Edit Letters: What They Contain and How I Draft Them

Last week, we covered the basics of what an edit letter is and when it generally happens in the editorial process (along with a few key ways they differ from beta reader and CP feedback). This week, I want to quickly talk about the process an editor goes through to create one. Contrary to popular belief, it’s not just a matter of simply reading a manuscript and regurgitating thoughts into semi-coherent notes. A large part of our job is actually to help prepare your work (and you) for exposure to the often unfiltered reader response. And trust me, unless your editor is a walking cliche of the editors-are-evil myth, reader reviews will hurt a hell of a lot more than anything your editor will say. Your editor should have your best interest in mind, and they realize that hearing that your manuscript needs even more work isn’t exactly a pleasant experience.

But I’m getting slightly ahead of myself. Believe it or not, the process of drafting an edit letter is actually quite nerve-racking for most editors. It’s often our first true interaction with an author, and so we’re never fully sure how they’re going to react to the things we have to say. No one likes being the bearer of bad news, after all. Just like no one likes receiving it. But such is the nature of the job. We’re not paid to sugar-coat and coddle. We root out and diagnose the cancers in your manuscript that you might not even realize are there, and then, most importantly, we tell you how to cure them. That’s a hefty responsibility, don’t you think? Which is why I never understand when authors assume this is a quick process.

Every editor does this phase of edits differently, but the intent is always the same, and the finished product will be very similar. So let’s talk about how I get to that final letter.

The first thing I do is download the file to my Kindle. That might sound obvious, but I have a very specific reason for doing this — it helps keep me from becoming mired in things which technically fall under line edits. For a dev edit, I have to mostly turn off “Editor Brain,” which is something you’ll hear editors joke about if you ever manage to find them chilling in their natural habitats. For those unfamiliar with the term, Editor Brain is the inability to look past or otherwise ignore grammar atrocities and other minutiae. When you spend most of your days mired in fixing those things, it can be really, really hard to turn that facet of your brain off. It becomes muscle memory, a reflex. But the point of a dev edit is to focus on the big picture, not the minutiae. That comes later. So I physically prevent myself from being able to comment on or address those line-edit type flaws by putting the manuscript in a venue where I’m more accustomed to simply being a reader.

If you noticed, though, I said I have to “mostly ” turn off Editor Brain, because really, editors never truly manage to turn that perspective off. Which is a curse they don’t tell you about when you’re a fledgling editor dreaming of all the awesomeness that being an editor kinda sorta (as in not at all) entails. I still notice the finer details as I read, the flaws that will need to be ironed out during the next round of edits, I just don’t do anything about them.

Instead, I carefully read the manuscript in its entirety, making notes about things that are murky, elements that aren’t explained or developed enough, sequence issues, or even just emotional responses, as needed. I use the notepad feature on my phone for this, because it’s conveniently mobile and doesn’t require me to infringe upon my “reading” space, thereby keeping my focus from slipping back to those aforementioned line edit problems.

Once I’m done reading, I set the project aside for at least twenty-four hours. And again, I have a very specific reason for this. See, ideally, your editor should be one of your biggest fans. Which means that there’s a period during the review process where the reader part of us takes over. And that means that, if you did your job well, we finish the book with a massive book hangover and a lot of “OH MY GOD I LOVED IT” clouding our judgment. There’s an emotional high that comes from reading a really satisfying work, even if that work might still be a tad rough around the edges. And emotions get in the way of logical analysis. So I give myself time to savor that book hangover and come down from the overwhelming number of reader feels I usually have after finishing a story.

Then, once I can don my editor hat again, I take my notes and compile them into the actual edit letter, carefully phrasing my feedback to toe the line between honest and supportive, compassionate and constructive. Or at least, I do my best to. I usually start by listing the good stuff: what I loved, what it reminded me of, what the author did really well. Then I segue into the standard categories I generally include: Concept, Voice & POV, Pace, World-Building, Character Development, Miscellaneous/Manuscript Specific Concerns, and  Overall Thoughts. I don’t always need all of these, but that’s the template I start with. I find it helps to take what can feel like a massive wall of text and break it into bite-sized portions, both because it’s a tad less daunting and because it’s easier to continue the discussion.

