Time and time again, a dire, inner monologue haunts me: “I’m going at this book thing solo, sans publisher, and that’s some scary stuff.” I struggle to eek out a few hundreds words a day, let alone ensure those scribbles are syntactically and compositionally solid. Writing is hard. Editing is harder. And I’m my own worst editor.
Allay your fears fellow independent authors; my journey into self-publishing has yielded tactics for polishing your manuscript into a product indistinguishable from proclaimed “professionally published” pieces. I’m assuming you have a finished—or near-finished—manuscript beside your desk, taunting you to let it burst into the minds of your readers.
To summarize, publishers help contracted authors with the following:
- Copy-editing / Proofreading
- Artistic materials, such as the cover and website
- Marketing and distribution
Today, I will focus on the first, but be on the lookout for articles covering them all and more.
The short end of the stick jumps into the hands of independent authors—let’s review how to take that stick and wield it as a sword. Our inability to edit material, or at least prep the material, must be the first obstacle to die by the sword’s slash.
Step 1: Gain confidence in your output
Learn how to edit. That’s right, learn how to edit by understanding what defines remarkable prose. Here are five, must-read books sure to bolster this ability:
- The Elements of Style, Strunk and White
- On Writing Well, William Zinsser
- Sin and Syntax, Constance Hale
- A Dash of Style, Noah Lukeman
- The Little Book of Self-Editing for Writers: 12 Ways to Take Your Book from Good to Great
Devour these books. Buy multiple copies. Place them throughout your house and read them whenever possible—yes, even in the bathroom. Oh, and if you are whining: stop. These books shape authors into pen-wielding warriors fixed on trampling prose and persuading minds of superior worlds.
Writing is hard. Editing is harder. And I’m my own worst editor.
This exercise awards you a pair of lenses from which to review the words pouring out of your hands. Through them, you must audit and pare with vigor. Your resulting material will present better to another pair of eyes, be they an editor’s or beta-reader's, which leads to step two.
Step 2: Polish with drafts
The preceding step, if practiced to perfection, could well be your last, but few of us are capable of such solo feats, myself included. Now, I tip my hat and take a cue from the venerable Stephen King, who discusses his editing process in On Writing.
He advocates writing, first and foremost. At the end of the day, words must end on pages. Need they be perfect? No—they need be, however. Once you’ve assembled enough words, you’ll arrive at the first draft. Best to apply some of Step 1 to it.
Then, perform the following: shelve the book.
For six weeks.
King aint' crazy. It makes sense. Distance removes pesky passions that cloud judgement; we need to cool our emotions before embarking onto draft two. When the time to revisit knocks, withdraw your dusty manuscript and spend a full day rereading it. Look for gaping holes; for stinky links in the plot that smell up scenes; search for underlying themes and free them of grime. Take notes, then set to editing.
Make this formula your goal:
- Second Draft = First Draft – 10%™
Apply Step 1 as you compress and tighten. Done? Good. Your manuscript now sparkles in the right light.
Step 3: Throw more eyes at it
A second pair of eyes can uncover nasty issues to which your tired eyes are blind. Like I said, writers often suck at editing and your manuscript is begging for a good read. It’s bored with you and like anything infected by wanderlust, it must be set free. Find five or more beta-readers and request their feedback. Suitable readers provide an unbiased opinion; this gradation will blur for every individual, so use your judgement when selecting.
Focus on their response to your themes, to the gestalt, the overall feel. How do they react? Flag the overwhelming consensus on weak areas and adjust.
Step 3b: The almighty copy-editor
If budget permits, hire an editor. Your manuscript has neared the finish-line—if you have the resources, give it a shot at first place. Search Google, writer’s forums or oDesk for candidates and ensure compatibility by test-hiring editors to rock out five pages. Select whoever impresses you most for the full gig. I am personally in love with my copy-editor Marti McKenna of the Editing McKennas.
Future articles will explore, in detail, the astounding consequences of hiring an editor.
Finally, always proofread. Always. Aldous Huxley or William Faulkner may have edited your book—pay their notoriety no mind. Proofread it again and again until your eyes bleed black ink.