By Michelle Barker
Part of the trick of hiring an editor is knowing when your manuscript is ready to hand over to them. There’s no point submitting a draft that you already know has POV issues or structural problems. The ideal situation I like to be in when I deliver my manuscript to an editor is that I think it’s perfect. Of course, it never is, but “perfect to me” means I’ve done everything I know how to do. That way, the editor will teach me something.
There are three main types of edits: developmental, line, and proofreading. At each stage, an author can do a lot of self-editing to create a “perfect-to-me” manuscript.
The Developmental Stage
A developmental edit tackles big-picture issues: plot, structure, characterization, point of view and the like. It can be hard to see where a novel isn’t working on a substantive level. Sometimes you know it’s not working but can’t figure out why. In both cases, I find it helpful to work through structural exercises.
List the major structural elements that should appear in a novel and fill in the blanks. You can go as basic as three-act structure (inciting incident, midpoint, climax, etc.) or you can get more detailed with something like a Save the Cat beat sheet. It amounts to the same thing: a novel must build momentum and it does this by hitting certain pivotal moments. If while doing this exercise you discover you’ve skipped a step or two, that’s probably where your problem lies.
Literary agent Hannah Sheppard boils this process down to a single sentence: When A (inciting incident) happens, B (character) must do C (action) otherwise/before D (catastrophe). Try filling it in. If you can’t, you’ll know there’s a problem.
One of the most common developmental issues I encounter as an editor is the protagonist’s lack of a strong, measurable goal. This goal needs to power the main character through the whole manuscript. One way to test this is to write a synopsis of the novel. Yuk, I know. A synopsis shows flaws. It’s a scary process. If you can’t boil your story down to a few pages that clearly trace a protagonist’s quest for a goal, you’ve got trouble.
Another thing a synopsis will reveal is causality (or the lack of it). If you find yourself connecting plot elements with the words, “and then,” (as opposed to “but,” or “therefore”), your story won’t be building the momentum it needs to hold a reader’s attention.
Has your protagonist done something at the end of the novel that he couldn’t have done at the beginning? If not, you have a character arc issue.
I could write an entire piece on point of view—and indeed, many editors have. Go read a few of them. I will say one thing here. It seems like it would be easiest to write in omniscient so you have access to every character’s thoughts. In fact, it’s the hardest POV to master.
Don’t be tempted to add new business to a novel to solve an existing problem. Often, you simply haven’t delivered on the promises you’ve made.
Most clients I deal with believe one developmental edit is all their novel needs. In fact, it takes several passes to wrinkle out developmental issues. Writing a novel is (or should be) like building a house of cards. Remove one card and half the house topples. Developmental edits are hard for that reason. As soon as you solve one problem, you’ve created five others. You should not expect this to be a quick and simple job. Most writers are in too much of a rush. Good work takes time. A novel benefits greatly from smoking on the shelf for a month or so after a major edit. Indeed, time might be the best editor of all.
Sometimes clients are tempted to skip the developmental stage. Because they’ve worked for so long on their novels and have used beta readers, they believe they can jump straight into a line edit and (bonus) save some money. Skipping the developmental stage is like building a house on sand. Even when I’ve worked for a year on a novel and finally decide it’s ready to send to my publisher, the first thing they do is assign me—you guessed it—a developmental editor.
Once the developmental issues have been tackled—and only then—it’s time to move onto a line edit. The most useful self-editing tool I can suggest before you send your work to an editor is to read the entire novel out loud in as short a time span as you can manage. The errors your eyes glossed over will sound like nails on a chalkboard to your ears. Missing words, repetitions, logical flaws, sheer boredom—I’ve encountered all of these in my own manuscripts, even after reading the work countless times in my head. I never noticed the flaws until I heard them.
A line edit is the most expensive editing job of the three. The worse shape your novel is in, the more you’ll pay. A line editor won’t fix developmental flaws. We’ll make suggestions, sure. We will move sentences and change words, but if the book is fundamentally flawed, that’s like repainting a room when the walls need to come down.
When I’m reviewing my own novel at this stage, I’m looking for certain things:
- Is every scene grounded in physical and/or sensory detail?
- Have I noticed pet words or phrases repeating themselves ad nauseum? The common offenders include: of course, just, very, little—as well as all those useless generic gestures that do nothing to develop character: laughing, smiling, looking, shrugging, nodding.
- Does every scene contain tension? Does every chapter end with it?
- Have I let the novel sit? Yes, I’ve mentioned this twice now. That’s how important it is.
Proofreading comes at the end of the process. All the other issues should have been fixed by now. If you’re still finding problems with grammar and verb tenses—or worse, structural issues—your novel isn’t ready to send to the proofreader.
Run your manuscript through a spell- and grammar- check. If your novel contains complicated spellings of proper names, use the find/replace functions to make sure you’ve been consistent. Even if you’ve proofread until your eyes are crossed, I guarantee a proofreader will catch things you’ve missed. Don’t skip this stage, especially if you’re self-publishing.
It’s tempting to assume that because a manuscript seems perfect to you, it’s good enough and doesn’t need an editor. Never in my life have I handed over a manuscript to an editor and been told there’s nothing wrong with it, nor have I ever delivered that news to a client. Writing is a learning process, and because every story is different, they each have something to teach us about the craft.
PSSST! If you’re struggling with the revision stage of your story, One Stop for Writers has a Revision Roadmap to take you step-by-step through the process of fixing, tightening, and tidying up your manuscript .
Michelle Barker is the award-winning author of The House of One Thousand Eyes. She is also a senior editor at darlingaxe.com, a novel development and editing service presently offering a special NaNoWriMo deal for authors (https://darlingaxe.com/blogs/news/post-nanowrimo).
Her newest novel, My Long List of Impossible Things, was released in 2020 with Annick Press. You can find her on Twitter (@MBarker_190) Facebook (@MichelleBarkerAuthor), and her website www.michellebarker.ca.