How to Edit Your Manuscript

I’m nearly done with my second re-write of the book, and it’s time to think about editing again. How do you edit your own work, and when do you know that you’re finished editing and ready to send the work out to the agent or editor?



Rules for Editing:

  1. Print out your manuscript. Somehow, it’s easier to edit if you have the paper in front of you. You can write notes in the margins, circle things you want to change, and even read from back to front when you need to. If you can’t print, at least use the “Track Your Changes” feature of your word processing software.
  2. Make passes. I’ll explain each one below, but the idea is that, with each pass, you are concentrating on only one aspect instead of trying to edit everything at once.
  3. Edit without rewriting. It’s really tempting to start rewriting as soon as you spot an error, or a place you want to add something – but resist the urge. Finish your edits, then start rewriting.

WP_Book_Blur_LeftHow to Self-Edit:

  • First Pass: Read through the entire manuscript, looking for only spelling and grammatical errors. If you happen to catch something else that seems wrong, just make a note in the margin and keep going. You may choose to rewrite at this point, or just swing right into the next pass.
  • Second Pass: Read through the entire manuscript again, this time looking for word choice and clarity. One great trick to catch poor word choices is to read the manuscript from back to front. This forces you to concentrate on each word, not on the total sentence. Rewrite at this point, where needed.
  • Third Pass: Read through the manuscript for continuity. Make sure that any actions make sense, that all of the loose ends are tied up, and that any “props” brought into a scene are used properly. Just as a continuity checker in a movie or TV show checks to be sure everything is still in the correct place, you need to be sure that the pistol your character shoots in Chapter 7 was properly introduced in Chapter 2, when you showed us the gun cabinet in the study. Make notes in the margin and keep track of everything you’ve introduced to be sure it’s used. Rewrite after this pass, adding any necessary scenes or dialogue.
  • Fourth Pass: Read through the dialogue. Make sure each line is spoken in the unique voice of the character, and that each line advances the plot in some manner. If it doesn’t move the plot, expand the character, or deepen the setting, then drop that line. Use something else, or drop the conversation entirely if it’s not doing anything. Rewrite after this pass.
  • Fifth Pass: Yes, you might need one. If you’ve done extensive rewriting, you’re going to want to start editing again on those sections, checking for everything you’ve checked the rest of the manuscript for.

How do you know when you’ve finished editing? Most authors agree that when you reach the point where you’re changing only around 10% of the manuscript, you’re through. Stop fiddling with the thing and send it out!

Researching the Past

Research is a big part of any author’s life, but even more so for those of us who write historical fiction. Today, it’s even easier to do this research. You can sit in your office in your pajamas and read newspapers from the 1800′s, or search through out-of-print books at the coffeeshop.

One good place to get started is THIS website – a guide to using primary research sources from the Reference and User Services Association. They also provide a list of some research sites.


Here are some more good resources to check out:

  • Archive Grid - a catalog of more than 2 million primary and secondary source materials from institutions around the world, from Yale to the Netherlands’ Bibliotheek Universiteit Leiden -and it’s searchable by keyword. Not all of the material is openly accessible, but the massive amount of valuable information stored here makes it worth the trouble.
  • David Rumsey Map Collection – more than 48,000 historical maps and images. Although most of the rare 18th and 19th century maps are from North America, you can find Europe, Asia, and Africa as well.
  • Feeding America: The Historical American Cookbook Project - a really fun database of full-text, searchable transcriptions of cookbooks dating as far back as the 1700′s. It also includes a glossary of historic cooking terms and images of old cooking utensils.
  • Food Timeline – lists of food prices dating back to the 1600′s – mostly American, but there are some global prices given.
  • Google Books - more than 30 million digitally scanned books, most of which are no longer in print.
  • Newspaper Archive – a collection of newspapers dating back to 1607. This requires a subscription, but it’s worth it if you’re doing serious research
  • New York Public Library Digital Collectionsmore than 800,000 images, including historical maps and photographs, manuscripts, vintage posters and rare prints.

What are your favorite research sites?