No matter how highly you think of your own writing, don’t kid yourself, you need an editor. Every book I’ve written — three with university presses and two self-published — has benefited from extensive editing. Writers have blind spots that keep us from seeing what is right in front of our noses. We need another pair of eyes, preferably not a friend’s or a relative’s; they should belong to a professional copy editor.
It didn’t matter that I spent twenty-three years as an English professor putting my students through rewrite after rewrite. When it came to checking my own prose, I rarely caught my errors. My traditional publishers provided editors for my academic books, but when I self-published my novels, I had to pay for them myself.
Here are some examples of their comments, with my befores and afters.
Before: A large white face peered in at him.
After: A large white face peered at him.
Before: They stomped over to the edge of the forest.
After: They stomped to the forest edge.
Before: She climbed back up into the wagon
Before: Hutchin, who had been out catching desert animals, which he told the company were a kind of small rabbit to spare their sensibilities about eating rodents, took his vengeance by serving Roger a plate entirely made up of bones, and Roger glowered all through the evening because he wanted to thrash Hutchin for it, but knew perfectly well that beating his slave would stretch the Company's toleration of his behavior.
After: Hutchin escaped briefly to hunt desert rodents. He took his vengeance by serving Roger a thin piece that was mostly bones. Roger wanted to thrash him, but restrained himself because it would stretch their toleration of his behavior too far.
Before: Roger was frightened until he realized what he was hearing was the sound of a sizeable waterfall and he knew exactly where they were— by the falls of the Nern, a tributary of the lower Danner that had its wellspring in the last of the uplands to the south and west of Twist.
After: Roger was frightened until he recognized the sound of a big waterfall. He knew where they were; it was the falls of the Nern, a tributary of the lower Danner.
“Replace description of what is going on with dialogue. Skip ‘he said’ and ‘she said’ when it is already clear who is speaking.
Before: Carl reassured him that it wasn=t over a mile now and they=d been heating warm stew for breakfast: they’d had rabbits last night, they had, and gravy=d be thick and crusty for their breakfast. (notice the problem that my past perfect tense introduces here; see below!)
After: “Under a mile, now; we’re having last night’s stew for breakfast. Rabbit, it was, with thick gravy.”
Before: Preoccupied, he was startled when Carl asked him to look behind: did he hear some animal coming along from back there, or was it Carl's imagination?
Before: Now Father was leading those bands whose exploits everyone was marveling at.
After: Now Father led those bands whose exploits everyone admired.
Before: Hutchin was rummaging among the bundles.
After: Hutchin rummaged among the bundles.
Before: Flora had not been asleep but had been feigning it as he banged about in his chests to find something warm to wear under his rain gear.
Before: Rory thought their new recruit had looked shifty.
After: Rory thought their new recruit looked shifty
Before: Roger and Carl could only see only four or five feet in front of them.