So you've finished your book. But... have you really finished?
Q. If your next step is pressing the PUBLISH button, is there more you could do to make your book even better than it already is?
Q. If your next step is hiring a professional editor, is there more you could do to save yourself money?
1. Read aloud
Not just the dialogue but all the narrative. If something doesn’t sound right as you read, it won’t sound right in your reader’s head either.
When you are reading aloud, be conscious of your use of punctuation marks – be guided by these rather than by your expectation of how the story should read. This will give you a good sense of whether you have the pauses in the right places and the emphasis where you intend it to be.
Reading aloud will also highlight the ‘rhythm’ of your narrative – whether your sentences are too similar in length and tone; how often you may have repeated the same words or phrases; if the pace of your writing is fast or slow in the right places. Remember: long, drawn-out sentences slow the pace down. Short ones quicken it.
Common issue: Repetition
All writers, unwittingly, have a go-to set of words or phrases they like to use. Often they are little aware of how often they revert to their favoured choices, but to a reader repeated words will begin to glare like a beacon and distract from the storyline.
Read often and read widely to broaden vocabulary. Keep a thesaurus handy. Stephen King advised against using reference books on a first draft. I completely agree. Your first draft should be driven by your imagination and creativity only – using the tools you carry in your mind. But when you get to the editing stages, it’s time to take all those reference guides back out of the cupboard and use them as much as you need to.
2. Read more than once for more than one thing
This may mean reading every passage or chapter several times, each time focusing on a different aspect of the narrative. E.g. read once for plot – is the story advancing at the right pace? And read again for technicalities – is the punctuation in the right place? Are there spelling errors or issues of grammar you may need to look up?
Common issue: Unfinished work
Writers want to write. They do not want to edit. Not when there are professionals who can do that bit for them. But... ‘The only kind of writing is rewriting’, Hemingway said, and he couldn’t be more right (excuse the pun). Whilst most writers will give their early draft at least a cursory editing glance, all too often they rush their work to the next stage – professional editor or even agent submission – well before the work is ready, thus harming their chances of success and often their pockets too.
If you’ve taken the time to write the novel, take the time to edit it as much as you are capable of. You will be giving yourself and your work the respect and opportunity it deserves if you work on it as much as you possibly can. Be patient and don’t let it go too soon. Getting a novel out quickly will be scant compensation if you've skipped vital stages in its production.
3. Make lists and keep them handy
You may of course do this already, but if not there’s no time like the present to begin. You’ll need handy go-to reference guides on:
Some writers swear by their notes and wouldn’t dream of beginning to write a novel without them. For other writers, too much note-taking dissipates the desire to actually write the thing. I can fully empathise with both approaches. So whilst some writers will have lists longer than the one I’ve suggested here, others might resist entirely. However, for the sake of their work, those resisting would be wise to keep a Character list at the very least, and also a Settings and Timeline list if at all bearable. Having a quick-glance reference checker could keep you on track and save a lot of time and money at the professional edit stage.
Common issue: Inconsistency
Let’s be honest, it’s hard to keep track of all the elements needed to make up an entire imaginary world and all the people in it. Notes and lists will help enormously, but given the scale of what you are trying to do, somewhere along the line, errors will still inevitably creep in.
Hire an editor. Okay, okay. I hear you groaning. No, this is not a shameless plug - you are safe to keep on reading. For all the editing you do yourself, for all the rules you follow, and advice guides – like this one – you read and adhere to, your manuscript will still benefit from another pair of eyes. Ideally, this is a professional (looking for inconsistencies is their speciality), but if not then a beta reader/family member/friend may be able (and willing) to at least draw your attention to any clear areas of confusion within your story.
4. Put your manuscript away and forget about it
I can’t emphasise enough what a difference this can make to your work. At this point, you may have drafted and redrafted and then edited and re-edited, and are now so sick of your story and your words, you can’t wait to be shot of it. But... now that you’ve put in all this work, are you really willing to rush through the next part, potentially throwing all that energy and creativity away?
You’ve heard this before, but it works. Trust me – it will be worth it. Even if – and it’s a really unlikely IF – after that break you still don’t spot any glaring issues or things that have been missed, you will at least have given your work the respect it deserves. Leave it the minimum of one month without so much as peeking at it. Ideally, leave it much longer. You will come back to it fresh – almost with a reader’s perspective – and any issues will leap out at you, leaving you wondering how you hadn’t noticed them before.
* Every writer and/or editor is not worth his salt without a good selection of reference materials. Here are just a few of the ones I use, but there are many on the market (including those accessible online), which might be better suited to you:
Collins Easy Learning Grammar & Punctuation (2009), HarperCollins Publishers, Glasgow
Collins Concise Thesaurus (2003 ed.), HarperCollins Publishers, Glasgow
The Chambers Dictionary (2003), Chambers Harrap Publishers Ltd, Edinburgh
New Oxford Spelling Dictionary (2014 ed.), Oxford University Press, Oxford
New Oxford Dictionary for Writers & Editors (2014 ed.), Oxford University Press, Oxford
Webster's American English Dictionary (2011), Federal Street Press, Springfield
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