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The Art of Self-Editing: Techniques to Polish Your Manuscript

~ Dishari Ghosh

Publishers receive hundreds and thousands of manuscripts every other day from all over the world, but only a handful get selected and finally get published for the world to soak in. Whether you wish to be one of those few or you are self-publishing, editing your own manuscript is one of those tasks that you must commence from the very beginning.

Once your story is told, it's time to polish it off in the neatest way possible. Over time, you will be as eloquent with your editing as you are with your writing. The simple reason to do so is to make your manuscript stand as much apart from the others in the market as possible. A clean manuscript is more likely to catch the attention of editors and engross them without it being a hassle.

How do you do so? Here are a few ways that you can rely on.

Edit From the Word Go

Editing is an important skill and it is best to nurture it from Day 1 of your writing. It will help you strike a balance between what's good and what has to go.

You know your work best and thereby, know what is lacking or what is in excess. Bridging these gaps is much easier with practice, surely, but even in the challenging times, make sure you are doing it; it’ll make you confident of your own skills. It wouldn’t help if you edit as you write, as it’ll keep you stuck in the same spot without a proper direction. Instead, finish one chapter or one segment, and edit that portion strictly.

Avoid editing immediately after writing, your brain is in sync with those words and the world. Take a break, shut down the screen, get energised and then proceed to tackle this herculean task! Or better yet, shut it off for the day and edit the next day (or take a longer break, if you must). You will have a much clearer idea and a fresher perspective to begin with, the longer the distance between you and your work.

It goes without saying that any novel will have multiple rounds of editing, in parts and in whole, both. Allow yourself the time to do it, do not rush the process or take on too much all at once. It's your story, it needs the best time and attention possible.

What will also help if you don't know where to start is either to take up classes and workshops on editing, or to have basic feedback from those close to you. Both will give the nudge and knowledge to move in the right direction, instead of pulling you down.

Conduct thorough research

Doing a background check and research on aspects related to your novel is important to make sure there are no loopholes or discrepancies as well to strengthen the story. This can cover a variety of topics and your source can be just about anyone or anything with a knowledge of the said aspect. If your main character is a chef, you would like to know about the skills required, the schedules, the lingo they use and such that would only come with culinary expertise. If your character is a film enthusiast, they'd be able to quote several dialogues, be aware of trivia, be the first one to go buy tickets and basically have opinions about the same; you will want to show this in detail. The same goes for any other professions, struggles, habits, interests, events or just about anything factual which will require some or detailed research. You wouldn't want your readers to lose interest because of a poor ‘behind the scenes investigation’.

Awareness of What Needs to Go

Whether you are editing in portions or in entirety, there will be more than enough words, phrases or entire segments that will need to be eliminated. This will make your writing stronger, animate and be concise, delivering only the good portions, letting go of the 'useless' ones.

  • The First Few Chapters

While editing the first segment, ponder over what the first line is; first impression could perhaps be the last impression. Several readers base their readings on the first line and it is important to hook them. Even for those who don't, the first line can set the entire premise and tone of the novel. There are enough posts on social media dedicated to the brilliant first (or last) lines to back this up. It does not need to be perfect; it needs to be true to you and your novel.

As you go over the first couple of chapters, check if you have justified the main character's presence and given enough information about them. Several characteristics and details can be revealed over the course of the book, but a general idea of who the main character is/are is certainly required here. Although, too much detail about them, without moving on with your story too, is going to bore your reader; this is where editing will come in place.

Your characters are driven and existing in this space for a reason, draw the connection between them and your readers. Ignite empathy, describe what motivates them to take the actions and be the person they are - whether they are the protagonist or the antagonist. Surely though if this explanation fits in better at a later stage, as perhaps a 'twist', save it for that.

  • The Full-length Read

As for the revision which would come in at the end, for the whole book, there are several things that you must pay attention to. Take out your notebook or a fresh document, because this is going to be lengthy!

First and foremost, mark any plots or sub-plots which do not fit in with your story, whether they are not helping in any way to move it forward or they are not leaving a mark - it needs to go. Trying to include and pack one single storyline with an overload of plot points is going to over-exhaust your reader. Sometimes, less is more; you can deliver your narrative with just one or two sub-plots and it still has the potential to be the best work.

