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How to Edit a Manuscript: 7 Stages to Success

This method of how to edit a manuscript can work for either plotters or pantsers. And it can even work for folks in the middle, just like me: plantsers.

Are You Looking for How to Edit a Manuscript?

Here’s some straight talk on how to edit a manuscript. Whether you’re new to writing or it’s old hat, you have got to know how to do this.

Let’s start with the negative.

Here’s Not How to Edit a Manuscript

Let’s start with what should be basic but, sadly, is anything but.

You have to edit your work. It doesn’t matter how good you are. It doesn’t matter how smart you are. And it doesn’t matter how experienced you are. Or, you think you are.

Because every single piece of writing needs editing. There are no exceptions to this rule.

Betas and Sensitivity Readers

Without getting too far into what either of the above are, the bottom line is that it’s not their job to fix your stuff on the technical level. Yes, everybody makes typos. And that’s normal. Because a stray comma or a homophone (e. g. they’re for their) is no big deal.

The real issue is when a writer dumps their first draft onto beta readers. I have had this happen to me more than once, and here’s what I do.

I kick it back. Yes, really! Because I have no time to correct great big swaths of someone else’s MS. And, let’s face it, editors charge by the word. Making your beta readers do this is essentially getting something for free from them.

They already agreed to read your stellarish prose. So don’t make them waste their time correcting the technical stuff.

Self-Publishing

There is a lot of great self-published work out there. And there is also a lot of self-published junk. Want to be the former, rather than the latter? The road to great work of any sort is to edit that sucker.

So, will your work be wonderful, famous, popular, and beloved? Not necessarily. But at least people won’t lose their place or guess the killer too soon or otherwise want to throw your book across the room.

How to Edit a Manuscript, Really, I Mean it This Time!

So, this is the advice I give everyone.

Stage 0: Preliminaries

Leave it alone for 3 months.

Don’t cheat and go back early!

In the meantime, write short stories. Nothing fancy; they can be fluffy fanfiction. You just want to keep writing. Why? Because it’s a good habit to stay in, if you can.

Stage 1: Simple Word Searching

3 months are up? Run searches for words like-

  • That
  • Just
  • Very
  • Actually
  • Seem (and all of its variants)

Keep the numbers to the side. A scratch pad is fine.

Stage 2: You Are Your Own Biggest Fan

Now read your MS like a reader. You’re not looking for errors. You are a fan and you are reading the latest work from your favorite author.

Take note (that scratch pad comes to the rescue again) of when-

  • You get confused
  • Or you can’t tell characters apart
  • You get bored
  • Or you can’t picture something
  • You guessed the twist or the killer, whatever the surprise/denouement is

Done?

Stage 3: Dumping Crutch Words and Repetitive Words

Now start editing. Remember your words like that, etc.? There are actually more words which should be on your list but those are a good start. Reread sentences. Can they make sense without those words? Then out they go.

Stage 4: Fixing Characters, Plot, and Dialogue

Characters are hard to distinguish? Then consider what makes people unique. And see if you can combine two minor characters.

Twist is given away too early? Then introduce complications. Throw in some monkey wrenches.

Read the dialogue out loud. If you have trouble saying it, then it may not be realistic.

Done?

Stage 5: Beta Readers and Sensitivity Readers

Find beta readers. And offer to read their work. Be kind, fair, constructive, and helpful. Hopefully they will be as well.

Listen to beta readers but their words aren’t necessarily gospel.

If your work is about a marginalized community that you are not a part of, sensitivity readers can be a very good idea. As in, writing gay people if you’re straight, or Black characters when you’re white. You don’t have to do this for every single side character with only three lines. But a major character or a memorable minor one? You want to make sure you’re not stereotyping or othering or exoticizing people. Why? Because present-day readers will tear you apart if you do. And they would be right to do so.

Done?

Stage 6: Take a Break

Give it another 3 weeks to a month to sit around. Write more short stories in the meantime.

Stage 7: Cut, Slash, and Burn

Is that time up? Read again, the whole thing, this time as the writer. Edit it until it bleeds.

Congratulations. You’ve just edited your MS.

Takeaways for How to Edit a Manuscript

So the truth is, editing can be an incredibly daunting process. This is particularly true if you’re a pantser, so you’re not planning your work before you start. Personally, that would drive me nuts.

But this method of how to edit a manuscript can work for either plotters or pantsers. And it can even work for folks in the middle, just like me: so-called plantsers.

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By Janet

I'm not much bigger than a breadbox.