Once I identify the categories I need, I’ll draft my analysis of each, identifying both what’s working and what isn’t, and my suggestion for how to fix it. This takes anywhere from one to three days, factoring in both the time it takes to carefully draft a letter of that length and the mental gymnastics needed to not only identify the problems, but also the solutions that most feel like the author’s style and voice. It’s a lot like playing with puzzle pieces, rearranging and tuning and tweaking until everything snaps into place.

Then I proofread, take a deep breath, and hit send, crossing my fingers that it doesn’t unleash a storm of backlash. Not because I’m not confident in my analysis and suggestions, but because, until I hear back from the author, I’m as nervous and anxious as they were while waiting to hear from me.

And there you have it, my personal approach to creating the developmental edit letter. This concludes the portion of my presentation I did with C.M. Spivey. At the conferences, we then went on to showcase the edit letter I provided for From Under the Mountain, discussing the various aspects and how Spivey interpreted and implemented my suggestions. Since that material is copyrighted to the author, I’m not at liberty to post it online. But perhaps if you ask nicely enough, they will on their own website. 😉

Next week, I’ll have something new to talk about. I’m not sure what yet, but I’ll find something. If anyone has questions or comments regarding edit letters and the process of drafting or receiving/implementing one, feel free to post in the comments below. Otherwise, happy reading/writing!

Edit Letters: What are They and When do They Happen?

Apologies for the unintentional hiatus over the past few weeks. To say this summer was a whirlwind would be an understatement. I honestly can’t believe it’s already September! It feels like it was just March. But anyway, now that the conference circuit has more or less come to a close, I’ll be able to return to my regularly scheduled posting routine.

As some of you know, I did a presentation with C.M. (Cait) Spivey on edit letters at both PNWA and the Willamette Writers Conference, and many have asked that I post that presentation here. Since it was more of a tutorial on how to implement the suggestions contained within an edit letter than a generalized talk about the letters themselves, I can’t post the presentation in its entirety. But I can use the generalized bits. Perhaps those will still be helpful.

So let’s talk about edit letters, shall we?

When you look back across the archives of my site, you’ll see that I’ve already talked a lot about editing-related topics. Everything from how you become an editor, to the realities of the editing life, to the various pet-peeves and editorial myths that drive editors nuts. But I haven’t ever truly talked about what an editor does.

Technically, the idea that an editor’s only job is to find errors is an editorial myth. But it does have some basis in truth. I mean, a large portion of editing does revolve around the finding and fixing of “errors,” but that has less to do with the myth’s portrayal of editors being sadistic grammar Nazis and more to do with the fact that we’re an expert set of objective eyes. Our main job is to help protect authors from reader backlash, and there are two main ways we do that — line by line (or in-line comments, as some editors call them) and edit letters.

The line by line comments are known as line or copy edits, and are the hallmark of editing, the thing most people think of when they hear the dreaded E word. They include things like grammar, sentence structure and flow, clarity and economy of language, and voice consistency.

But before a project gets to the line edit phase, it goes through what is known as a developmental or structural edit. And that’s where edit letters come in.

Dev edits, as we editors affectionately call them (because, let’s face it, five syllables is just too long to say on a regular basis), are used to analyze, diagnose, and address underlying problems with storytelling mechanics. They provide a bird’s eye view of the manuscript and allow the editor to carefully evaluate things like plot, pacing, character development, market concerns, and emotional resonance — the foundation of your story, in other words.

Because of this, dev edits happen very early in the editorial process, and may even happen as part of acquisitions instead. I can’t speak for all agents or editors, but at REUTS, we believe in disclosing any potentially drastic revisions we’d like to see up front, that way the author can determine whether or not our vision for their story aligns with their own. A disagreement at this stage likely means the agent or press is a mismatch, as ideally, the edit letter will provide feedback that improves upon the author’s intent and story, rather than drastically altering it.

The purpose of the edit letter, therefore, is to open a dialogue between the author and editor. It’s the opening volley of a strategy meeting, more or less, meant to encourage brainstorming and discourse over the various aspects that might need addressing. Which is why it’s not quite the same as the feedback you receive from CPs or beta readers.

