Let’s get into it, shall we? You’ve completed penning your first draft, right? And you’ve let it sit for at least a week, right? Good. If you haven’t put your first draft away and let it simmer, then do it. The time frame is up to you: one week; two weeks; but no more than three. In the meantime, work on another project or start one: above all, keep writing. I know you’re excited to get that thing polished and pristine and published—I was like that with Nightcry—but you should also want to release a product into the wild that is readable and bereft of silly little errors.
The following tips are ones that have been successful for me. Believe me: I’ve tried many techniques until I’ve found the ones that work for me. I suggest you compound as many polishing tips as you can and try them out on short stories until you find ones which work for you. Each tip (except the fourth one) is intended to catch different types of errors.
- Plan on reading your newly-penned manuscript at least three times. The first time should be for story, plot and continuity issues. Does anything need to be added? Removed? Changed to fit something earlier or later on? Don’t edit as you read: instead, make notes. After you’ve completed reading it the first time, then go through and make the necessary changes. Now we get technical: your second read-through is for grammar and spelling. The third reading is for any formatting issues. Depending on how you are releasing your book (eBook or print or both,) you’ll need to ensure paragraphs start as they should, indented text is indented properly and lines start and end with proper gaps.
- Read your book aloud. Actually, I consider this a fourth reading. When I was given this piece of advice, I thought it sounded crazy. Read my novel aloud? I’m not creating an audio book; there’s no point in hearing my own voice articulate my own words. Hearing your book will help you pick out awkward-sounding sentences and catch smaller errors because you are taking your time. For me, I sometimes tend to read my own work as if I were reading for pleasure. I’ll skip words or quickly peruse a long paragraph of exposition. But that’s just how I am and reading aloud slows me down so I can see things one sentence at a time.
- My wife gave me this tip: read your novel one page at a time from end to the beginning. This doesn’t mean to read it one word at a time backwards. Read it one page at a time. That way, you won’t get hung up on story or plot elements. You can concentrate on grammar.
- Hire a professional editor. I put this as the last tip because if you can afford one, hire one. When I looked into professional editors, I found prices ranged from $50 an hour to over $300 an hour. If you’re like me and if you’re self-published or looking to self-publish, then you probably don’t have extra money lying around for this. Especially if you have one or two books out and the dollars haven’t started rolling in yet. It’s not absolutely necessary to get a professional editor for each and every book. There, I said it. Write your book. If grammar is an opportunity, learn some grammar. Don’t know how to spell a word? Look it up! I know you’ll read hundreds of other blogs, written by those ranging from esteemed authors to hardcore book reviewers, touting the mantra of getting a professional editor no matter what. I don’t feel you should. Finding your own editing methods and utilizing beta readers might be all you need. Beta readers? Keeping reading.
Have you heard this term before? Beta readers are essentially the same thing: they read your book before it’s published to find errors and tell you the strengths and opportunities of your work. So how do you find beta readers? Use your friends and family and anyone you interact with online, be it from forums, writing groups, etc. Get about four or five beta readers and a couple of backups. However, you don’t just want to pick anyone. Use the following tips to find an excellent set of readers.
- Find a core set of readers with varying skills. Know someone who’s wonderful at grammar? Ask them. How about spelling? Ask them. Do you think someone would be great at picking out inconsistencies in your story? Ask them. Above all, make sure you trust the people you choose to give you honest opinions and not to hold back, even on the subtlest of mistakes.
- Whatever genre you write, have at least one beta reader who also writes in your genre. At the very minimum have someone who loves to read your genre. I write horror and I have a good friend to also writes horror so he can understand certain elements someone who writes romance may not. I also have someone who had read so much horror she is a walking haunted house. She knows the genre, knows what’s been written and can spout any copycat story elements at the drop of a hat. I trust her for this.
- Give your readers ample time. This should be obvious. Don’t wait until the last week before your release date to pass out your first draft and expect the readers to jump right in and finish it. They have lives: respect them. A good grace period would be one month before you nail down that final draft. That sounds like a lot of time, but you’re going to be editing your draft as well and you want time, right?
- You’ll want to reward your beta readers. Give them copies of your book. Signed, printed copies or eBooks. That way, they’ll want to continue to be your beta readers.
Polishing your manuscript needs the same care as writing your manuscript. Edit everything. This includes every word on the front and back cover to the acknowledgements and dedication pages to the title and copyright page. I had an embarrassing moment when, on the copyright page, I misspelled my last name: I left out the ‘P’ in Thompson. I didn’t catch it until my fourth draft. The sad part is I didn’t catch it, one of my beta readers did!
Computers are savvy. Some they will upload the wrong files for you. That’s why you should make sure you check your file before uploading. When I uploaded Nightcry for the very first time and received the proof copy, I noticed all kinds of mistakes I swore I had fixed. Well, I pulled up my fifth draft and compared it to the uploaded file. The uploaded file was my first draft. I now name the different drafts accordingly so I—I mean my computer—doesn’t upload the wrong one. Unfortunately, I had sent out the wrong Nightcry file to many blog book reviewers before I could catch it. That was a big lesson learned.
As you edit your novel and even after you publish it, you’re putting yourself out there. It’s true when everyone says you need to have a thick skin. You also need to be humble. Someone is bound to find something, somewhere in your novel that won’t be positive. Whether that’s a small plot error or a minute grammar issue, expect it. It happens to books from the big publishing houses to smaller independent publishers. It will happen to your book.
But that’s okay. You’re doing something you love. So keep doing it.
About Gregory Thompson:
Gregory M. Thompson is a science fiction, fantasy and horror author with credits in Macabre Realms, Digizine, Aphelion Webzine, Concisely, Digital Dragon Magazine, and The Fringe Magazine. He also has an award-nominated science fiction story in the collection, Steampunk Anthology, published by Sonar4 Publications. He has a forthcoming horror short story appearing in the April issue of Dark Gothic Resurrected.