One of my authors sent me this week a photograph of his manuscript as he is editing it: cut into strips of paper, each paragraph sliced into a free-standing piece of writing to make it easier to rearrange and rewrite as necessary. I’ve heard tell of other writers using this tool, too, as well as countless other editing techniques.
Editing is an essential part of writing. From concept to publication, writing, editing, and rewriting are fundamental to getting your work published. As if making good writing weren’t difficult enough, editing your own work and then rewriting it can be an excruciating exercise in torture. It’s mentally exhausting.
The truth is that it is really difficult to edit your own work.
But it has to be done.
That doesn’t mean that yours should be the only eyes that see your work before you submit it for publication. Getting a professional to take a look at it—a manuscript critique or a full edit—really can make the difference between publishing work that’s just okay and work that really shines. But you certainly should do as much editing of your own work as possible, before sending it off to an editor for hire (which will save you some time, money, and heartache), to an agent, to an editor, or to a publisher.
In addition to literally chopping-up your printed manuscript into tiny bits and rearranging it, here are seven easy-to-use tips for editing your own work:
Give It Time
Many of us edit as we write, hitting the delete key just about as often as we hit the space bar. That’s okay. Each of us writes in our own way. We all have our own methods. If you want to edit as you go, do it. But once you’ve gotten to a point where you actually have a fully written first draft, stop editing. Step away from the document. Put the pen down. Turn off the laptop. And give it a rest. Whether you can give it thirty minutes or thirty hours or thirty days, it’s important to step away from the manuscript so that you can edit it with fresh eyes—even if, and perhaps especially if, you’re on deadline. A rushed manuscript is a manuscript full of mistakes. So take some time away from your work so that you can edit it with a clear, more objective mind.
Read It Aloud
Whether fiction or nonfiction, short or long, read your manuscript aloud. Be sure to take your time reading—don’t breeze through it just because you’re so familiar with it. Instead, pretend you’re reading it to someone who is wholly unfamiliar with it. When reading aloud, you’ll be in a good position to catch awkward phrasing, inconsistencies, and choppy writing that mar your manuscript.
Have Someone Read It Out Loud to You
If you can bribe someone with some beer and pizza or wine and chocolate or whatever to read your manuscript aloud to you, do so. Listen carefully for that same awkward phrasing, those inconsistencies, and the choppy writing that you would catch when reading aloud yourself. But also take special note of whether your mind starts wandering while you’re being read to: If you’re not fully engaged, chances are your readers won’t be, either. If your thoughts start drifting, it’s a clear sign that your manuscript needs some work. Same thing goes with your guest reader: If your work can’t hold his or her attention, it won’t hold the interest of agents, editors, publishers, or other readers, either. (If you can’t find someone to read your manuscript to you, tape yourself reading it aloud and then listen to the results. Once you get beyond how much you hate the sound of your own voice, you’ll have an entirely new impression of your writing.)
Read It in Print
As easy as Word or Google Docs makes it to edit online, there’s just something about reading something in print (aka hard copy). Seeing it in print makes it more real. So print your document and read through it, using your trusty red pen to edit as you go, preferably after you’ve spent some time away from the manuscript, whether a few hours or a few days.
Read It in a Different Font
Most of us editors like to see manuscripts in 12 point Times New Roman, double-spaced, first line indented 0.5″, with 1″ margins. It’s a bland, innocuous format that makes for easy reading. When editing your own work, though, try messing around with the formatting and typeface, which will give your manuscript a whole new look. This alone will help you look at it with new eyes.
Go Beyond Spellcheck
First, of course, you have to actually run spellcheck. I’m amazed at the number of manuscripts I get where it’s obvious the writer has not undertaken this simple step. So, yes: Run spellcheck. And then put your copy-editor hat on and do a run-through on your manuscript for grammar and punctuation. Read your manuscript for verbal tics that keep creeping into your work—i.e., for those throw-away phrases that you use too often (e.g., in fact, indeed, and then, and so, with that, nevertheless, furthermore). Search for commonly misspelled words (e.g., embarrassed, mischievous, privilege), homonyms (e.g., there/they’re/their, its/it’s, principle/principal), and mistyped words (e.g., asses instead of assess, brian instead of brain, pubic instead of public). Once you’ve cleaned-up your manuscript for these annoying errors, you’ll be in a better position to edit for the big-picture stuff like tone, voice, flow, structure, plot, and so forth.
Edit Like You’re a Book Reviewer
Admit it: Like most writers, you edit pretty much everything you read while you’re reading it. From cereal boxes to blogs to newspaper articles to full-length books, we writers find it hard not to rewrite and edit just about everything we read. Give your own work the same treatment. This is where it can really pay off to give yourself a break from your work so that you can come at it with fresh eyes. And I mean really come at it—hard. Review your own work as a critic would, purposefully and ruthlessly looking for where it stumbles, where it falls apart, where it just doesn’t work. Go at it with the assumption that it’s crap, that it’s no good. Challenge yourself to find something—anything—that’s really works at all in the manuscript. Mark it up with abandon. Then set it aside again, coming back to it later, less harshly, and see what your devil–angel editorial review has revealed.
There are any number of tools and tricks writers can use to edit their own work. It’s not easy—we tend to be either too cruel or too forgiving on ourselves, hating every word or loving every word, thinking we’re terrible hacks or creative geniuses. But editing can—and should—help you become a better writer, as long as you learn from your mistakes and listen to what the edits tell you. With each manuscript you edit, fiction or nonfiction, short or long, you have the opportunity to become a better writer.
May 17, 2017
“You write to communicate to the hearts and minds of others what’s burning inside you. And we edit to let the fire show through the smoke.”