I think for new writers, especially those that have just completed their first book, one of the most daunting challenges facing them can be the revision process. I remember after I completed my first novel I had two very distinct emotions.
Tremendous joy, "I completed my first book!"
And utter dread, "How on earth am I ever going to shape these 100,000 words into not only a readable but enjoyable story?"
Now, as I work on the edits for my fifth novel, I can say that my entire process for approaching a work of fiction has completely changed over the last fourteen years. From the onset I approach a story differently, there's more intention, more planning, more careful consideration about where my story is going and who I want my characters to be--how I want them to change. That's not to say that there isn't a tremendous amount of discovery that also happens while I'm crafting, but I have definitely turned into a plotter. Every writer is different, this is absolutely true, but for me planning the book out before I even get started has proved enormously valuable when it comes time to tackle the big picture revision once I’m finished.
However, there is one thing about my writing process that has never changed—a pesky problem that no amount of planning and plotting can solve. When I’m writing that first draft, the highly detailed portions of my brain seem to be taking a backseat. What do I mean by this? I've discovered that, when it comes to writing fiction, there's two parts of my brain. One side is creating story and imagining scenes as I'm writing them. It feels slightly like not being completely present in the here and now. It is a very similar experience to what happens when I read other people's books or when I watch a movie. I am seeing the action happen, I am sharing the dialogue in my head. I am imagining the setting my characters are in and I am I'm transcribing that world for the reader.
The other side of my brain, barely awake when imagining the story, is in charge of sentence and word level mistakes. This is probably different for everyone, but when I'm in the story mode my brain simply doesn’t recognize details like the difference between there, their, and they’re.
So over the last fourteen years I have taught myself to produce a more manageable end product by planning first off, but I've also developed a few tricks to help me catch some of my most obvious and repeated word and sentence level mistakes.
One of the simplest tricks I have to eradicate an enormous number of errors littering my manuscripts utilizes the word find feature on my word-processing program. All the silly mistakes I make, whether it’s because two words look very much alike, I’m not zeroed in on correct usage in the moment, or I have a bad tendency to overuse particular words and phrases—this feature helps me hunt them down.
Here's my list of my most frequent repeat offenders.
just, through, though, although, thought, there, their, they’re, were, where, an, a, further, farther, awhile, a while, all right, alright, nodded, really, shook, stupid, smug, sighed, laid, lay, lie, suddenly, and people rolling their lips between their teeth
It's likely that your repeat offenders are not the same as mine, our brains function and dysfunction in completely unique and different ways from each other but hopefully this list is one you can use to get started creating your own personalized list of searchable mistakes.
I should also add for new writers, maybe in the throes of tackling their first revision ever, this little trick in no way encapsulates all of the editing and revision that will be required to take your first novel to that next level regardless of whether you’re self-publishing or are submitting it to agents and editors. Searching repeat offender words is simple but it still takes many hours to go through an entire manuscript. It’s not something you're going to be able to crack out in an hour.
And for anyone who may be curious, my other big mistake involves comma use. Sigh. Sadly, I've yet to come up with an easy way to detect and quickly fix all of those—sorry.
In the meantime I suspect my comma problem will continue to help my editor put her children through college.