Top 10 Rules for Editing Fiction

by Danica Winters

So you’ve finished the mammoth task of writing your novel…

Maybe this is your first, your fifth, or your tenth book–you still find yourself at the same place asking, “What’s next?”Self-Editing Rules

Before you ever consider submitting your manuscript to BTGN, you need to take a look over your draft and check for these ten simple rules which will make your submission stronger–and more likely to be picked up:

10. After you finish the first draft, get a little distance from your manuscript. Some people need a month, some a week, and some simply need to pour themselves into another project for a few days. Whatever your system is, make sure you can see your work through an objective set of eyes. What does that mean? Simple. Leave it long enough to forget those little details you loved while writing the book. You need to read it as if you’ve never seen the book before.

9. Cut all extra words. IE So you’re working under the cloud of a word count….  We often ask for stories that are between eight thousand and seventy-five thousand (or more) words. We give you a large range so you can make the story you are writing the strongest it can be without the rigidity of trying to fit it into a set amount of words (for example 60-65k words). We’d rather have a short, well-paced, and well written manuscript instead of getting a manuscript that has whole paragraphs of ‘fluff’.

More simply: If you are reading and you see a paragraph/page/line/word that does nothing to further the story Cut It.

8. Get your work in front of beta-readers. What are beta-readers? These are the incredible friends/poor saps who will read your book and tell you their HONEST OPINION. This can be ugly, but it’s a part of the process. Think of it as an early warning system–a system that can alert you to problems before your story goes to an editor’s desk.

As authors, we often fall in love with our characters–Why not? We spend all day everyday with them until a book is completed. However, when we are so close to these characters it is easy to lose our objectivity (I know, I like this word). Our irresistible hero may strike the wrong chords with others, but before you submit you need to know what other people think of your book so you can make the necessary changes.

7. Don’t trust Spell Check. I read this on most top ten rules for writers lists, but I don’ t think it can be stressed enough–Just because spell check says something doesn’t mean a.) it’s correct or b.) it knows the word you intended. All authors are logophiles, but that doesn’t mean we are perfect spellers. So make sure you read your draft from first to last word. On a side note, you want to do this at every stage of publication. It doesn’t matter if you are at the level of conceptual edits with your publisher or if you are doing the final line-edit–read every word. Mistakes happen.

6. Cut most adverbs.  Read this sentence: “Martha was nervously watching the crowd.”

This is a weak sentence.

We don’t get to experience any of the emotions you are trying to convey for your character. You are spoon-feeding/telling your reader what they should feel instead of letting them ‘feel’ by showing the scene.

You could cut the offending -ly adverb and it would do, but instead of simply cutting you can take the sentence and use it to your advantage.

For Example: “Martha’s gaze shifted from one person to the next. Each time she blinked, the crowd seemed to grow nearer, almost smothering her with their heated breath.”

Sure it’s longer, but you can get a better sense of what she is feeling in addition to getting to know more about her character.

5. Avoid Head-hopping. If you are writing from your hero’s POV (point of view) stick with it for at least a few paragraphs before switching to another POV. If you do switch between POVs make sure your shift is marked with asterisks so your reader knows that you are shifting. There are a few authors who get away with frequent, unmarked shifting POVs, but if you read their reviews you will find comments like “I got confused when…” and “The story was great, but…”

4. (Continuing from above) Try to tell the scene from the POV of the character that has the most at stake (emotionally). We understand that this can’t always be done (in short stories it is often best to stick to one POV). So make sure you are telling your story from the right POV.

3. Make sure your characters have strong character arcs. If you character is X at the beginning of the story they need to be Y at the end, they can’t still be X. In fact, if you take your character at the end of the book and drop them into the first scene, it shouldn’t work. If it does, you don’t have a strong enough character arc.

2. Make sure each scene has a Goal. Finding out information should rarely be the goal of scene. If it is, you need to have a strong conflict and motivation behind the scene. It can’t be a simple diner (Why is it always in a diner?) scene in which two people have a conversation. This is BORING.

1. Read each scene while asking: Is the Conflict here strong enough?  Quite often we see manuscripts that have conflict, but they are simple and simple to resolve. This makes for a simple, uncomplicated, and BORING book. Make sure each scene has a Strong conflict and that those conflicts escalate until the ‘black moment.’ We want to wonder how your characters can possibly come out of the situation.

While this is a great list of ten edit tricks, we could make this a list of one hundred tricks. However, these are the most common (and avoidable) mistakes made by authors (new and old). SO before you hit SEND, take the time to go through your manuscript. When it’s ready, we would love to take a look! Check out our Submission Guidelines to learn how.

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