By Lisa Poisso
Many writers equate preparing for a professional edit with revision. We’ll cover a few revision tasks in this article, but revision is only half the battle. Preparing your manuscript is the first part of getting ready for editing. The second part is preparing yourself.
Knowing when a manuscript is ready to be sent off for editing is fairly straightforward. The manuscript should be thoroughly revised, incorporating a close review of the plot, character arcs, story, and writing, outside feedback, and a healthy dose of author-powered proofreading. The manuscript you submit for editing should be the very best ambassador of your storytelling and writing abilities it can possibly be.
Knowing when you yourself are ready for editing may seem less obvious. You could choose to approach editing as a brief but unpleasant course of medicine you should hold your nose and chug as quickly as possible. Or you could choose to make more of it, as a relatively rare window allowing you to peer inside your writing in a new way. You, as a writer, are ready for editing when you’re warmed up and ready to grow.
Getting Your Manuscript Ready for Editing
A sparkling novel, like a scintillating diamond gem, is created through cutting and polishing, not simply the pressure that initially forms the stone. A first draft is still a lump of coal. It’s raw potential. A first draft has no business sticking its snoot beyond the cooling fan vents of your computer. It’s for your eyes only.
Editing a less-than-thoroughly-revised manuscript limits the book’s creative and commercial potential. It burns editorial cash and time on issues you could and should have addressed yourself. There’s no need to pay an editor to teach you fundamentals you could’ve found on websites like this one or feedback you could’ve gleaned from critique partners and early readers.
There’s a reason editors suggest revision strategies like the ones I’ve listed below: Together, they give you ample opportunity to make your work as solid as you’re capable of on your own. That’s the secret sauce in making a manuscript ready for editing.
1. Put the manuscript away for at least several weeks. You can’t revise what you can’t see, and you can’t see your own work with fresh eyes until you’ve dried out from the initial deluge of writing. Give yourself at least two weeks away from your manuscript; I recommend eight weeks or more.
2. Revise in layers like an onion, not front to back like a book. Revisions begin at the top—not at the first page of the book, but at the top layer of the manuscript. The number of drafts you generate is less important than making a dedicated revision pass for each layer: character arcs and story, plotting, individual scenes, writing depth, and proofreading. Especially if you’re new to writing, follow a systematic approach. I recommend Janice Hardy’s Revise Your Novel in 31 Days (free web articles) or the full plan in Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft, or get Beth Hill’s encyclopedic masterpiece The Magic of Fiction (affiliate links).
3. Set a deadline. Once you’ve completed your first story-level revision draft, assign yourself a deadline for completing the rest. Story revision tends to take longer than other types, so you should reliably be able to use that to guesstimate the time needed for the rest. If you’re a sucker for some sweet external pressure, find the right editor and book your edit to give yourself a deadline with a deposit on the table.
4. Write a synopsis, even if you’ll be self-publishing. A synopsis is an unambiguous conclusive tool for proving that the plot and character arcs hang together. If you’re having trouble articulating the conflict and stakes or showing how one thing leads to the next, you have more work to do.
5. Get outside feedback. Take an initial temperature reading after your first draft with one or two trusted alpha readers. After the next draft or two, seek informed feedback from writing peers (critique groups and partners). As you get further along, test reader reactions from people you don’t personally know who actively read your genre.
6. Read the entire manuscript out loud. Hearing your book read aloud will reveal a whole host of things you overlooked during revision. Listen to the entire manuscript, noting issues as you go. Reading silently to yourself isn’t the same; you need the slower pace and different input of the hearing the text. If that much reading aloud seems overwhelming, use a text-to-speech feature or app.
By this point, you should be reaching your self-imposed revision deadline. You may notice you’ve begun endlessly fiddling with details of description or dialogue, fussing over the writing rather than structurally improving it. That’s the clarion call: time for editing.
TIP: The Storyteller’s Roadmap at One Stop for Writers has a Revision Map that gives you a good idea of what story revision can look like.
Getting Yourself Ready for Editing
Preparing yourself for editing is arguably more important than preparing your manuscript. Are you crouched in defensive mode, poised to protect your vision from outside influence, or are you ready and open to exploring new depths in your work? It’s the difference between being the naive target of other people’s visions for your work and being an informed master of your creative output.
1. Are you grounded in the craft of storytelling? What you don’t know about writing fiction can hurt you. So many new authors begin writing with the assumption that an awesome idea or scenario is all they need. Without an understanding of how the story engine works, your success will be based on instinct and luck. Level up: Learn the craft.
2. Are you a reader? Can you imagine a songwriter who listened to no music and played no instruments? Me neither. If you’ve never read the sort of book you’re trying to write, why not? If you have no idea what’s on the bestseller lists right now, why should you expect readers to buy your book? Writers write for themselves; authors write for readers. Know your readers—be one.
3. Are you expecting the editor to do the heavy lifting? If your preparation consists of whisking through your manuscript while mumbling “I’ll let the editor fix that,” that’s exactly what you’ll get: editing focused on fixing basics a wordsmith should already have mastered.
4. Are you ready to evolve? Your first few novels and edits are your classroom as a novelist. Are you ready for a major step in your creative evolution? Criticism can be intimidating, but turtling from feedback prevents you from growing as an artist. Editors suggest and recommend; they don’t mandate. The throttle is yours. Are you ready to accelerate?
When You’re Not Ready Yet
Most people assume that writing the book is the hard part. They don’t see the part of the iceberg below the waterline, the real development that takes place before and after the first draft.
Like everything else about writing, revision is a skill. You’ll get better with time and practice. If you need help at first, a story or writing coach can help you prioritize and focus your efforts.
In the end, revision may reveal fatal flaws in the manuscript, or you may decide the story has potential but your execution isn’t there yet. That’s okay; better to know that now than after you’ve paid for editing. Sometimes getting ready for editing means shelving the manuscript for now and writing another.
Resident Writing Coach
Lisa Poisso’s innovative Plot Accelerator and Story Incubator coaching fast-tracks authors through story theory and development in weeks while facilitating an author-paced “developmental edit in a bottle.” She has decades of professional experience as an award-winning magazine editor and journalist, content writer, and corporate communications manager. She’s also a developmental and line editor, aided by an industrious team of retired greyhounds. For an extra shot of help, subscribe to her monthly Baker’s Dozen newsletter and pick up her free Manuscript Prep guide.