3 Steps to Editing Your Book Like a Publisher

Whether you’ve decided to go the power-of-one publishing route, and want yours to stand out amid a sea of Kindle e-books with glittering graphics, or you’re seeking traditional publication and hope your manuscript rises to the top of the dishearteningly named “slush pile,” you can set your work apart by treating it to all the benefits of a shiny NYC-publisher edit. Having edited, copyedited, and proofread for various major traditional publishing houses, I have consistently seen three focuses of a publisher-backed edit that you need to incorporate if you want to play alongside (or join) the majors.

Warning: this is not an ad. Do not attempt to look inside any of those books, no matter how often the bright orange and blue words tell you to. This is an illustration of your could-be competitors–and why you have to step up your game to thrive in the era of e-book abundance.

(1) Eliminate Common Grammatical Errors, Misspellings, and Typos

Nothing is more likely to get your book booted out of someone’s Kindle-for-PC library or rejected fast with a form letter than early mistakes in rudimentary grammar. If a reader opens your book and sees, within the first few pages, apostrophes used to make should-be-plural words possessive, inconsistent capitalization, misspellings, dangling modifiers, etc., chances are that you’re not getting a second one. End of story (literally).

Whether or not you agree with the logic, people assume that sloppiness or inattention in one area denotes a pattern; if you haven’t edited for grammar and proofread to catch the typos, many readers will assume you also have not properly attended to deeper structural matters of the story. And they will not waste their time.

(2) Weed Out the Offensive (Well, Where You Don’t Aim to Offend)

In the age of Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, Reddit, etc., etc., etc., wildfire spreads like Internet outrage. Never has it been so apparent that there’s truth in the statement “You can’t make all the people happy all the time.” Neither is it your job to. Sometimes casting a wide net becomes stretching that net so far that any fish you’ve already targeted just swim right through the loose mesh. This is not about pandering to the greatest number of readers imaginable, and it’s not about cowering in fear of the Internet being mean to you. Getting up in arms, after all, is some people’s favorite sport. Fahgettaboudem.

This is about catching phrases and idioms that are likely to come across with an unintended hostility or divisiveness and can easily be reworded in a way that preserves the integrity of your intended message without the risk of alienating (reasonable) readers.

Given that writing begins deep in the trenches of your personal experience, this is a remarkably easy issue to overlook, and it’s a critical aspect of professional/publishing-house editing. Catching and then gently rephrasing these instances makes the difference between a smoothly running read and your reader thinking, “Woah, buddy” or “That’s just uncalled for” or even “Yikes, I wonder if the author grasps just how bad this sounds.”

And if readers do land on that last reaction, their confidence in you as a writer is in danger of sinking quickly. Your readers are basically entrusting you to steer their attention for the period of time they’re reading; if you come across as unaware or needlessly insensitive, it’s doubtful they’ll continue to see you as a worthy captain.

(3) Clarify Those Opaque Passages (No Matter How Pretty They Are)

Truth is we all have ways of phrasing things that make sense to us and, at least after a little indoctrination, to our near-and-dear crowd along with frequent email/messenger/chat partners. Every once in a while, we all get wooed by the perfume of our own flowery poeticism. And we’ve all probably asked, “Does this make sense to you?” to a spouse or best friend or parent, who may have said, “Of course!” because that person loves us and, let’s be honest, probably knows how easy it is to poke the bear.

The upshot of that is that your book is likely to end up with at least a few instances of pretty (in an abstract-painting sort of way) phrasing that is nonetheless prone to make the average reader—who’s never met you and doesn’t understand that you consider idiom inversion a form of subtle genius—to think, “Whaaat?”

The abstract has its place: in certain paintings, Rorschach tests, and books by Mark Z. Danielewski. In most writing, though, clarity is queen.

Traditionally published books are often clearer than self-published ones because a professional editor has raked through every paragraph, every sentence, and every turn of phrase to ensure clarity. If your book contains too many descriptions that make readers think, “I bet that sounded good in so-and-so’s head but . . .” you will come across as unprofessional and, again, unaware.

An experienced book editor can ensure that your book is grammatically sound, free of unintentionally alienating phrases, and clear and coherent. I’m available to edit your book, whether you’re interested in a professional polish before you submit (or publish) or you’d prefer a structural edit or developmental edit in which I address underlying “big-picture” matters related to plot, characterization, overall structure, integration of theme, pacing, flow, narrative voice or tone, and more. If you are interested in having me edit your book, please contact me either via the web form on this site or by email at editor@powerproofgirl.com.


