Six Tips for Self-Editing
Did you participate in Camp NaNoWriMo last month? If so, you’ll probably find yourself wondering, “What next?” Someone will almost inevitably suggest publishing it or looking for an agent. Someone might say you want or need to get it edited.
A lot of self-publishing authors and authors looking for agents are in a tough spot, however. You want professional editing for your manuscript. You know that without it readers won’t buy and agents won’t look. But finding a good freelancer is hard, and finding someone good for a reasonable rate is even tougher.
It’s part of the reason so many authors simply go it alone; they look over their manuscript a few times, catch some spelling mistakes, and think they’re good to go. It’s understandable, even if it’s not the best strategy ever.
If you’re going to self-edit—for any reason—follow some of these helpful editing tips from a pro.
1. Set It Aside
The biggest problem authors have when it comes to rereading and self-editing is they’re simply too close to it. An example: When I’m typing up a handwritten script, I sometimes think of great new phrasing. I happily jot it down. Then I glance down at the original .ms and realize I’d already written that sentence.
I just rewrote my work, word for word, without even looking at it. I’d memorized it.
When you’re too close to the work, your brain simply hops over errors and fills in the blanks. A missed word is filled in; a spelling error is corrected because you know what you mean. A reader, unfortunately, doesn’t have the superpower to pick your brain—they don’t know what you mean.
This is why editors are helpful: They’re a set of fresh eyes on your manuscript. When I worked in-house for an academic publisher, we hired separate people for copy editing and proofreading to ensure we had “fresh eyes” on the page. We would trade off page proofs and manuscripts to keep our eyes fresh.
When you work by yourself, there’s nobody to trade off with. So how can you avoid this issue? Simple. Set your work aside for a couple of weeks or a couple of months. When you come back to it after some time away, your brain isn’t quite as effective at autocorrecting your work. You’ll catch more errors.
2. Read Your Work Aloud
If you don’t have time to set your work aside, one of many helpful tips for self-editing is to read the work aloud. This is great for offsetting “tired eyes.” When you read something out loud, you have to slow down a bit. Reading it and voicing it force you to parse the words, to think about them a little more.
It can also help you pick up on grammatical errors you may not be able to name. You’ll likely trip over a typo or a misspelling, allowing you to catch and correct it. But what about the other slip-ups, where you stumble over the words?
Those instances where the writing causes you to trip over your tongue could indicate issues with syntax and grammar. Essentially, if it doesn’t sound natural to read it out loud, if it trips you up, there’s likely something unnatural about the writing. Most of us are aware of grammar rules on a subconscious level; we may not be able to name or explain the rule, but we can usually tell when something sounds wrong!
Keep in mind, though, that writing and speaking aren’t completely identical. We often say things in way that violate the rules of good grammar. Not everything that trips you up or sounds unnatural is inherently wrong, but it can be a good starting point for digging deeper.
3. “Look It Up” Is One of the Best Tips for Self-Editing
One of the silliest things I’ve encountered in my editing career is employers who make you take a closed-book editing test during your job interview. Editors don’t work that way. I understand they want to try and test us, but you know what? If I don’t know, you don’t want me to guess! You should be testing my prowess at saying, “Hey, I’m not sure, better ask or look it up.” (Seriously, finding stuff in Chicago Manual of Style is something of an art.)
So, authors, if you find yourself stumped on a point about grammar or confused about the proper spelling of a word, make like an editor and look it up. Editing is not a closed-book test; no one is grading you on whether or not you memorized your fourth-grade grammar lessons. If you don’t know, you don’t know. The only way to correct it is to look it up.
There are plenty of free resources available; many dictionaries offer free online services. Merriam-Webster is great for American writers or authors using US spelling. Oxford English Dictionary and Cambridge’s entries can help those in the UK. Canadian writers might be a little more SOL—our main dictionary, OxCan, hasn’t been updated since its 2004 edition.
As for grammar, check out Chicago Manual of Style, APA’s publishing guidelines, and all sorts of other writing guidelines out there. They help. Trust me.
You can use a grammar checker like Grammarly or Hemingway, but keep in mind that these AI-powered apps don’t read the same way a human does. They’re only as good as their programming.
4. Get a Little Help from a Friend
Even if you can’t afford a professional editor, you don’t need to go it alone! Ask around writing communities or among friends (especially on your social media networks). Someone might be willing to give you a hand by giving your manuscript a once-over. They may not catch everything, and they may not do the in-depth editing job you’d expect from a pro, but it is one way to get a fresh set of “reader’s” eyes on your manuscript before it goes live or gets sent off to an agent.
A word of caution: Lots of people think they’re great at editing. “If I’m good at English, I’m a great editor,” or so the logic goes. I’ve definitely had run-ins with people who have this mentality. You may not need to go so far as to ask to see samples of their work, but if they have work online, check it out. Also take a look at their messages—if they’re habitually messing up “its” and “it’s,” thank them kindly for the offer, but steer clear of letting them fix your grammar.
Another helpful tip for working with another: Be clear about what you want. If you want someone to check your work over for missing punctuation and typos, say so. Without clear direction, the person may go ham on your work when you don’t want them to, or they may not provide the criticisms you were hoping to receive as you work on the next draft.
5. Read It Backwards
Read your manuscript backwards. When you do so, you’re tricking your brain into registering each individual word and letter—so you’re more likely to spot typos and missing words.
It’s a fairly labor-intensive procedure; do not expect to edit quickly this way. Most editors I know rarely employ this trick. It’s usually saved as a last resort, after you’ve been reading and rereading a manuscript many, many times. Your eyes are no longer fresh and you’ve get a deadline looming; using this trick will allow you to spot lingering typos you might otherwise gloss over.
6. Technology Tips for Self-Editing
Not every tool Word (or similar programs) offers to you is evil! While you shouldn’t rely on spellcheck or grammar check in these programs—they’re often faulty—you can and should use search and replace to impose consistency on your manuscript. It’s what an editor would do.
Authors sometimes don’t realize they’ve switched the spelling of their main characters’ names half-way through the book, or that they’ve hyphenated a certain term sometimes and left it open others. Search and replace allows you to hunt down each instance of an “incorrect” spelling and replace it with the correct (or preferred) one.
This tool is available to you, so use it. When you come across an incorrect or non-preferred term, use search to find others instances. If you’re sure, you can use the “replace all” feature to simply switch all of the wrong spellings to correct spellings. (Pro tip: This doesn’t work for things like “its” and “it’s,” where the usage has to be judged on an instance-by-instance basis.)
With these six self-editing tips tucked in your back pocket, you can polish your manuscript. If you think you need a professional helping hand, get in touch with us. We’d be happy to go over your manuscript with you.