One of my favorite (and I’m totally being facetious here) things to run up against is an author who fails to understand the key difference between beta readers, CPs, and editors. (I’ve talked about the differences before, if you need a refresher.) Each is valuable, yes, and every author should be utilizing all three, but each has its place in the process. In the hierarchy of outside feedback, editors are alpha. Once you start working with one, you really shouldn’t be utilizing other sources of feedback. Those all happen before you bring in the expert, not after. And yet, I’ve seen people do this, a lot, both in an effort to implement developmental revisions and in between rounds of line edits.

Don’t do this. It’s one of the main editorial no-nos. But the reason probably isn’t what you think. Editing myths often portray editors as power-hungry, judgmental individuals. But we’re not really (or at least, we shouldn’t be). We’re your ally. We’re also highly experienced, paid professionals. Chances are, if your editor is telling you something needs to be fixed, it’s for a very good reason.

I’m sure some of you are thinking, “but what if I don’t agree with the suggestions? What if I want a second opinion?” Still don’t do it. Talk to your editor instead. The editing process is supposed to be a partnership, and much like marriages, that partnership can’t work without communication. By turning to people outside of the editor-author relationship, you’re essentially vetting your editor’s comments. You’re telling the editor that you don’t trust them, and that these other people matter more. And worse, you’re breaking the confidentiality of what should be a private part of the production process (especially if you’re working with a press). It’s insulting, frankly, and much like a cheating spouse, it engenders mistrust on both sides, creating a fractured, difficult path for both parties.

So yeah, talk to your editor. Tell them your thoughts and concerns, and if you must bring in outside opinions, clear it with them first. But never, never do it after the majority of the editing is done, and then expect the editor to make changes according to your CPs’ or beta readers’ thoughts. That’s the wrong head-space to be in when you approach this process.

Next week, I’ll talk about my particular approach to drafting an edit letter. But in the meantime, do any of you have questions about edit letters or developmental editing in general? Let me know in the comments below, and I’ll make sure to answer them in the conclusion article! 🙂

Editorial Myth-busting: Four Common Misconceptions About the Editing Process

This is a topic that’s been brewing in the back of my mind for a while, as evidenced by the precursor posts earlier this year (Publishing: The Industry of Disappointment and Editors . . . are People?). There are so many myths and misconceptions, so many horror stories out there regarding the author-editor relationship, that it’s no wonder debut authors approach the editing process with a strange blend of hope, fear, dread, and resignation. Editing gets lumped into the same category as going to the dentist or getting the oil changed in your car. It’s not fun, but you know you have to do it. And that’s unfortunate. Because, as Drew Hayes pointed out in his article, the author-editor relationship really should be a mutually beneficial collaboration.

But, as with most things in publishing, that fact often gets obscured by the divide in perception between what the process looks/feels like for the author and what it’s like for the editor. So let’s do some myth-busting, yes? Everyone loves myth-busting. Especially when there are GIFs involved.

Myth #1: An editor’s only job is to find errors in your work.

Perception: wrong

Reality: thoughtful

It’s easy to see how this myth began, since a large portion of editing does revolve around the finding and fixing of “errors.” But that’s far from the only thing an editor does. According to the many horror stories out there, editors are judgmental, cruel beings whose only mission in life is to lord over the ranks of poor, pitiful writer-souls the way Ursula does her garden of victims in The Little Mermaid. We badger, and bully, and shred a writer’s precious work until there’s virtually nothing left, laughing as we drag the carcass of words through the Meadow of Publication and deposit its ravaged husk into the arms of readers everywhere.

Now, I’m obviously being just a tad facetious with the hyperbole, but I’ve actually heard people say this myth out loud. A lot. And I suppose, to an extent, it’s true. We are paid to find and repair problems. But the reason has less to do with sadistic pleasure at proving others wrong and more to do with the fact that we’re an objective set of expert eyes. The reason authors need editors is because they’re too close to their own work. They know what they meant to say, how the story is supposed to go, what the scenes are meant to capture. An editor is a new perspective outside of the writer’s head. They’re your first chance to see the way readers are going to react, and they’re your last chance to fix things that would otherwise earn you the dreaded one-star Amazon review.

So while the myth would have us gleefully giggling as we circle every misplaced comma and typo, the reality is that we’re more like a safety net. It’s our job to help protect authors from reader backlash. Finding errors is only one aspect of doing just that.

Myth #2: Editors are the gatekeepers standing between you and publication.

