Is Your Story READY for a Professional Edit?

You’ve done it. Finished a draft of your very first novel! This is no small feat and congratulations are in order.

Now you’re designing the cover and preparing to self-publish your book. All it needs is a quick edit, right?

Not exactly … Most authors go through several drafts to get their work ready. But if you’re NEW to writing fiction, you’re still learning the craft. Addressing issues at the line and sentence level (i.e. line editing/copy editing/ proofreading) cannot magically fix the story’s structural flaws.

As a published author and developmental editor, I help other writers with what can be a daunting task. Coming up with an immediate hook, realistic and likeable protagonists, a solid plot and engaging prose not only require an understanding of story structure but a great deal of practice to get those writing skills up to par.

Some new authors choose to avoid the learning curve altogether and hire ghostwriters to write their stories for them. But if you’re reading this, I assume you have decided to do it yourself – to create your story in your own unique voice.

The opportunity to self-publish can seem like a highway to fame and fortune – or at least literary recognition. Your ego can push you to release writing in its early stages because it’s hungry for success and “this needs more work” is not in its vocabulary. Don’t fall for it.

Poorly written novels will attract unfavorable reviews, and that will discourage readers from buying anything else you put out. They’re already distracted with all the media competing for their attention. People read novels for the emotional experience as well as entertainment, and an author must immediately deliver both.

There are no short cuts to good writing. Most of the storytelling craft can be learned if you have an ability with words and can truly put yourself in your characters’ shoes. But to succeed as a novelist, you need time to develop your skills and fully grasp what it takes. Helpful articles and writers’ forums proliferate on the Net, and they’re free. And books like Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Browne and Dave King provide excellent advice.

We all require feedback on our writing because we’re too close to it to be objective. It’s usually best to seek this from other writers. They can more easily explain what works and what doesn’t than your Aunt Linda, who loves everything you put on paper.

If you write in a specific genre, you can draw on the resources of organizations like Women’s Fiction Association, Romance Writers of America, Mystery Writers of America, Crime Writers Association, and Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America, apart from more general groups like Savvy Authors.com. These offer classes/workshops to help new authors improve their skills as well as access to critique partners or beta readers.

Bottom line: don’t contact an editor too soon. Give yourself time to learn the craft and save the expense until your material is ready for the service.

Because it’s difficult to judge your own work, especially when starting out, I put together the following short list, which you may find useful.

Common flaws found in the early drafts of beginning authors:

  • Lacks Significant Problem or Story Question compelling enough to pull a reader through hundreds of pages, needing to know what happens next.
  • Weak Characterization
    A strong protagonist is proactive, not reactive. Hints: Put her (or him) in dire circumstances to create reader sympathy. Give her flaws as well as sterling qualities. (“Perfect” characters tend to bore us.) And force her to face her greatest fears in order to achieve what’s important to her. 
  • Confusing Point of View
    First-time fiction writers often “head hop” as they introduce characters, which is very disorienting for the reader. It’s usually best to limit the story perspective to only a few characters and flip point of view only when changing scenes or chapters.
  • Missing Inner/Outer Conflict
    What will your heroine (or hero) lose if she does not reach her goal? What does she struggle with emotionally as she confronts setbacks? And what does she hope to achieve? High stakes make for stronger story tension. And tension is what keeps your reader turning the pages.
  • Show Versus Tell
    Solely events of dramatic significance should be developed into scenes. The remainder of the novel is narrated. Inexperienced writers often create unnecessary scenes or fail to include them when required.
  • Info Dumps & Passive Writing
    Info dumps are big clumps of material which the author wants the reader to know, often in the form of flashbacks. These stop story flow in its tracks. The information must be presented in smaller amounts (only what is pertinent to the present scene).

    Passive writing includes flat dialogue, static description and extraneous narration – all to be avoided.

It can be discouraging to go through lengthy revisions for your book or to delete passages or even entire chapters that you spent hours on because they don’t fit the story. I can promise you that it does get easier as you gain perspective. As a professional, you will learn to put the story first. After all, quality writing is what draws the reader back for more.

And isn’t that what you really want?

Thelma Mariano

p.s. – also see my 8 Pointers for Writing Your Novel