For New Writers – What I didn’t know – Basic Self-Editing and Polishing

Cover of "The Elements of Style, Fourth E...

Cover of The Elements of Style, Fourth Edition

First, please hang in there and read the entire blog, there is some good stuff here.

Okay now, that being said, before you do anything else, before you research agents, write the perfect query letter for this spectacular idea you have and get all excited – write your book. Yes, all of it. (It never occurred to me and it probably never occurred to you to think otherwise but, as I’ve learned, there are a lot of people who haven’t.) Agents and/or publishers will very rarely consider looking at a book that’s incomplete, and by incomplete, I also mean unpolished. It must be polished to a fare-thee-well. You know that sweet fantasy about a nurturing editor bringing along the writer with the amazing book, the two of them passing the manuscript back and forth as they tweak it into magic? Fantasy, pure fantasy. Editors today don’t have time for that, especially small press editors who need to get more books in the pipeline.  You’ll see comments about polishing in agent’s blogs and in editor’s blogs on the publisher’s websites. Please read them. They’ll give you excellent advice on what they’re looking for but one or two also include a list of common mistakes writers make. Basic errors in English. I’ve heard or read about agent/editors who will look through a manuscript for specific errors, like sentences that begin with ‘And’, ‘There was’ *wince*, or excessive use of the word ‘had’, and automatically chuck the manuscript without another thought, they have a dozen more on their desk that just arrived that day. Considering how many submissions they receive you can’t really blame them, they have to set the bar somewhere. And that bar is HIGH.

So I’m going to bring you along on the process as I run through my checklist. By the by, no matter how good you are, if you aren’t doing at least a second draft on your novel, you’re not doing it right. A very few writers, usually only those who’ve been with one specific publisher, might be able to get away with it but not first time writers. And even experienced writers usually get at least one final line edit before they go to print. Being a ‘pantser’ – that is, I write by the seat of my pants, usually in a stream of consciousness – I may be a little more prone to that sort of thing than a plotter – someone who plots out the entire novel. Either way, though, nobody is perfect, everyone makes mistakes. I was advanced English throughout my education, have been the walking dictionary/thesaurus for most of my friends and coworkers and I make them all the time. (I’m also going to assume you have a copy of one of the books of style like the Chicago Book of Style, or Elements of Style.)

As a pantser, I usually do several drafts – a first draft to establish characters and plots and then additional drafts to lay in details, develop secondary characters, plotlines, atmosphere, description, etc. Then it’s time to settle down to do the final polishing draft.

So, I pull out my list:

  1. One of the first things they may or may not tell you in your writing classes/seminars, is that it’s all about the action. It’s about doing things. People don’t ‘begin’ to do things, they don’t ‘start’ to do things, they DO them. So I do a search for those particular words. For example – ‘Smoke waited until they were distracted to begin nibbling at her hair ‘  vs. ‘Smoke waited until they were distracted to nibble at her hair.’  Which sounds better? (Smoke is a horse by the way…)
    Don’t have your characters start to do anything unless it’s the first in a series of things they’re going to do.
  2. Ditto feel and felt. Which sounds better – When he kissed her it felt as if she tingled all over  -or- When he kissed her she tingled all over? Fewer words, too.
  3. Next do a search for contractions. For some reason many writers – and I’m one of them – don’t write in contractions. Especially with ‘had’. He had, she had, rather than he’d or she’d. But be very careful not to do a universal search and replace or you’ll hate yourself in the morning for it, because once it’s saved that way you have no other choice but to search the entire document for the awkward mess you made of things.  Experience speaking here. I usually start a new copy when I’m editing, just in case. It’s a lot easier to start over sometimes. For example a universal search and replace for ‘had not’ to ‘hadn’t’ will also changed ‘had noticed’ to ‘hadn’ticed’
  4. ‘There was’ Sometimes it’s justified. I’d still look at each sentence and see if I can rephrase it to take it out. Sometimes that makes the sentence clearer.
  5. *arrggh* The dreaded ‘that’. That she, that he, that they, sometimes that she had, that he had… In most cases the use of the word ‘that’ is completely unnecessary but we use it in speech and so it sounds right when you write it.  Then there’s my personal bugaboo, using that rather than who.  The man that… when it should be the man who…
  6. Just and only. Always make sure you really need to use them and then that they’re next to the word you want to modify.  only costs vs. costs only, for example
  7. Was. Jim was shaking his head. Jim shook his head. Always watch for those ‘ing’ words. If you see a lot of them in your writing in conjunction with was, you need to change that sentence.
  8. As if/like. Make sure you know which you really mean.  Do a search for like and in each place it appears see if ‘as if’ doesn’t sound better.
  9. Watch for split infinitives. Not all of them are bad – to boldly go where no man has gone before, where boldly splits to and go – is generally accepted. Some like ”I decided to not go” can sound awkward.
  10. Of…. that’s another sneaky little beggar. ‘Inside it’ works as well as ‘inside of it’ in most cases.
  11. ‘Then’ and ‘and then’ are big telling words, don’t use them. For instance: Then he went to sit down. Just say: He sat down. And then she set a bowl on the table.  Just say: She set a bowl on the table. Using those words is like a narrator in your book telling us a story, it slows it down.
  12. Commas. If you have more than two it might be a good idea to look at the sentence and decide if it would work better as two separate sentences. This is DEFINITELY true if you have more than three.
  13. Singular and plural pronouns. When speaking about an individual, the pronoun should be singular, when speaking about a group, it’s plural. Ex. It brought him to their feet.

One last little hint. By not doing a read-through but a search and replace, it forces you to look at each sentence individually, in isolation. That makes it much easier sometimes to spot errors you might otherwise have missed, or question the wording of a different sentence. I’ve often caught mistakes that way.

Polishing can be tedious but it’s worth it in the long run. Not only will you make a better impression on the agent/editor to whom you’re submitting, but *grin* even if they do accept your manuscript, they’re going to make you fix them sooner or later. It might as well be sooner. As an indie writer, it’s critical. One of the most common complaints about indie writers is a lack of editing. All of the list above are signs of poor editing.

Once it’s polished, pass it to your beta readers – a few people who will be brutally honest with you about where you screw up. One of mine still teases me about the overuse of the word ‘astonishing’ in one novel. In other words – not friends or family unless they will indeed be honest. They won’t and can’t be truly honest with you. I’ve never physically met any of my beta readers.

Always keep in mind as you’re polishing, though, that you need to preserve your ‘voice’ – your style – and that of your characters. It’s your book. For example, in the fantasy novel I’m polishing two of the central characters are Elven, so to them ‘english’ is a second language. When I first heard them speak in my head, they didn’t use contractions. So I have to remember that about them and correct it in their speech and in their thoughts, but it’s much easier and faster for readers to read contractions. So I have to watch carefully where I put my contractions so neither sounds stilted. As both interact more with their human companions, they begin (correct usage here, as part of a process) to use contractions more often as they become used to hearing them. It’s a subtle thing but it contributes to their voices and the feeling of the novel.

Okay, good luck on your first attempt at polishing. And… ummmm… I strongly recommend you don’t have a glass of wine when you start, however much it makes the process less painful or you’ll never finish. Voice of experience here. (Although I did finish… eventually… *laughing*)

 *originally posted on 2/21/11 on the

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