Perception: Ghostbuter Dog

Reality:Teamwork

Ah, yes. This is one of the many myths that led to my earlier articles about the humans behind publishing’s massive facade of mystery. Querying authors tend to assume that agents and acquisitions editors are solely there to be in the way. That, much like that dog-thing from Ghostbusters pictured above, we’re mindless drones serving our masters by keeping perfectly qualified, brilliant literature from making it through the gates.

Now, this myth might hold a tiny shred of truth in it (acquisitions editors and agents do filter submissions for marketability), but it’s often perpetuated by authors who’ve acquired a plethora of rejection letters, and who refuse to face the fact that their book-baby might not actually be ready for publication after all.

The reality behind acquisitions is that agents and editors are looking for business partners. Publishing is a team endeavor, and it requires a lot more than simply being able to spin a good tale. So yes, we are gatekeepers in the sense that we have to be highly selective about who we end up recruiting onto our team (remember, publishing is a business, and what do businesses want? Money!), but we’re not gatekeepers in the sense that our only reason to exist is to guard the hallowed halls of publishing from an influx of mortals. Usually, if your book isn’t receiving offers, it means it either isn’t ready yet, you’re querying the wrong agents/editors, or it just might be better suited for a different publication avenue. (I’ll talk about those more in a different, future article.)

Myth #3: Editors make tons of money, so why the hell are they so expensive?

Perception:rich

Reality:broke

This one mostly refers to the world of freelance editing, since traditional publication paths don’t require the author to pay for editing out of their own pocket. (Giant red flag if you’re ever offered a “traditional” publishing contract which does ask this of you, by the way.) It’s also a topic I’ve covered before, and which the lovely Cait Spivey provided a guest post on.

The long and short of it is that editors really don’t make that much money. What seems like a hefty chunk of change to the author having to pay it, really equates to the oft-touted ramen diet favored by other starving artist types. In editing, dollars earned divided by time spent often equals less than some people flip burgers for. Which is why most editors edit because they love it, not because it rakes in bucket-loads of green.

Which brings us to our last myth — a misconception very closely tied to the reason editors walk hand-in-hand with authors in the “I’m Broke as F*&%” parade.

Myth #4: I can read my novel in less than a week, cover to cover; why does it take an editor weeks or months to edit it?

Perception:Spacecat

Reality:

Interesting

This is my least favorite myth to run up against as an editor, either freelance or otherwise, because it instantly shows me how little the person saying it knows about the actual editing process. Editors are, in fact, some of the fastest readers I know, because we’re buried under a mountain of manuscripts that would rival Mount Everest if they weren’t largely digital. But editing does not live in the same sphere as reading. It doesn’t. I don’t care who you are, if you believe that, you’re wrong. Very, very wrong. Editing is much like writing, if it must be compared to anything. And let me ask you, oh ye authors of the interwebs, how long did it take you to actually write your manuscript? I don’t mean the act of putting words on paper or screen, but the time it took from concept inception to the “polished” draft you’re handing your editor. If you say less than 3-4 months, minimum, you’re about as believable as that cat hurtling through space at warp speed.

The fact of the matter is that editing takes time. A lot of it. It’s not just a matter of reading an author’s words. You have to digest them. There’s a lot of analyzing, of listening and interpreting intent from reality, of diagnosing and curing storytelling diseases of all varieties, as well as the expected suggestions for proper grammar. Good editors will expend an impressive amount of mental energy crafting suggestions that can be as small as a single word, because that single word has to a) conform to the accepted rules of English, b) fit with the author and character’s established voice/style, and c) somehow solve/improve upon whatever was wonky in the first place. That’s a lot of pressure on a single word, huh? And editors do that for an entire manuscript! So you can see why it would take a significant amount of mental gymnastics to complete even a single editorial review, let alone the three rounds (developmental, line/copy, proofreading) that most manuscripts go through prior to publication.

So yes, it is possible to read something cover-to-cover in a few days to a week. But it is not possible to edit the thing in that time frame. It’s just not. Asking your editor to do so is inhumane, because it will inevitably require them to give up massive amounts of sleep, drink enough caffeine to make them twitchy as a squirrel in autumn, and otherwise shackle themselves to their desk until they collapse from sheer exhaustion. Trust me, I’ve had far too much experience with that particular scenario. It’s far better to realize that editing is a time-consuming process for everyone involved and plan accordingly.

