Tuesday, February 21, 2017

As Close to Perfect as Possible: 5 Tips for Becoming More Effective Self-Editors


by Sean Taylor

As an editor, I receive manuscripts in all conditions -- a few that are well edited, a few in just plain awful shape, and the bulk of them generally in decent shape but still needing (Shall we say?) a little love in the editing department. Of those, most are really fun stories that require a stronger self-edit. 

No need to pull your hair out. You can do this.

Most writers can endure through the perils of creating their stories, persevering during writer’s block and overcoming blank computer screens, nimbly navigating the twists and traps of grammar and usage, and deftly capturing the intricacies of dialog. But many seem to have missed out on mastering one of the most important skills needed in any style or genre of writing -- editing themselves. 

If, as the axiom goes, writing is rewriting, then editing is as much part of the creation of stories as telling the tale itself. 

But how does one become a better, more practiced editor of his or her own work?

What I’m about to give you is not an exhaustive exploration of the subject, but it will provide several exercises to help you find and cut out mistakes from your own drafts, from first to final. 

Want to avoid this? Try these tips.

The List

1. Slow down. 

The biggest trouble with self-editing is that (as the writer) your brain already knows what you want to say. So when you read over your draft to fix problems, too often your eyes miss the problems on the page and instead listen to your brain’s intentions. It’s how you manage to ignore missing words that you read as if they are there after all and misspelled words that seem perfectly right in your head. 

The first step to becoming a better editor of your work is to slow down and read each word rather than just each phrase or idea. 

2. Read aloud. 

Repeat after me: My ears are better proofreaders than my eyes. It’s a concept I’ve proven over and over again in my own work. When I read a story aloud, I catch far more mistakes than simply reading the words silently in my head. 

In those cases when you can't speak aloud, it’s still helpful to mouth the words even without speaking audibly. That not only slows you down; it also forces your mind to focus on each word as you mouth it. 

Does your prose look like this when you edit?

3. Embrace white space. 

Before you print out your manuscript, make that typeface a little bigger. Put some space between those lines of ink. Double space. Narrow the margins. A better balance between white space and ink space can help you single out words better than when those words are all crammed tightly onto the page to save paper. 

4. Read backwards. 

People think I’ve lost it when I tell them this one. Read backwards. Yes. Read. Back. Wards. Start at the last bit of punctuation and work your way back to the initial capital letter that begins your story or essay. 


Because it forces your brain to acknowledge words as words and not as the concepts and phrase linking that cluster them together as ideas. Ideas are where your mind fills in blanks and makes assumptions. Words taken at face value are harder to mistake for anything other than what they actually are. 

This trick is perhaps the single most helpful method for finding misspellings and incorrect word choices, such as “if” for “is” or “up” for “us” -- those sort of common mistakes that slip through from draft to draft. 

5. Put some time between finishing the draft and editing it. 

The more time you can spend away from your recent draft, the more its assumptions will fade from your immediate thoughts. Anything that can fill your brain with other thoughts and stories and patterns can only help you better edit the document when you return to it. The longer the document, the more time you should put the manuscript aside, I believe. 

But in those cases when you can’t set it aside for more than perhaps an hour or so for lunch or dinner or fifteen minutes, it’s best to use the time away for something else. Read a short story or a chapter of a book. Read the newspaper.  Watch a subtitled movie. Make your brain refocus onto something else that puts different sequences of words into your short term memory and drives out that creation you’ve been making. That way, when you return, the work has become something new, and therefore something you can't just buzz through or read on autopilot. 

Learning to cut words is also a needed editing skill.

These are just a few of the tips I’ve found useful for editing my work. What I’ve discovered is that when I take the time to do these things (at least one or two of them in tandem) my finished drafts usually require far less editing from my publishers -- and whatever makes my publishers happy means they’re far more ready to work with me next time.

Give them a try and see if they help you become a more effective editor of your work. 

And please, share your tips for self-editing below in the comments. I’d love to see what works for you.