As I wrote in an earlier post, hiring a professional to edit your book can really improve your manuscript and make it shine. However, money can often be an issue, and although there are various schemes to help out writers, they’re not right for everyone. Also, what about the writer who likes DIY? After all, if you’re planning on sticking with this writing thing, editing your own work is a huge part of the process. So, how can you improve your editing skills? Here are 8 low-cost ways to do just that (as well as some less low-cost ways):
- Get yourself a copy of Francine Prose’s marvellous book Reading Like A Writer and read it like the hungry-for-information DIYer you are.
Prose does a great job at outlining the shift in mindset necessary to go from reading like a reader, to reading like a writer. And once you start reading like a writer you won’t be able to help but spot an unsuccessful (or successful) sentence, paragraph, plot or book. Just like professional editors do.
- Read outside your comfort zone.
When time is tight this can be tough, I know, because it can feel like such a squandering of precious time to read in a genre or a form that you don’t particularly like, or write in. But… commercial novelists can learn a lot from reading poetry, and poets can learn a lot from reading commercial fiction. And even if you never plan on writing a short story, or speculative fiction novel, say, there is still much to learn from reading something different to what you’d usually read. After all, writers are all using the same raw materials – language and the human experience.
- Join a book club (either online or in real life).
Read the chosen book like a writer and then note your responses. Listen to what the other members of the club have to say about the book. Are their responses considered, like yours, or are they reacting much more emotionally to it? Try to spot the patterns in people’s responses. Were they split over the ending of the book? Did half of them love it? Did half of them loathe it? What is it about the writing that caused these reactions?
- Dust off that old grammar book, or pick up a copy of one of the latest SATs papers.
As unappealing as this may sound, if you’re truly serious about improving your editing skills then mastering grammar will be an essential part of your DIY course. If you’re not a writer who delights in the sheer baffling complexity of English grammar (and as unbelievable as this sounds, it is true, there are some writers who do), then break the task down into chunks. Study two pages per day, and make a quick note of what you’ve learnt in a notebook. Label your notebook “My Big Bad Badass Grammar Book” (or whatever) and start to build your knowledge. Before long, you’ll be an expert on fronted adverbials, and you’ll be able to pass the latest SATs tests with flying colours.
- Become a reviewer for a magazine.
Many editors of print magazines and online zines are always on the lookout for reviewers, so choose a magazine you enjoy reading and offer to become one of their reviewing team. The benefits are manifold: a) you get free books, b) the enforced deadline for the review will make you speedy at critiquing and writing c) you get to know other reviewers (who are often writers) and become part of a supportive literary ‘tribe’ d) you’ll be helping to spread the word about other writers’ books, and this can only be good when it comes to literary karma. (Unless you write a scathing, unhelpful and non-constructive review. Don’t do that!)
- Join a critique group and get critiquing.
We’re very lucky here in Nottingham since we have access to the Nottingham Writers’ Studio, which is a brilliant, supportive organization for writers. It’s also a bustling hub for crit groups. However, if you’re not in Nottingham, don’t despair! No matter where you live there’s bound to be a writing group that meets near you. And if they don’t, there’s always online writing groups. Critique groups can be brilliant, or not-so-brilliant. It very much depends on the dynamic and mix of personalities. (More on this in another post.) But if you’re finding it hard to speak up and be heard, or that there’s someone who dominates the group and they hate your writing, or dismiss any feedback you give to them, it might be a good idea to quietly slink out the door and go find another one.
- Offer to become a beta-reader for a writing buddy.
Writers, often, are desperate to get their mitts on a beta-reader so that they can get some feedback on their manuscript. If you have the time to do this, then a) you’ll be practising your ‘reading-like-a-writer/editor’ skills, and b) you’ll be doing your friend a service by giving them some constructive and useful feedback.
- Learn from the experts.
If you’re really pushed for time then here are two quick things to do: 1) get a copy of Stephen King’s On Writing and read the part at the end where he shows you how he’s edited a section of a story of his own. This kind of editorial knowledge is like gold dust. And it’s there! In a book! For all to see! 2) Test your knowledge by reading Richard Bell’s monthly article ‘Red Editing Pen’ in Writing Magazine. Give yourself full marks for getting everything right.
Finally, if you’ve done all that or are doing that but want more (and money isn’t a constraint) then there are the following:
- Debi Alper and Emma Darwin’s self-editing course.
This comes with some excellent testimonials, and having attended one of Emma’s courses at Nottingham Writers’ Studio, I can definitely vouch for the fact that she’s a superb tutor. It requires a fair investment of money, yes, but one that should pay off in the long-term.
- Set up your own indie press.
Okay, so this is pretty much “the nuclear option” and certainly not for the faint-hearted. But you know what, if you really, really want to master this editing thing, then there’s nothing quite like putting your money and time where your mouth is and setting up a press in order to publish other writers’ books. You’ll learn a huge amount about editing – and publishing – in the process and improve your own writing at the same time. Though, be warned, the acquisition of grey hair is pretty much a standard side-effect.
Good luck! And if you have any additional ideas for how to improve your editing skills, please let me know in the comments.