Which brings us to the end of today’s post. These are four of the more common myths I’ve heard, but tell me, what are some other editing myths out there? If there are a lot more, perhaps this myth-busting business will become a regular feature. 😉

 

Featured From the Archives: The Difference Between Editing & Ghostwriting

Apologies for the abrupt and unexpected hiatus of the past couple weeks. Between illness and back-to-back deadlines, I sort of lost all concept of time for a bit there. But, as you can see, I’m back. Which means I also have new things to say. (Well, in theory, anyway.)

Coming off the heels of the guest post I wrote about the differences between editors, critique partners, and beta readers seems like the perfect time to pull this out of the archives, blow off the dust, give it a few tweaks, and expand on your vocabulary of book-doctor specialties. So, without further ado, I give you the encore presentation of . . .

The Difference Between Editing & Ghostwriting

by Kisa Whipkey

Originally Posted on 3/22/13

I’m sure the more astute of you already know that I moonlight as a freelance editor (there’s a handy little tab at the top of the page that will tell you all about it if you somehow managed to miss it), as well as working on the editorial staff at REUTS Publications. But I’ve also been known to work as a ghostwriter (very infrequently; it’s not really my cup of tea). This week had me doing both. And it got me thinking about the differences between the two; how they can often be confused by those outside the literary world. So, in the interest of clarity, I’m going to take a moment to break each of them down, starting with editing.

There are three types of editing a freelance editor (or an editorial staff) will perform:

  • Developmental Editing: This deals with the underlying structure of a piece, focusing on things like flow, POV, character consistency, and plot. Sometimes called Substantive or Structural Editing, it’s usually the first part of the process, as there’s no point in fine-tuning a scene that will just get cut later on. Developmental Editors have a firm understanding of storytelling basics and can rearrange a work like pieces in a puzzle, requiring dramatic changes that will ultimately make the story stronger. It’s the part that most feels like honing a diamond from a rough piece of rock and is my favorite style of editing. (2015 addition: The key thing that makes this different from ghostwriting is that it requires at least a base of story to work with — a first draft, an outline, something the author has already put on the page.)
  • Line Editing: The second stage of the process, line editing dissects individual sentences, working on tightening the prose and overall smoothing, as well as things like spelling and grammar. Similar to the layered approach of painting and sculpture, line editing builds on the foundation developmental editing provides, focusing on the details rather than the work at large. This can be extremely painful for people that dislike dealing with minutiae, but it’s an important step in creating the final outcome.
  • Proofreading: Generally the last stage of the process, proofreading gives a manuscript a final pass, looking for any typos, misspelled words, or wonky punctuation that might have slipped through the cracks. There should be relatively few revisions made in this stage, and often, the proofreader will simply make the necessary changes without requiring the author to step in. Proofreaders are the last defense before a manuscript heads to the printer, so it’s a good idea to have them be a fresh set of eyes from the prior stages.

You’ll notice that none of those definitions included rewriting. That’s because it’s not the editor’s job to actually fix the problems. This is where the confusion kicks in. It’s a common misconception that editors help with the actual writing. But editing isn’t that kind of hands-on, instant fix. In fact, most editors won’t even look at a piece that hasn’t already been completed and polished to a high standard. (2015 addition: Except for developmental editors, that is, whose job is often comprised of brainstorming advice and other coaching.)

An editor is like a personal trainer for words. And just like a personal trainer can’t lose weight for their client, an editor can’t rewrite a manuscript for their author. The author does all the heavy-lifting in the relationship, working out the kinks and fixing the rough spots under the editor’s guidance and moral support (even though it can feel like the complete opposite when you get your manuscript back covered in red “delete” suggestions). When they do their job well, the end result is like the movie-star version of the original work, but it’s the author that actually gets it there.

So who, then, helps the people that can’t quite articulate their brilliant idea into words on a page?

Ghostwriters.

Ghostwriting and editing are two completely different things. Editors are passive observers, guiding the author from the sidelines, while ghostwriters are active, aggressively transforming the author’s loose, un-articulated thoughts into a commercial literary product. Unlike editors, a ghostwriter’s job is to actually write the manuscript. To take the vision, voice, and generalized, messy thoughts of the author and actually write in their stead. In short, ghostwriting is hard. Which is why I only do it on very rare occasions, and why you won’t see it listed in the services I offer.