Are there unnecessary characters taking too much space but not having enough to say or do, you need to say a cheerful bye to them too. Keep only those people who are strictly necessary for your characters to have in their life, both positively or negatively. If they are not making an impact on them, they are certainly not boding well with the readers.

Logical Viewpoint & Timeline

Next, you must revise the areas where the structure isn't strong enough. Are there loopholes in the plot? Check if person x really left the fingerprint behind or was it conveniently added later on? The big gaping holes of how things occurred in the first-place versus how they were tied at a later stage need to be erased, making it a believable, seamless narrative. Logic must prevail here, even if it's a fantasy or make-believe; keep things real.

Another aspect you must pay a closer look to are the voices and characteristics of all your characters, primary or secondary. Are two of your characters Indian & French? Double-check if they are indeed speaking their own languages throughout; it's natural to mix it up in the spur of a moment. Was person A the one with the habit of chewing their nails when they felt anxious but suddenly in one scene person C was, unintentionally, doing that - do rectify it, unless of course it was meant to go that way.

If your book has multiple points of view, you can try doing a read-along with someone else, each reading portions of one character. This will make sure that the POVs are not jumbled up or do not get entangled. If at some point, it does happen, you can always scratch it and rewrite it or edit it as per requirements. Above that, do make sure that the switch between points of view is clearly indicated and is consistently in the same manner, throughout.

The same goes for multiple timelines, if there are any. The character/s are going to have two different traits, thoughts and perhaps ideas and ideals during both the timelines - as per age, for example; be certain of these distinguishing details throughout the book. It would certainly raise eyebrows if the younger self is becoming the CEO and the older self is still a struggling assistant, trying to make ends meet. Carefully read through such intricacies and amend whatever aspects are not in accordance to the larger story.

Fine-tuning the Novel

After looking at the novel from a bird's eye view, it's time to look at it from a worm's eye view, i.e., to refine the finer aspects as you go over line by line. There are several words or phrases which we tend to overlook while writing in the moment. It is during editing that these are filtered and words and phrases which aren't required or do not have a purpose can be removed. Alternatively, if something does elevate the reading experience, it can be added as well.

Avoid overuse of words just to justify a stance or in attempt to create a greater impact. She looked unhappy, her usual smile turned into a frown, a blue colouring her aura can simply be her usual smile had turned into a frown or she looked unhappy and it would still convey the same meaning. He drummed his fingers on the table, looking left and right anxiously, eyes glancing towards the door repeatedly - the setting is understood, it's up to you whether you'd want to include all three phrases or just leave it at one.

Another common mistake that you could do could go something like, He remarked, 'Oh, it is a wonderful monument!', he said. Remove such double uses, keep the one which suits better. Do avoid repetition in other cases as well; She tried opening the wooden window to let the cool breeze in. Though, the wooden window refused to open, letting no air in might as well not use the 'wooden window' in the second phrase, and be replaced by a simple 'it'. Perhaps you use a single word often, 'like', 'very', 'really', 'so' are some examples that can be let go of in favour of better words, unless required.

Let Your Reader's Imagination & Intelligence Be Used

Your novel was picked up for a variety of reasons - your name, book's name, blurb, cover or reviews. The reader knows or rather, has an inkling of what they're getting into. Surprise them with your words and imagination, but don't limit theirs either. Give them the chance to visualise and imagine the scenes, the characters - don't snatch that away! Hence, when you narrate the story, not each and every word or action needs to be explained. What the character is wearing in multiple layers needn't be spelled out every time, what their hands are doing or whether their hair is fixed or not - sure, these are required at times, but not for every single scene. The reader is intelligent enough to guess quite a few things or facts - let them do so; if it fails also, it creates an intrigue!

Final Check: Proofread

This is the last stage of your editing process, wherein the story isn't touched as such, but the language is. Check for spelling errors - if there's an extra, misplaced or left out 'e', correct it. Find any grammatical errors and rectify those; 'are there are there'. Cross-check if all the punctuation marks are in place; ‘is there a need for those? As someone who has been constantly engaging with the said work, you are likely to glance over such mistakes and not even recognise them - you can request others to read it and let you know of any.

Editing is a crucial part of getting your novel published. There are many components that will change the entire outlook and perspective towards your work, make sure to edit wisely and more importantly, honestly. If something is not 'feeling right' to you, it definitely does not need to be included. If you think a sentence or two will make the readers go from hmm to OOOH, add it! Write with the creative side of your brain and edit with the practical.


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