Polishing Your Prose

(C) 2019 JJ Shaun

I went back to look at one of the stories that I’d written a while ago. For all that I know better, I had to cringe at the wordiness as I read. I can see that I still have a ton of work to do on my own writing.

So, I created another Scrivener project, uploaded the content into the app, and got to work. This is the hard part of the process—editing your own writing. It’s a necessary evil for us writers, though it’s probably harder than writing the content the first time around. I have to be able to separate myself from the fact that I wrote it, that I know all the nuances of what went on behind the scenes, and that I know what comes next.

The task I set myself isn’t a big project. Right now, it’s a very long short story that could either be tightened up into a short story or lengthened into a novella. Either way, it’s the first part of a much larger tale. I need to print it out so I can mark it up without being tempted to change things as I go. That’s a little trick I’ll use to fool myself into thinking I’m reading someone else’s stuff.

Now, a writer has a lot of tools in their kit that can help with the editing process. One is to print out the content and edit on paper. Another is to read your story out loud.

Reading out loud can help with flow. As you speak the content, word choices and misspellings will jump out, identifying themselves. You will also get a sense of pacing and have a better idea of how the story might sound to another. Better yet, read to a trusted partner, and let them help you find the weak points.

Which leads us to alpha and beta readers. An alpha reader is someone who reads the content either as it’s being written or the first or second draft. First Reader is my alpha reader, and my kids sometimes get to read early drafts. A beta reader is someone who looks at the manuscript after it’s been as polished as you, the writer, can get it.

Make sure your alpha reader is someone you trust. After all, you’re putting yourself out there with naked, unvarnished writing. The story will be rough and wordy. As the writer, it will be hard to see the holes in the story because you are still close to the characters, the plot, and the words themselves. That’s where your alpha reader can point out the plot holes, character issues, and descriptions you might have missed.

After you’ve taken some time (a month or more?) to weigh the comments of your alpha reader, sit back down with your story, and use the comments and suggestions to improve your tale. In some cases, it might mean you have to “kill your darlings.”

Once you’ve polished your story even more with the help of your alpha reader, it’s time to send the manuscript off to a beta reader. So, what is a beta reader?

A beta reader can be a writing partner, a family member, or a friend who will look at the content as a casual reader might. In this case, what might the average person reading your book feel as they read on? A beta reader isn’t a critique partner or a proofreader, although you might want to talk to people with those skills at some point in your process. You can also look for a writing group to help you along the way.

Later in your process, a writing group or critique partner can help find even more holes in the manuscript. The right critique partner is like getting a peer review of your work. A new set of eyes will invariably find things your eyes missed. Some of those things will be obvious once shown, others not so much. A proofreader will find all the grammatical errors you, your alpha reader, and your beta reader missed. The point is, you want to make sure the average reader will understand the meaning of your novel and not get distracted by errors.

Now, the story I picked out has had several rounds of editing (by my alpha reader and me), and I’ve gone through and added suggestions from another reader. But, it’s still wordy and needs work. So, the next step is to print it out and edit on paper to see if I can’t tighten it up more. I’ll re-post the story as I get it done, so stay tuned.

How about you? How do you polish your manuscripts for publication?

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