I am waist-deep into the next phase of editing Princess of Fire, in which I work up a punch-list of errata. As this basically entails re-reading the novel for the third or fourth time, it is also another opportunity to catch remaining text errors and lingering bad grammar that I somehow missed on my first two passes.
There are certain truths to editing any long work–
1. Spell-check is a problematic tool. It’s basically stupid– you have to tell it what’s acceptable (mine doesn’t recognize words I consider perfectly correct– e.g., “snockered” and “annal”), and then fight off its attempts to correct grammar that is just fine (thinking in a regional dialect is a hindrance here). On top of that, it will fail to catch correctly spelled words that are out of place or used incorrectly. I cringe when I hear new writers talk about spell-check as if it’s the beginning and end of their editing process. Nope, not even close.
2. Instead, you have to re-read and re-read and re-read your work until you can’t stand to look at it anymore, and then re-read it again. Read it to see how it flows, read it to see if the plot holds together, read it word-by-word to see they make any sense whatsoever. Each time you do, you need to find some way to see it with different eyes, even if it’s just hanging upside-down off the end of your kitchen table. Read it out loud, or sing it to the tune of “My Favorite Things”. Anything.
Personally, I’ve found that making a Createspace digital proof PDF of the manuscript really helps me spot lingering text errors and weak sentences–
Apparently seeing the novel in something resembling book format is helpful for me. No, I haven’t analysed it– I just know it works.
(By the way, in the latest edit, I’ve fixed the justification on the Robert Burns quote. No need to yell at me about it.)
3. In that same vein, it is essential that at some point you get someone else’s eyes on the work– and not your mother, nor your spouse, unless they are the sort who can tell you the unvarnished truth and not care that they’ve left you a pitiful, blubbering wreck on the living room couch. In an ideal world, those eyes would belong to a professional editor. In the real world I live in, most professional editors– in other worlds, editors who actually know what they’re doing and charge accordingly– would be competing for my money with my medical insurance. And that means they’d lose. If you can afford a professional editor, by all means, hire one, and then seriously consider their advice. But not everyone has that kind of wherewithal.
Instead, I have to rely on beta readers. I have a couple of very good readers, and I’m recruiting more. It’s not a perfect approach, but it’s considerably better than nothing. One way or the other, there just is no substitute for the feedback of someone who has not read the novel five times and whose familiarity with the text doesn’t exceed their familiarity with their own spouse.
The point– other eyes multiply your success.
4. Be merciless. Even in the later stages of an edit, you will find material you don’t need, or which can be cut down to size. Kill or shrink as needed. Trimming excess from a text, even late in the game, should give you a warm fuzzy. If it doesn’t– if you get sentimental and defensive about every word you’ve written– then, Grasshopper, you have a serious problem as a writer. Please, please, re-thunk your thinking.
5. Eventually, you have to quit screwing around with the damn thing and either send it out to an editor or agent, or self-publish. Here’s a hard truth– it’s never going to be perfect. There are authors who fiddle and fiddle and fiddle with a work, and never overcome the terror of being imperfect. Eventually, you have to surrender to the fact that your piece falls short of what you had in your head. Embrace that short-fall– it just means you’re human. Send your work out into the breathing world scarce half-made up, if you have to, and move on to the next project.
That’s being a writer.