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Kicking it into Shape: Self-Editing Tips by Alison May

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Article by Alison May ©.
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A first draft is not a novel. A first draft is, at best, a potential novel. Different writers will have different amounts of potential in that first draft, but very few will have a finished, genuinely publishable manuscript at the end of their first pass.

My first drafts are horrible. Nobody in the world sees them except me because at the point of completing a truly terrible draft my confidence in a manuscript is low, and an ill thought-out comment from a well-meaning editor or friend could destroy that fragile confidence altogether. Fortunately for me I’m much better at editing a manuscript than I am at writing that initial idea, so here’s a few tips based on how I transform a first draft into something more closely resembling a finished novel.

Be dispassionate

Editing a manuscript requires a bit of critical distance from the work. If you have time, not looking at the thing at all for a few weeks is a great option. If you don’t have that time then you need to learn the discipline of reading your own work as if you didn’t write it. Technical tricks like reading on an ereader rather than on a printout, or printing your manuscript on an unusual colour paper or in a different font than you normally use can help with that.

But ultimately practice makes perfect – over time you can train your brain to move from creating mode to editing mode more easily.

Focus on the big stuff first

It’s so tempting the first time you read through your own manuscript to start tweaking and twiddling immediately. The danger then is that you spend hours finessing the perfect opening sentence for a scene that ultimately gets cut altogether. So my rule for my first read through is that I’m not allowed to write on the manuscript (or add comments if I’m reading electronically). I read with a separate notebook next to me where I write down issues as I notice them. That stops me getting bogged down in minutiae before I’ve got the structure of the book right.

Do what works for this book

Every book I’ve edited has ended up being a different process, and that’s because in every book I manage to create a new and specific type of of mess in the first draft. For example, in my very first novel most of the problems were with one point of view character. So I printed out just the sections he narrated and worked through them line by line to strengthen the character’s voice and personality. For my most recent book, All That Was Lost, I had a structural problem because one of the subplots didn’t resolve until after the main plot. That meant I had to lift that whole subplot out and move it forward in the manuscript. Cue a noticeboard filled with post-it notes representing each scene in the book, so I could replot and restructure the book in miniature before making any potentially catastrophic changes to the manuscript.

Know your own crutch words/phrases and foibles

We all have little writing habits and fallback words and phrases that crop up far too often in a manuscript. I’ve seldom written a sentence without the word ‘just’ in it somewhere! But I also have more subtle habits. For example, having started out writing comedy, I still have a tendency to structure sentences like a classic three-part joke, where you set up an expectation, reinforce that expectation and then subvert it. That’s a great structure but, like anything, it gets tired really quickly if it’s overused. Learning your own crutches and habits will help you massively when you it’s time to go through your manuscript line by line.

Know when to stop

Sometimes the hardest thing in editing a manuscript is know when to stop. You could always do more. No book is perfect. No book ever will be perfect. Personally I very rarely look at my own published books, because I know that part of me would want to start revising and tweaking all over again. That’s part of the reason that I have to break editing down into stages:

  1. Big structural things first (anything that might involve moving, deleting or adding a whole scene or chapter).
  2. Then anything substantial that needs work right through the manuscript. For me that’s usually things like tightening the characterisation or adding in more sense of time and place.
  3. Then line by line improvements to the prose. That includes weeding out those crutch phrases and making sure every sentence is the very best you can make it right now.
  4. And finally – proofreading. Then and only then do I allow myself to get tense about the difference between ‘that’ and ‘which’ or ‘affect’ and ‘effect’ (both of which I have a mental block over and have to look up for every book I write!)

And when I’ve done all of those things the book is as finished as I can make it at the moment. That’s when it goes off to my agent, or in pre-publication days that would have been when it went out on submission. For self-publishers this might be the time to send your book to an external editor, or to shift your focus to the marketing side of your role. And there will probably be more edits to come – possibly several more rounds. Your book is definitely not finished yet, but it’s time to stop for now and work out your next step for sending it out into the world.

(c) Alison May

About All That Was Lost:

In 1967 Patience Bickersleigh is a teenager who discovers a talent for telling people what they want to hear. Fifty years later she is Patrice Leigh, a nationally celebrated medium. But cracks are forming in the carefully constructed barriers that keep her real history at bay.

Leo is the journalist hired to write Patrice’s biography. Struggling to reconcile the demands of his family, his grief for his lost son, and his need to understand his own background, Leo becomes more and more frustrated at Patrice’s refusal to open up.

Because behind closed doors, Patrice is hiding more than one secret. And it seems that now, her past is finally catching up with her.

May thrills in this English familial mystery, adding enticing plot layers as intricate and divisive as the themes she introduces.

Order your copy online here.


Alison May is the author of Sweet Nothing (2013), Midsummer Dreams (2015), Christmas Kisses (2016) and All That Was Lost (2018). She is the winner of the Elizabeth Goudge Trophy 2012 and has been shortlisted for the Love Stories Award 2015 and RoNA Awards. 2016. She lives in Worcester where she works as a full-time writer and Creative Writing tutor.
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