I do book reviews and I often check in on what other people think of books if I find an advertisement to be eye-catching or have extremely brutal or stellar reviews. I know this is an odd way to start a post about self-editing, right? Just bear with me.
One particular Fantasy book series that was creeping up on ten books had amassed a lot of reviews and criticism. I actually started looking under the hood (so to speak) of the author’s operation for two reasons: 1) the top FB response was a rip because the advertisement had stolen a screen-grab of Gallifrey as its image (Dr. Who’s home planet,) and that got my interest up. 2) with a lot of legitimate complaints, there were so many sales (though so many were free) and a high number of reviews and I was interested in how such a lackluster author could amass such a following (although it’s easy to see this is the case across the board in other things such as the music industry, politics, etc.) …but this guy was a regular guy, just like me, banging on the keys at his kitchen table. (I asked him for a blog interview a year ago to talk about platform building because he obviously knows some stuff—but no dice).
Many of the complaints circled around some very real issues and legitimate complaints. The author changed the spelling of a minor character’s name at some point mid-series. The timeline was out whack in some others where the author obviously cut and pasted a large section and messed with the continuity. A character who had been killed was suddenly alive again for a scene. And grammar… doing grammer un goodly will makes mad peoples—a large number of reviewers suggested they knew the answer: the writer never got beyond the first draft and went straight to self-publishing with the next installment. Poor technical writing kicks the reader out of the immersive world of the story.
Self-editing is something that all writers ought to be doing after the first draft is in… also, it is not sufficient for your final draft. Get fresh eyes at some point down the line. Here are a couple key problems writers make in rough drafts and some easy tools to help overcome them.
Continuity errors: screwing up the timeline/order of events. Draw a timeline to help track when things happen. Also, write an outline—even if you don’t use one to write, use it to edit—go back and write an outline after the fact to help spot errors.
Character issues (descriptions, personality traits, purpose to the plot arc): keep a dossier or dramatis personae as if you were writing a wiki for your world. Mark when the character is killed, affiliations, etc. so that you don’t change a minor character mid-stream. Again, you can do this after the first draft and use it to edit.
Grammar errors: there are two ways to tighten this up 1) don’t make errors and always write well the first time, 2) have people who will help spot errors and fix them. You need both selections because your writing will never be perfect. In regards to #1 skill is earned by editing and learning mistakes and how to avoid them so practice writing and editing (even the works of other authors—find a peer group!) Write short fiction, it will give you opportunities to start a story, stop a story, and everything in between and then chances to edit, learn, rewrite. For #2, get beta readers for fresh eyes and then get an editor—expect to pay money! Invest in your story if you believe in it.
Telepoofing: this is that writing magic that comes from suspending disbelief and we see it all the time in Hollywood. The bad guy has the cure to the disease which will kill our hero in 24 hours and the villain, after infecting your west-coast MC has fled to his secret lair in Europe back in chapter five. After the rest of the events (discovering the location, a brief romantic interlude, a stopover at the CDC, MC rescues a batch of kittens), the story ramps up and the intensity peaks—MC has to get the cure or die and “Poof!” he’s teleported to Europe in search of evil Dr. McMeanypants’s hideout. The action takes place “off camera” and the story goes on… but even a nonstop flight from L.A to Europe will take at least 16 hours. Sometimes you can get away with things, but understand that you can only push the envelope of the details so much. That Timeline and Outline will help here, too, depending on what details you pay attention to. If there is a timer on a plot point (poison, bomb, etc.) pay attention to the clock. If there is a supernatural thing at play (vampires, werewolves, etc.) pay attention to when the sun goes down and the moon phases. If you mention guns being fired, get your calibers and ammo types right (shotguns won’t kill people beyond close range and a .22 is not a sniper rifle). Remember that the devil is in the details.
Self-editing tip: If you mention specific details or if some details are essential to the plot make sure they are right. Everything else can be left beneath a thin veneer of vagueness and left to the reader’s assumption… a limp is a great character detail but you don’t need to mention which leg or reference it frequently… not everybody in your world needs or deserves a detailed description of their complexion, hair color, dental alignment, etc. Readers will fill in the details, let them immerse themselves in your writing and make assumptions about what a house looks like, or what kind of car someone drives, etc. Don’t describe what they are seeing from an outside perspective, tighten your writing skill and loosen your descriptive details so that they experience your world from within.