Self-editing: Is it possible and what’s the best way?

If you’re looking at publishing your first book — fiction or non-fiction — obviously it’s going to need an edit.

Many writers think it’s perfectly plausible to pen a novel, give it another read or two and then shoot it off to try and get it published the traditional way or via e-publishing. Rid yourself of that notion. It’s nearly impossible to edit your own book. You might have a 90,000-word work of genius on your hands, but without a new set of eyes giving it (at least) a once over, it’s all but guaranteed there will be plenty of mistakes throughout.

As a writer and editor I’ve read numerous “finished” pieces only to find mistakes aplenty that can change entire ideas and structures of paragraphs.

Before we get to the part of self-editing, let me remind you again, find a new set of eyes to give your work a read. It’s going to be put out there anyway for hopefully thousands of readers to sift through, what better way to get it started than to have someone you know give it a go.

This helps two ways:

1. They will most likely heap praise on you for such an achievement as completing such an undertaking as a novel, and who doesn’t love that praise;

2. They will reveal to you all the hidden mistakes your own eyes couldn’t find.

It’s not that you’re not capable of editing or not capable of catching your own mistakes. Our eyes just work differently when they know what letters and words are supposed to be on the page. They fill in missing blanks, they rearrange letters subconsciously to correct misspellings. To sum it up, our eyes shield us from harm we do to ourselves.

That’s why you should try and find someone to edit your work. Who knows, their take on how things should be in the story might give you a little insight on something you like or something you missed — such as an early-story reference to something you thought was going to play a large role in your novel, but what you never cycled back to.

Naturally, in this how-fast-can-I-make-a-buck world, there are plenty of editors out there willing to read your story for a certain price (bless their little hearts). Some of them are legitimate editors that can really make your work shine. Some of them are going to let it sit on their virtual desk for several weeks before they give it a once over and send it back with a few grammatical corrections. Going that route is up to you. And you’ll have to figure out who you’re going to trust.

That being said, maybe you don’t want to pony up money for an editor (and who can blame you) or maybe you don’t have the money to pay for an edit (and who does). Maybe you also don’t know anyone who you really trust to edit your masterpiece.

So now you’re down to one option: You.

As an editor with 13 years of experience, I’ve read plenty of copy — much of it my own. The problem, whether you’re writing on deadline or for fun, it’s way too easy to make mistakes, again, many of them my own.

So I’ve devised a few tips to try and help myself for pieces I don’t get edited (though those are few and far between).

1. Give it a second and third read. Too obvious? You’d be surprised. Plenty of people give it a once over and call it good. You know which stories I’m talking about. They are tough to stomach just because of the grammar and spelling errors, not to mention the plot going in 12 different directions and only have of those come to an end. Go back. Give it a twice over. Then give it another read for good measure. Even on that third read you’re bound to find at least one mistake. Got some time on your hands? Read it again.

2. More notes. This one is extremely important for longer pieces, such as novels and non-fiction works. You’ve probably already got a paper stack or virtual stack of notes you know back and forth. Now read your piece once again creating another stack of notes. Think of this one almost as a checklist. Put down any foreshadows or early posturing ideas the book proposes. Cross them off your checklist as the book comes back to them.

3. Read it in a different format. One of the biggest attributes of WordPress is the Preview mode. Use it! This lets you see what your finished blog is going to look like. Every time I preview a piece of my own work — EVERY TIME — I find at least one mistake (just found one now), often more. But WordPress isn’t the only one to give you this option. Most publishing/writing software has built-in alternate modes of viewing. Use them. Even if it’s saving your file in a PDF format just to give it a different look, do it. The new look will have your eyes and mind retraining themselves, tricking them into what they might see as a completely different document. If you have the paper and the ink, or the means to get it printed at your neighborhood office supply store, do it. Making notes and corrections on a hard copy is a wonderful way to edit.

4. Start at the end. Ugh. I hate this one, but I’ve found it plenty useful. Start at the back of your work and read each paragraph beginning with the last one and finishing with the first. This is great for grammar and spelling, though it can be hard to follow a plot in reverse. All of a sudden, you’ve tricked your trusty eyes into seeing this in a new way. No way have they memorized these paragraphs out of order.

5. Read it again. Sick of your masterpiece yet? It’s what authors mean when they say they lived with their book for X amount of years. You read it forward, you read it backward, you know it by heart.  Now, finally, it might be ready to be published.

How do you self-edit? I’m always looking for new methods that will make my copy cleaner and more succinct. Drop me a line or post a response!

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