Types of Editing
There are many ways to approach manuscript editing, each with its own particular process, and nearly every editor and writing advice site has their or its own method. This post will describe the most common types, explain what they’re for, and provide questions you can ask yourself to ensure that you’re approaching this stage in the best way possible.
Bear in mind that this is my preferred order to do these kinds of editing, but feel free to do whatever works for you.
Content / Substantive
Pretend you don’t know the story at all.
Usually the first pass done on a manuscript is to ensure that the whole story works as a story.
- “Does it have a middle, beginning and end?”
- “Does it have stakes, and are they believable? Are the readers invested in them?”
- “Do my character arcs make sense?”
- “Did I tell the story I thought I was telling?”
- “Are there any plot holes, or dangling narrative strings left untied?”
- “Do my subplots support and help further the main narrative?”
- “Is the pacing lagging?”
- “Is my worldbuilding thorough enough? Does it make sense? Is there too much of it?”
- “Do my people react and behave in a believable way for their character?”
Answering these questions, and perhaps letting a beta reader or two read the manuscript, will likely lead into a round (or two, or seven) of revisions. Don’t be upset if you need to chuck subplots, rewrite entire chapters, merge characters, or any other number of things to firm up the novel. This is totally normal. (I’ve rewritten the ending of one of my novels so many times that I literally don’t remember which one is the one in the published version of the book.)
Writing is like archeology—you can only uncover the bones if you dig. And sometimes you think you’ve found a T-Rex when really it’s a Woolly Mammoth. Further investigation and careful consideration are always your friend.
Pretend you’re a High School English Teacher
Now that you know the story is solid, ask yourself if the words you are using to tell the story are the right ones.
- “Does the vocabulary/metaphors/idioms I’ve chosen furnish the tone/mood I’m aiming for? Or does it fracture?"
- “Is this too wordy or bloated? Have I over-described things? Under-described things?”
- “Why are the curtains blue?” (i.e. “Does my imagery/setting serve my story?”)
- “Do the phrases and paragraphs flow naturally from one to another, or is there idea-skipping or head-hopping going on?”
Think about the tone you’re trying to convey, and make sure the prose uplifts and supports your story.
Scansion and Wordcrafting
Pretend you’re a Theatre Kid
At this point, we’re starting to get into the nitty-gritty of things, like the individual choice of words and how they’re strung together.
- “Does that word mean what I think it means?”
- “Does the dialogue flow naturally? Do my characters speak the way actual people speak?”
- “Are my characters repeating things or explaining things that they don’t need to? (“As you know”, “I doesn’t have to be said, but,”, “I’ve already explained”)
- “Am I over-using the same phrases or imagery?”
- “Do the sentences flow naturally from one to another, or do they crash and crumple? If they crash, is it a deliberate style choice?”
One of the best exercises I know for making sure dialog sounds natural and your sentences flow smoothly is to actually read it out loud to yourself. Your ear will let you know when something is janky.
Pretend you’re the judgiest person on the planet.
This is your last chance to make sure that everything is legible and understandable on a word-by-word basis. I’m not saying it has to be boringly follow-the-rules correct, but be aware that anything that gets between your reader and the understanding of the prose is the perfect opportunity for them to DNF.
- "Am I breaking this grammar/punctuation rule for effect and to further tone/character, or is it wrong because I’m lazy/don’t know better?”
- “Is this word really spelled the way I think it is?”
- “Is there a red or blue squiggle under this word?”
- “Am I misusing a homonym?”
- “Is my attempt to write an accent unintentionally racist?”
You only get one chance to make a first impression, so make sure it’s a good one.