A Cheat Sheet
by Erin Brown
One of the most important talents you can hone is your gift for
self-editing. Now, I shouldnít be giving away any secrets because
this is how I make my living, but I am willing to sacrifice for the
causeóthe greater good of the worldwide writing community.
Of course, the following suggestions are just the tip of the
iceberg, but these tips will at least give you a head start. The
first tip I have for you is to avoid and delete repetition. If
thereís any tip that I want to emphasize, that tip is that you want
to avoid repeating the same word or phrase in close proximity.
Another tip is to be aware of phrases that you overuse as a writer
and eliminate them. If you canít find the overused word in this tip,
you might not be a great candidate for self-editing. But if you
caught the repeated word in this tip, then the next step is to drag
out that thesaurus and work on fixing your own repetition.
When it comes to spelling and proofreading, my best advice is to
read your sentences backwards. The human brain, when reading
ďforward,Ē will automatically correct things that arenít, in fact,
correct. Itís how weíre wired. This is especially true if youíve
read your work a thousand times over. And spell check is not
something to totally depend on either. I canít bare it when people
rely on this technology, when in fact, the words their using are
wrong. Nothing about my previous sentence raised a red flag in spell
check, yet there are two glaring errors. Hence, the problem.
If your grammar is terrible, take a class, use a cheat sheet, get to
know The Chicago Manual of Style, or simply hire a
copyeditor. Itís incredibly difficult for an agent to take seriously
a manuscript riddled with errors, even if the story is amazing. So
at least get a handle on the basics to avoid embarrassing yourself
and your fourth grade English teacher. Quick test: Itís, its; their,
theyíre, there; your, youíre. Know the differences. This might seem
like a no-brainer, but I canít tell you how often I see each of
these words misused. Bottom lineóitís downright embarrassing for a
writer not to know simple English.
Content-wise, do you have enough description (too much?) for both
your characters and setting? Is your point of view consistent? Is
your story arc solid? Have you overwritten? Have you underwritten?
Do your characters have distinctive voices? Is your dialogue natural
or awkward and stilted (read it aloud)?
If you donít want to hire an editor, get feedback from a writing
group or a friend who is not worried about making you cry.
Seriously, itís pointless to let your spouse or kids or a friend
read your manuscript if theyíre just going to blow smoke up your
butt about how much they love everything about your work. That does
you no good. Itís better to hear what your story is lacking before
an agent tells you. Once youíve found someone you can trust to
Illustration by Jennifer Paros - Copyright 2010
hurt your feelings, then have them flag the pages where their mind
starts to wander. Have them write down questions in the margins if
they are confused or think the story is missing something. Tell them
to write down their thoughts as they read. You must be open
to getting ripped apartóthatís the only way you can improve your
manuscript before the professionals get hold of it. Of course, tell
your hand-selected editor to please limit the use of four letter
words while critiquing.
Letís talk length. These are guidelines based on years of experience
working in publishing houses. YA should be around 45,000 words.
Commercial fiction should be between 65-90,000 words. When you break
the 100,000-word barrier, you better be writing historical fiction,
the next Harry Potter, or piecing together the fall of the
Roman Empire. Literary fiction sometimes gets a pass for longer
lengths, but honestly, if you canít edit down to under 100,000
words, youíve got a problem. Paper costs money, more production
costs equal higher book prices for the consumer, which means fewer
books sold, which means the publishing house makes less money, which
means they donít want to buy your long-ass manuscript.
If, at the end of the writing process, you feel that every word of
your manuscript is perfect and that if an agent doesnít like it,
then they can go suck it, well, heck, thatís your prerogative. But a
simple once-over by a friend, self-editing, professional editing
(shameless plug), or even getting a local English student to
copyedit for a paltry sum is better than nothing. As I always say,
get your manuscript in the best shape possible before
submitting to agents.
Remember; you doesnít want to be the writer whoís first manuscript
paige is up on some agentsí walle because it was so riddeled with
errors that it becomes the office joke. And yes, that does happen.
Fear it and learn to self-edit (or have the sense to get someone
else to edit). As the great Dorothy Parker said, ďI can't write five
words but that I change seven.Ē
Erin Brown worked as an editor in New York City for
over eight years. She recently left Manhattan to start her own
freelance editorial business. To learn more about Erin, visit her
website at www.erinedits.com