That’s not to say that there aren’t some small similarities between the two, though. For instance, both require the ability to see past a rough exterior to the heart of the story, to be able to understand the final vision for the piece and the best way to present that to the world. They both require a firm grasp of language and storytelling (although ghostwriting mostly happens in the non-fiction world), as well as a keen understanding of voice, so that the final product sounds like the original author, not the ghostwriter/editor.

They both have their place, but editing is more akin to reading with annotations, while ghostwriting involves the more rigorous creative process of actually putting words on paper, complete with stipulations and expectations attached. They both require someone well-versed in the craft of writing, but rarely will you find someone who likes to do both. Just like writers have preferences when it comes to style and genre, those on the book-doctoring side of the fence have preferences on the types of surgery they like to perform. So before you ask for help, make sure you’re asking the right person. If your manuscript is finished and you just need polishing, you’re looking for an editor. If you have a brilliant idea but something just isn’t quite clicking, you’re looking for an editor. But if you need help actually constructing your manuscript, as in literally writing the words, you might actually be better off looking for a ghostwriter to collaborate with. Knowing the difference will save you a lot of headaches.

Featured From the Archives: Self-Editing Tips From an Editor

I’ll admit that I honestly didn’t know what to post this week. I have article ideas, but I’m also the human equivalent of a car running on fumes — which, for those who don’t understand that analogy, means I’m pretty much a walking shell waiting for every possible second of sleep I can find. “I haz the dumb,” as the epic words of countless internet cat-memes would say.

But that doesn’t excuse me from deadlines, as much as I might wish it did. And before I step back into the gauntlet of Insane Editing Deadlines, I wanted to find something to post. Fortunately, the archives came to my rescue yet again. And so, with that, I’ll let you read on while I disappear into the shadows of the Edit Cave. Hopefully I make it out the other side of the gauntlet in one piece!

Self-Editing Tips From an Editor

by Kisa Whipkey

Originally Posted on 9/20/13

It’s no secret that writers loathe the editing process. With its tedious attention to grammar rules you tried to forget as soon as you graduated, repetitive methodologies that make anyone’s brain numb, and general snail’s pace, it’s no surprise that it pales in comparison to the joy of creating. But it’s a necessary evil. One that a strange few of us actually enjoy and decided to make a profession, creating that editor/writer bond we know so well. That doesn’t exonerate you from having to edit, though.

Surprisingly, I’ve actually seen the statement (more than once) that writers don’t need to worry about things like grammar and spelling. That’s the editor’s job; they’ll clean it up. (Every time someone says this, another editor’s muse disintegrates into ash from the horror.) No, actually, that’s not our job. It’s yours. Yes, editors (especially freelance editors) are more forgiving of the occasional typo and drunk-sounding sentence than your average reader, but that doesn’t mean they want to sludge through something that isn’t even as legible as your 4th grade history paper. And if your 4th grade teacher made you proofread, what makes you think an editor standing between you and publication, between you and being paid for your work, wouldn’t expect the same thing?

Exactly. They do.

But that doesn’t mean editing has to be as painful as a self-lobotomy. In fact, I’ve given tips to get you through the revision process before (Divorce Your Words; Save Your Story). But it’s a topic that bears repeating, so today, I’m going to give you another set of helpful insights, not from the perspective of a writer (like that previous post was) but from that of an editor.

(Hold on a moment while I swap my writer hat for my editor one . . . okay. Ready.)

1. Step Back

 

No, I’m not bastardizing “step off,” so don’t get your panties in a bunch. Step back is a concept from the art world. In fact, it’s one of the first things you learn at art school. (Yes, you learn stuff at art school. Shocking, I know.) The idea is that an artist can’t clearly see the entirety of their work when they’re hunched over it and it’s about 6 inches from their face, so they have to “step back” to change their perspective and see their work the way the world does. Now it makes sense, huh?

The first step in self-editing is finding a way to create that shift in perspective, to see the work you’ve poured your heart into for the past year in a different way. We’re too close to it during the creation phase, viewing it like an overprotective mother turning a blind eye to their kid’s flaws. You have to break that connection before you can even begin to analyze your work objectively.  You need to step back.