Abstract painting credit: By Rurik Dmitrienko – Pierre Dmitrienkko (Dmitrienko-Archives) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons


Beyond Character Quizzes: Asking the Right Questions to Develop Distinct Characters

Think back to Creative Writing 101, the class where an actual Important Writer came to read—a guy with elbow patches and a college-press story collection with cover art that looked pretty pro in the days predating Fiverr artists and rampant Photoshop skills. The class where you and your classmates, green in the art of feedback, were kinda lost after underlining the word “suit” when the writer meant “suite” and comparing the smart-kid character to Scout Finch. The one with the character quizzes.

You know the type.

  1. What’s your character’s favorite food?
  2. What type of movies does he like?
  3. Describe her accent and list any often-used phrases.
  4. Is he religious? Political? Is his family? Do they fight so hard about it at dinner that a flying drumstick nearly takes someone’s eye out?

While completing a favorites list on behalf of your character may ignite your nostalgia for those days of filling out magazine quizzes alongside your best friend with goofy and/or profane answers, that’s essentially what it can feel like: playing around. Having some fun with your characters but not getting to know them on a make-or-break level. This doesn’t mean you need to forswear character quiz questions altogether, but save them for when you’ve answered the questions that matter more.

How Does Your Character Relate to the Theme?

I’ve written previously about how focusing on a not-too-broad, not-too-narrow theme can help you more clearly see individual characters. Once you have an unobstructed view of what kind of story you want to tell—what Big Questions you’ll answer, what enigmas you’ll crack open—it’s often much easier to see what essential roles your main players will need to serve along with the primary ways in which they’ll interact with one another.

What Part of Your Character Is You?

Returning to Creative Writing 101 for a moment, do you remember the central characters in any of your classmates’ short stories? Do you remember thinking that, outside of a few swapped-around superficial details, your classmates were absolutely writing about themselves? Do you remember explaining how your own main character wasn’t youish at all and your fellow writers-in-the-making looking at you like suuuure?

Since those days, through much three a.m. caffeinated practice, your once-shrimpy creativity has probably grown musclebound. Maybe your characters now live on different continents—or planets. Maybe they have to confront social issues you know only through a combination of research, imagination, and empathy. They might even hold core political beliefs different from your own. Maybe you’re so good you can now, with commiseration and a soft heart, write a vegetarian character in between whopping Cookout-burger bites. But listen. That vegetarian Martian who supports the communist uprising after being bullied for years because her scaly skin is purple to everyone else’s scaly green—there’s still some part of her that’s you.

Writers are not blank slates, even writers who work organically, who are short on outlining and long on going with the muse-ical flow. There’s a reason you, as opposed to John Irving or Ali Smith or Chuck Palahniuk or elbow-patched Important Writer, are writing this story, these characters.

For example, let’s say you decide the part of Purple Communist Vegetarian Martian Girl (let’s call her Matilda) that most clearly arises from your own character is her tendency to “overcorrect.” For instance, she goes from being a doormat to a violent pseudorevolutionary, no shades of gray between. Maybe you once went from a poorly protein-supplemented macrovegan existence to Super Atkins and landed yourself in a red-meat stupor for weeks. Or maybe it was something not meat-related and of slightly longer-term consequence.

Proper characterization will prevent Matilda from coming across as a run-of-the-mill, cartoonish alien.

Once you identify what part of your psychological or philosophical DNA a given character is manifesting . . .

  1. your own bond with and vision of that character should be brighter.
  2. you can more aptly oversee the remainder the character production process, namely making sure you’re not inadvertently demonizing or ennobling Matilda beyond what’s called for out of some need to chastise, justify, or praise that part of you now showing up in your literary offspring.
  3. you can better filter out (or in) other you-qualities based on what makes sense for Matilda’s own character and her role in the story.

How Does Your Character Sound?

Not so much when singing in the shower, but when speaking, when thinking, when narrating her own life. While this one can be every bit as fun as quiz questions, I consider it separate based on just how important it is. Because your medium is the written word, the ability to hear your character can lead to, and is usually therefore more immediately important than, your ability to see your character. Seeing may be believing, but in storytelling, hearing is seeing.

When you’ve answered these essential character questions, feel free to proceed to the fun stuff. Sketch Matilda’s favorite T-shirt. Determine what rock music sounds like on Mars and whether she’s a fan. Is ultrapricey earthling coffee her weakness?

When it comes to working through the finer issues of characterization or objectively seeing whether your characters have chemistry, whether they fulfill the needs of your theme and plot, whether they come across with believable internal consistency, etc., an experienced book editor can help. If you’re looking for a literary editor to handle your manuscript evaluation, developmental editing, copyediting, proofreading, or any combination thereof, contact me via the web form on this site or at editor@powerproofgirl.com.