Self-edit like a pro: Notes, notes, notes

In this series of blog posts, I look at how you can approach editing your own work in a similar way to how professional editors approach their clients’ work.

One of the things a lot of people misunderstand about the professional editing process is what it is we actually do. Everyone seems to know we correct typos, but some people think there’s no more to it than that. Many would be surprised to learn how much time we spend on ensuring continuity.

Stories can run away from you, even you the author. You can get carried away with writing a wonderful scene, and it’s only later you realise you’ve referred to the brother of a character you’d already described as an only child, or changed someone’s eyes from blue to green. A good editor will be all over that, so if you want to be a good self-editor, you need to be all over it too. Sharp-eyed readers will notice when you have been inconsistent, and it will weaken their connection to the world and characters you’ve created. So you need to make sure you can find and eliminate inconsistencies, and you can make that much simpler by keeping really good notes.

Some people who are plotters and planners might do a lot of this from the start anyway (I have a client who has vast spreadsheets of every single detail about every character and location she writes about), but if not, your first editing round is a good time to put together some supporting documents which will save you a whole lot of time and stress later. Many editors create these as part of every editing job, and it’s a great habit to get into for yourself.

Develop a detailed character list – their names, ages, occupations, physical characteristics, who’s related to whom, etc. If you don’t like doing this kind of thing, putting this together can be, quite frankly, boring as shit, but looking up all these details in one short, well-organised document is much easier than having to dart about all over a whole novel. And you’ll be so grateful if you go on to write a series, trust me.

Another good record to keep is a timeline, so you know what’s happening when. This is especially important if you have multiple timelines or lots of flashbacks – you need to make sure everything fits together. Even if you don’t mention specific dates in the text, it can be useful to assign dates to events anyway, so you can check things like the weather, sunrise and sunset times, whether there’s a major holiday like Christmas in the middle of your story that you’ve completely ignored. If anyone’s having a baby, make sure you have the pregnancy maths right – it’s not quite as simple as many people think it is!

You might also want to record notes on your locations, or any companies, groups or organisations in your story, depending on how complex they are and how likely you are to need that information again in the future.

This stuff is, for most people, not the fun part. It’s not the telling of thrilling stories or the crafting of beautiful prose. But consistency is vital for ensuring the reader believes in the world you’re laying out for them, and you can make that consistency much easier to achieve by collating all that information and checking your work against it as part of your self-editing process. And should you go on to hire a professional editor at some stage, it’s also a great way of making that editor LOVE you. Just saying.

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