The easiest way to do that is simply to shove your manuscript in a drawer for a few days and avoid it like a note from a debt collector trying to repo your car. I recommend a bare minimum of 48 hours, but a week to a month would be better. That allows the warm, fuzzy glow of creation to fade away and stark reality to set in. If you can’t afford to take the time off, then simply changing the mode of viewing can help. Download it onto an eReader or print it out. Even just moving to the Starbucks two blocks away instead of the one next to your house will help, as the change of venue will help clear your perspective of any lingering rosy tint.

2. Ignore the Details

Editing is synonymous with comma hunting, spell-check, and word choice, right? Wrong. So many writers (and more than a few editors) dive right into the detail work, thinking all they have to do is clean up the grammar, completely skipping over a very crucial step — structural/developmental editing. Bypassing this is like trying to repair a broken bone with makeup. All you end up with is a mangled limb painted like a hooker. Offensive, maybe, but it gets the point across, no?

At this stage in the process, no one cares if you spelled “definitely” wrong, or have a bazillion commas in all the wrong places. Ignore all that. Look deeper, at the story itself. If the structure isn’t working, there’s no point in polishing. That lump of coal’s not turning into a diamond. The only way to fix it is to become a story surgeon, diagnosing and repairing things that are otherwise fatal to your chances of publication. How? Like this:

Take that fresh perspective you earned in Step 1 and read through your manuscript from an aerial view, glossing over all the details. You’ll fix them later. Right now, you want to focus on things like pacing, character motivations, world development, scene transitions, and narrative sequence. What’s the message of your book; is it coming through clearly? Do the characters feel like fully fleshed-out people, or cardboard cut-outs? Are the scenes in the right order, or does shuffling a few around improve the plot’s progression? These are the kinds of questions you should be asking. Trust your instincts as a reader. We’ve all been programmed to know when a story works and when it doesn’t. And don’t be afraid to make a giant mess; you can stitch it all back together afterward.

3. Murder Your Habit Words

Habit words are insidious, riddling your manuscript like a cancer, so before you send your book off to the cosmetic surgeon (aka, your editor) for that much-needed facelift, you need to eradicate them. (Don’t ask why my favorite analogy for editing is medical. I don’t know.) Don’t feel bad, though, everyone has them. They’re like comfort food, something we turn to without even realizing. My habit words are “was”  and “so.” I’m sure I have others, but that’s all I’m admitting to.

Other common ones are “that,” “had,” and “actually.” It can also be a phrase, like “for a moment,” or “roll his/her/their eyes.” Pretty much anything you find yourself repeating over and over again qualifies as a habit word. Ideally, you should try to avoid repeating words or phrases on the same page, or even the same chapter! The English vocabulary is huge; use it to your advantage. But without being pretentious about it. Rarely will you find a word that doesn’t have at least one synonym. So before you go to the next step, arm that delete button with a hefty dose of radiation and go hunting for your habit words. You can’t kill them all, but you’ll be surprised at how even just this small tweak can drastically improve the smoothness of your prose.

4. Rhythm’s in the Details

Now you get to go through your manuscript with a fine-toothed comb, copyediting line by line until it’s as perfect as you can make it on your own. This includes things like fixing rocky sentences, condensing wordy parts, simplifying convoluted phrasing, fixing grammar mistakes, and just general tweaking for rhythm and smoothness. This is what people picture when they hear “editing.” It’s the tedious part that will make you want to poke your own eyes out just so you never have to read that chapter ever again. It’s repetitive and monotonous, but it’s like sending your book to the gym. Each pass will trim a little more of the fat, until your manuscript is a lean, efficient piece of storytelling. At which point you send it to an editor, and the whole process starts over.

That’s right. I just outlined what a professional editor does. (With the exception of Step 1.)

So, why, if these are all steps you can do yourself, do editors exist? Because they provide objectivity. Even a self-editing master won’t be able to catch everything. Writers can never truly disconnect from their work, can never view it with complete objectivity, because they know the story and what they were trying to convey. An editor provides clarity, finding things that are confusing or missing just like a reader would. But since they’re also literary doctors, they’ll help you fix it, saving you from the embarrassing backlash of reader criticism and scorn. And besides, two heads are better than one. Right?