When writing, there is one thing you can never do enough of and that’s proofing. I find it takes several passes—and several sets of eyes—to catch all the typos, find the awkward sentences, punch the dialogue, trip over the things that clunk, and sharpen the descriptions. A great book to help you learn to be a good editor on your own work is Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Brown & King. In the meantime, these tips can help.
First off, do multiple edits, looking for different things in each pass. It is hard to catch everything in just one edit.
Do an edit on dialogue. This is the time to cut every extra word—what doesn’t improve the writing will detract. Double-check your punctuation. Keep a copy of Strunk & White’s Elements of Style handy to look up anything you’re not sure about. Know your weaknesses—if you’re bad with knowing when to capitalize a proper noun, or have a hard time with commas, or don’t know when to hyphenate, Strunk & White can help you.
Do an edit just on descriptions. Are you weaving in the senses, or just leaning on visuals? Can you be more vivid and detailed without being overly wordy? Are you showing enough, or telling too much? Look for those “writerly” phrases that may stand out too much—those darlings that don’t really belong. You may have a lyrical passage that throws the reader out of the story and back into “reading” instead of being caught up deep in the story.
Do an edit just on each main character. Is the viewpoint slipping in spots? Does that character’s voice stay consistent to that character? Does the protagonist have a strong arc?
Do an edit just on each scene. Do you have conflict in every scene? Is it building to an outcome?
Do an edit just on pacing. Does the story flow and does tension build? Do you foreshadow the ending?
Do an edit just on theme. Do you realize the theme? Do you weave in theme with metaphor and really explore your theme?
Once you think you’ve got all your edits in, rest the story. Give it a couple of weeks or more to become fresh again.
Print out your work for proofing. The brain wants to put in things that it thinks go into place, breezing right past the missing word, the misspelling, and the wrong punctuation. To trick the brain into giving you new eyes, a different perspective is needed. A couple of more things to do is change the color of the paper—go from white to pink or to green—and change fonts. Anything to make the page look fresh to your eyes.
Read your work aloud, and try to get through as much of the book in one sitting as possible. This is very important. If you trip over something, the reader will as well. Mark stumbling places and come back to them later for revisions.
Mark anything that might need a fact check. It might be just checking that you got the setting right, or the historical details, or maybe you got the streets in a city wrong or the wrong kinds of plants for your setting.
Remember that if you rewrite anything, that work needs revision so it doesn’t stand out as “first draft” when everything else looks more like polished third or fourth draft.
When you think everything is perfect, that’s the time to bring in a beta reader or two. This is again about getting those fresh eyes. Have the beta reader mark up where the pacing drags, or where something isn’t clear, or where there’s a plot mistake, or anything else.
Once those corrections are in, you’re now ready for a copy editor to go through it and again flag typos, mistakes of punctuation, and plot holes. And, yes, they’ll be there.
Depending on how many issues a copy editor finds, you may want a clean revision to go through yet another copy editor for fresh eyes to make sure you caught everything.
None of this includes a development edit—meaning having someone look at the story early on to catch issues of characterization or plot or pacing that need major revisions. All this proofing work is done long after you know you have a solid story, with good pacing and a great character arc.
A word of warning here—you can polish and edit the emotion out of a scene. If a scene is working, and the emotion is on the page, be careful with your edits. Do light revisions just to smooth out any mistakes or typos and don’t overwork the scene.
You want to also make sure any revisions do improve the original. It is easy to end up with just pushing mashed potatoes around on the plate instead of making everything more palatable. This is where having that printed version of an early draft can help you—you can compare the two and really see which is better.
All this sounds like a lot of work—and it is. But it will give you a much stronger story if you take the time to do your best to get the story in you head onto the page in a way that flows and make the writing invisible to the reader.