“Kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings.”
Authors not already familiar with this quote from the great Stephen King (itself a riff on an earlier quote attributed to various writers) will eventually face its truth. At some point in our book editing—and really at any stage of our writing—we must cut lines and passages, even those that fill us with the greatest pride and self-indulgence.
For when the writing has ceased, the editing must begin.
But editing is neither a simple process nor a particularly straightforward one. Mistakes can be made while trying to correct other mistakes. (That’s why after you’ve self-edited your manuscript to make it the best it can be, it’s wise to hire a professional editor.)
But while you are in the self-editing phase, here are five common self-publishing errors our editors recommend watching out for:
1. The same word spelled or punctuated multiple ways throughout a book. Is it heart-broken or heartbroken? Traveling or Travelling? Blood red or bloodred? Check Merriam-Webster (www.m-w.com) for the preferred standard spelling and then do a global search throughout your finished manuscript to make sure you’ve treated each one consistently.
2. Inconsistently spelled character names, or the wrong character named in a scene or dialogue exchange. You’ll be surprised how often these seemingly obvious mistakes get by writers. Try searching for each character's name so you can quickly can down the list in the reviewing pane for typos. For the scene-level mistakes, try the Read Aloud function in Microsoft Word or read your scenes aloud yourself—hearing the mistakes spoken often highlights them in a way that just reading doesn't.
3. Messy dialogue punctuation. Quotations marks, commas, periods, ellipses, em dashes … each one has its proper place and order in dialogue. And don’t forget the difference between a dialogue tag and an action beat. Brush up on the rules and make sure they’re applied consistently—sloppy dialogue screams “low-budget, rushed, self-published work” to readers.
4. Slow pace, meandering prose, or redundancy. This is where the "kill your darlings" advice really comes into play—you have to be ruthless and cut whatever doesn't serve the scene and advance the plot or characterization. If your book is more than 350 pages, that might be a clue that there's fat to be trimmed. If you can't see it yourself, it's definitely time to call in an editor or, at least, a beta reader who is capable of giving constructive criticism.
5. Hard paragraph returns at the end of every sentence or randomly breaking the middle of a sentence, or soft returns used at the end of paragraphs rather than hard returns. All these will cause problems when you format your book for printing or ebook. To help spot them, search for ^l (soft return) and ^p and make sure that the pilcrow icon on your toolbar has been selected, which will show all nonprinting characters (appearing in light blue in your document).
If and when you do decide to send your work to a professional editor after self-editing, enter the process with an open mind and a willingness to continue to improve the manuscript.
One of the most frustrating aspects of an editor’s job is working with authors who are uncomfortable with critical and editorial feedback. This is, for obvious reasons, something most of us writers don’t particularly enjoy. But in order to get the best possible results, we must find a way to put aside our ego and listen to what an editor is trying to tell us.
Hiring an editor means you’re procuring the services of someone who has a great deal more experience. So respect both their time and your money by listening to what your editor recommends. Remember: their job is to make your book better. So it’s worth considering their feedback...even when it hurts.
Hannah Guy lives in Toronto and is a professional writer and copywriter who specializes in books, books, and more books. Follow her on Twitter at @hannorg.