It’s tough for authors to get their books noticed these days, and every year the competition for discoverability gets fiercer. So how can authors make their books stand out from the pack?
Whether you hope to grab the attention of an agent or publishing house or plan to self-publish, your book needs to stand out from the rest. Agents and acquisitions editors look for a professionally prepared manuscript and will reject submissions that are not outstanding. Readers may not be as savvy about grammatical errors, but a published book that hasn’t had a professional edit may suffer from fatal flaws, including plot holes and poor character development, and your reviewers will be quick to point out these flaws.
Here are a few things you can do to polish your story and prepare it for the masses. The better shape your book is in, the better your reviews, the higher chance readers will recommend your book to their friends, and the more copies you’ll sell. (And the higher chance you’ll have of getting accepted for a BookBub Featured Deal!)
Phase One: Get a structural critique
Just having your book proofread for grammar and punctuation mistakes is not usually enough. All too often writers publish novels that are structurally weak. By all appearances, the novel may be free of copy errors. But when negative reviews and slow sales follow, many writers feel confused as to why their book didn’t skyrocket to best-sellerdom.
A structural critique will help ensure your book will be well received by your readers. To ensure a reputable career, you’ll want to make sure every book you write is the best it can be. Even seasoned authors miss glaring mistakes in plot or fail to spot weak areas in dialogue, structure, and character development.
Finding a critical partner, editor, or professional writing coach that specializes in your genre and can provide big-picture feedback is a wise choice. Have them read your manuscript before you do line edits. Why correct sentence structure or punctuation on a scene that might need to be completely rewritten or tossed? It’s best to leave the grammar issues for later.
If you don’t have any author friends you can trust and aren’t ready to hire professional help, here are a few ways to find critical readers:
- Find local writing groups. Join societies for your genre (like SCBWI or RWA), or take a local writing workshop to connect with fellow authors and form your own group.
- Join forums like KBoards, Critique Circle, or The Next Big Writer. Each of them has loads of members willing to network and exchange beta reads.
- Reach out to fellow authors on social media. Once you forge relationships with fellow authors online, sometimes all it takes is a post requesting help.
Phase Two: Do thorough line editing
Once you’ve gotten big-picture help with your manuscript’s structural components, there are some things you can do to make the line editing process shorter and less costly. Being able to do micro edits yourself will cut down the time a paid editor will have to spend fixing your mistakes. But this isn’t just about money. As writers, we should excel in our command of language. Taking the time to learn rules of grammar and how to correctly structure a sentence will only help us be better writers in the long run.
There are a myriad of self-editing rules, but if you just start with these easy but essential ones, you’ll be on your way to improved writing and a cleaner draft.
- Read aloud what you wrote. You’ll catch clunky sentences, unnatural-sounding dialogue, missing and repetitive words, and spelling errors by reading your work aloud.
- Search and destroy weasel words. Weasel words are those you throw in out of habit. Often they are pesky adverbs like “very” and “just,” or phrases like “began to” or “started to.” Make a list of your most common offenders, then search for those words and see if you can take them out without altering your intended meaning.
- Trim down sentences. Take a look at each sentence and see how many unnecessary words you can cut. Often a phrase of three or more words can be rewritten with only one. Less is more, and almost always better.
- Give it a rest. Leave your writing alone for a while — an hour, a day, a week. Pick it up again when your brain is rested and you’re not too close to the writing. Pay attention to what jumps out at you as awkward. Trust that feeling. It’s almost always right.
- You need commas. Check to make sure you put commas before a direct address in dialogue. There’s a big difference between “Let’s eat Dad” and “Let’s eat, Dad.” Speaker tags always use commas: John said, “I hate grammar.” Don’t be deceived into thinking little bits of punctuation don’t matter. They do. You don’t want characters eating other characters unintentionally, right? Unless you’re writing about zombies, that is.
- Don’t overdo the punctuation. Writers sometimes use excessive punctuation. Don’t use a lot of exclamation marks to tell the reader something is important, or pair them with question marks. Let the context and word choice show the importance of the sentence.
- Ditch extraneous speaker and narrative tags when writing dialogue. Be aware that if the reader knows who is speaking, you don’t need to tell them over and over — especially in a scene with only two characters. Flowery verbs stick out, such as “quizzed,” “extrapolated,” “exclaimed,” and “interjected.” They distract readers from the dialogue and remove them from the scene. Just use “said” and “asked,” and maybe an occasional “replied” or “answered.”
- Avoid weak linking verbs. Don’t start sentences with “it was” and “there were.” Just what is “it”? Usually the meaning is vague. “It was hot today” can be replace with “the sun baked his shoulders,” which paints a clearer picture.
- Check those tenses. All too often writers shift into past tense when writing present tense, or vice versa. Even more common is the use of the wrong past tense. “I was sleeping badly for a week” might need to be written “I slept badly for a week.”
Self-editing doesn’t have to be all that hard or painful, and the more you apply yourself to learning the rules, the easier it gets. Take pride in your writing by improving your self-editing technique. And invest in professional editing to give your books the best chance they have of rising to the top of the pile. Your reputation will thank you.
Phase Three: Find the right copy editor for your book
If you want professional help with structural edits or line edits, hiring a professional copy editor might be a good choice. Here are some tips for finding an editor who’s a good fit:
- Get personal recommendations. If your author friends or writing groups can’t provide a personal recommendation for a great editor accepting new clients, consider joining a Google group, Yahoo group, or writers’ forum to post a query that you’re seeking a professional editor. Many members of these groups will have hired professional editors already, and will have recommendations.
- Search reputable websites. LinkedIn is also a great place to find a good editor. You can search for editors and look at the testimonials on their profile pages. There are also several writing groups on LinkedIn you can query with your request.
- Ask for references. While you can review the testimonials an editor has on her website, it’s not an imposition to ask her for a few references. You might do this when hiring a lawyer, surgeon, or dentist, so why not an editor?
- Choose a fellow novelist. You may prefer working with an editor who is a published novelist, and perhaps one who writes in your genre, especially if you are not sure your book is really well structured. In this case, an editor/author may be a better choice than one who has never written anything herself. You may also want to read one or two of her books to be sure her style is a good fit before hiring her.
- Ask your agent (if you have one). Some literary agents offer a list of recommended editors on their website, or will have recommendations for editors their authors regularly work with. If you don’t have an agent but have the opportunity to attend a writers’ conference, connect with a few agents there; they may refer you to some editors they can recommend as well.
- Attend writers’ conferences. What better place to chat with lots of authors and ask them for an editor recommendation? There may also be editors at the conference with whom you can meet and talk to in person.
- Get a referral from an editing organization. For example, Editcetera is a group of proficient and experienced editors who not only teach online and on-site editing workshops but also have a pool of editors who have gone through rigorous testing and application to become approved as their editors for hire.
- Find a good personality fit. Sometimes an author needs a lot of communication and handholding, and some editors are all business, so see how the editor responds to your query and questions. You should be able to tell by her personality and responsiveness if it feels like a good fit. An editor who doesn’t answer your e-mail, ignores specific questions, or pushes you to pay or hire her for a service you don’t really want should make you reconsider hiring her.
If you’ve found someone who might be just the right editor for you, but you’re still hesitant, just hire her to edit a few chapters. See how it goes — not just the editing but the overall communication and support as well.
If the results are favorable, give her the rest of your manuscript to edit. Clearly tell her your concerns and needs, and ask questions if you don’t understand something. Hopefully, this will be the beginning of a great friendship as well as a professional relationship!
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