them, it won’t be clear to others. Don’t assume that everyone knows what you know or understands what you understand. Make it clear what’s going on in your story. Suspense cannot be created by confusing the reader.

Once you’ve finished this first pass searching for global plotting problems, it’s time to move on to the nuts and bolts of editing. Here you must tighten up your work by deleting all the extra words that don’t add to the reading experience or contribute to the story. Remember that every word counts. If a word doesn’t move the plot forward or help develop the characters, it should be deleted.

Some of the words that can be edited out are superfluous qualifiers such as “very” and “really.” This is always an area where less is more. For instance, you might describe a woman as being beautiful or being very beautiful. But when you think about it, what’s the difference? If she’s already beautiful, a word that is considered a definitive description, how can she exceed beautiful to become very beautiful? She can’t. So I suggest you search for and delete instances of “very” or “really”. They add nothing to your writing.

Next, scrutinize any word that ends in “ly”. Chances are, most adverbs can be deleted without changing the meaning of the sentence or your thoughts. In most cases, cutting them clarifies and makes your writing crisper.

After that, go hunting for clichés and overused phrases. There’s an old saying that if it comes easy, it’s probably a cliché. Avoiding clichés makes for fresher writing. There’s another saying that the only person allowed to use a cliché is the first one to use it.

Overused phrases are often found at the beginning of a sentence with words like “suddenly,” “so” and “now”. I find myself guilty of doing this, but they don’t add anything of value to my writing or yours. Get rid of them.

The next type of editing is called line editing. Line editing covers grammar and punctuation. Watch for incorrect use of the apostrophe, hyphen, dash and semicolon. Did you end all your character’s dialogs with a closed quote? Did you forget to use a question mark at the end of a question?

This also covers making sure you used the right word. Relying on your word processor’s spell checker can be dangerous since it won’t alert you to wrong words when they are spelled correctly. It takes a sharp eye to catch these types of mistakes. Once you’ve gone through your manuscript and performed a line edit, have someone else check it behind you. A fresh set of eyes never hurts.

On-the-fly cut and paste editing while you were working on your first draft can get you into trouble if you weren’t paying attention. Leftover words and phrases from a previous edit or version can still be lurking around, and because all the words might be spelled correctly or the punctuation might be correct, you’ll only catch the mistake by paying close attention during the line edit phase.

The many stages of editing are a vital part of the writing process. Editing your manuscript should not be rushed or taken for granted. Familiarity breeds mistakes—you’ve read that page or chapter so many times that your eyes skim over it. And yet, there could be a mistake that you’ve missed every time because you’re bored with the old stuff and anxious to review the new.

Read your manuscript out loud, or better yet, have someone else read it to you. Mistakes and poor writing will become obvious.

Spend the time needed to tighten and clarify your writing until there is not one ounce of fat or bloat. And once you’ve finished the entire editing process, put the manuscript away for a period of time. Let it rest for a week or even a month if your schedule permits while you work on something else. Remember that indie publishing means that you set the deadline and pub date. Then bring it back out into the light of day and make one more pass. You’ll be surprised at what you missed.

One more piece of advice. Edit on hardcopy, not on your monitor. There’s something about dots of ink on the printed page that is much less forgiving than the glow of pixels. Remember, less is always more.

Any other editing tips?

19 thoughts on “Editing Tips for the Indie Author

  1. Excellent, succinct list. Thank you.
    After a million passes at my novel, I thought I was at the final proofreading stage, but was amazed at how many errors I still found: typos, cut-and-paste orphans, and too-oft-repeated phrases such as “at this point.” After trying to read it aloud and practically losing my voice, I took someone’s advice and had the computer read it to back to me. That was a laborious section-by-section process, but it worked.

    • Hearing the words aloud makes all the difference, TL. Next time, try a spouse or friend. Hearing dialogue coming from a human voice is a great tool. Thanks for sharing.

  2. All great tips, Joe. I hope you don’t mind, since it seems relevant for our TKZ readers, that there’s aFREE REVISION WEBCAST happening today (Wed., Jan 20) with me, K. M. Weiland, and Kami Garcia, at 7 Eastern, 4 Pacific.

    I would add that in the early years, if money is tight, develop a great network of beta readers for content. But pay for a pro proofreader. Those typos are like sand fleas, man.

  3. Joe, great post, and one I plan to flag and re-read each time I have a first draft of a manuscript completed. Things are truly changing, and a number of “traditional” publishers have adapted their editing process so that, for example, the proof-reader also provides edits. If the curse is, “May you live in interesting times,” we’re seeing the curse come to fruition.

  4. This post leaves a knot in my stomach.

    No reflection on you, Joe, as this is all good advice. But it reminds me that all of my self-published back list titles still have typos in them. I get maybe an email a month about it from usually nice readers and the nice thing about self-pubbing, esp with user-friendly Kindle, you can go back in and fix things. But it still annoys readers.

    Now all these books went through the traditional publishing winger up in NYC but when we got our rights back and reissued them ourselves, we had to recreate the Word documents (we went the professional scanning route). Then we hired a pro copy reader. Then we massaged the books into the Kindle machine (which if you don’t know what you are doing can insert formatting errors). This is not a task for the faint of heart. And we had books that had already been “veted” by the New York publishing machine.

    If you are starting from scratch, ie self-publishing an original story, you have to be a hundred times more cautious. I can’t imagine doing an original story and publishing it myself without investing in pro help.

    Good post.

  5. A program called Smart Edit integrates with MS Word and catches a huge number of the errors and problems Joe’s highlighted.

    • I tried Grammarly and none of the ‘mistakes’ it caught were actual mistakes, but I swear by SmartEdit for all the things they check. I learned after having 5 of my novels turned into audio books. You can’t see the clunkers but you can sure hear them. Right now, I have a new series launching, and I’m awaiting the CreateSpace proof. Even though I ALWAYS edit in hard copy (and change the font and print it in columns, which really makes you see it differently), seeing it as a ‘book’ is yet another pass. I have the digital versions in pre-order status, which helps create a little buzz, but there’s still that safety net of knowing you can fix things before readers see it.

      And what’s with the Roman numerals in the captcha? How do you answer that? 🙂

      • Thanks for the additional info on editing tools. Not sure about the Roman numerals issue, but I’ll have our IT guy, Marcus Aurelius Antoninus Augustus, look into it.

        • Somewhere, there’s a captcha that simply says ‘prove you’re not a robot’ and you check the box. No math required. (Some of these require I polish my rusty algebra “skills.” Who said you’ll never need algebra in real life?”)

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