Self-Editing Without Tears: 6 Easy Tricks

posted in: Editing | 5

You’ve probably heard the old saying “a doctor who treats himself has a fool for a patient.” Similarly, writers who act as their own editors risk really bad editing, for the same reason: a dangerous lack of objectivity (writers tend to either think their creations are utterly, flawlessly brilliant or the most awful thing ever). Even worse, the built-in mental shortcuts that make it quick and easy to understand even flawed or garbled writing (such as quickly handwritten notes or text messages) also make us rotten editors – we tend to auto-correct or ignore things such as misspellings and missing words, especially in work we know well. This is usually a good thing – it’s why human readers aren’t tripped up by punctuation and spelling errors while machine translators are – but it makes finding typos in our own writing devilishly difficult.

So a careful, literate, second reader or professional editor is your best bet if you need clean copy. On the other hand, if you want your piece to look great but don’t have time to recruit someone to help (like before submitting a new piece to your writing group), there’s still hope. Here are a few easy self-editing tricks to fool your brain into reading those oh-so-familiar words with fresh eyes. Try these the next time you need to make an impression with your work.

1) Read it aloud. This is helpful for several reasons. First, reading aloud is a much slower process than reading silently, so it forces you to pay attention to missing or incorrect words you may have previously skimmed over. Second, reading aloud will tell you if the sentence lengths and overall rhythm of your writing are working – if you find yourself tripping in the middle of a sentence, for instance, you’ll know it may need tweaking.

2)Read it backwards. This is a personal favorite of mine – when going over my own pieces for seemingly the millionth time, I often find myself losing focus after the first few pages (this stuff again??). Starting from the end forces me to pay attention to the parts I’d otherwise rush through – so if you find your eyes tend to glaze over after several pages of proofreading, this could be a good trick for you. Like reading aloud, it’s also slower than reading normally, so it makes you less inclined to skim over mistakes. Finally, because you’ll be reading your words in a different, ungrammatical order, you’ll short-circuit your usual tendency to auto-correct mistakes.

3) Read it fast. For “big picture” editing – such as for pacing, continuity, and character development – a fast read sometimes allows you to see more than a slow, detailed read. When reviewing a piece for big-picture issues, go ahead and read it like a critic, rather than like an editor. Pay attention to whether the story works and leave the little stuff (if you notice it) for later.

4) Read it fast several times. You’ve checked your work for flow and continuity and it looks great – but you also noticed a bunch of little mechanical errors that still need fixing. And you utterly dread the tedium of going over the whole darned thing yet again, word by tedious word, hoping you’ll catch every single missing Oxford comma, dangling modifier, and misplaced quotation mark. You just know you’re going to space out and start missing stuff after the first few pages, which will require you – aargh! – to repeat the whole process again.

Here’s your solution: Instead of slogging through slowly, trying to find and correct everything, do your edit in several quick passes. Looking for one and only one type of error in each pass – for instance, look only for missing commas on your first pass without worrying about the other stuff. Repeat the process with each error type that needs correcting. You’ll be better focused on the immediate issue at hand and less likely to miss anything.

5) If you’re a Word user, the spellchecker and Find/Replace functions are your friends. Spellcheckers can’t – and don’t – catch everything, but they can significantly speed up your work. Besides using your spellchecker to fix basic typos, you can also save a lot of time and grunt work in your editing and rewriting by using the Find and Replace functions. For instance, if you want to ensure a character’s name is spelled consistently throughout your work, just select “Find and Replace” and type in the variant you DON’T want in the “Find” box and the desired variant in the “Replace With” box. The same shortcut also works for switching a character into (or out of) a scene – just select the scene you want to change and repeat the above steps. You can save yourself hours of fiddly work.

6) Give it a rest. Sometimes, the best thing you can to do improve a piece of writing is to leave it alone. If you’re thoroughly tired of proofreading your work and know you’re not finding all the things that need correcting, don’t beat yourself up. Instead, take a break. A few hours (or better, days or weeks) away from a piece can give you just the distance and fresh perspective you need to give it the attention it deserves, whether you’re trying to track and destroy the last few comma splices or decide if that plot twist in the middle really works.

Not all of these tricks will work perfectly for everyone, but you should find a few that will make your life easier. And many writers have their own personal tricks for checking their work – what are yours?


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Follow Felicia Lee:

Lee is the author of the Days of the Dead series. She also writes non-fiction essays (some of which have appeared in the Los Angeles Times and and promotional copy for businesses, nonprofits, and public agencies. She earned two degrees in English from Stanford and has a doctorate in linguistics from UCLA. After ten years as a university professor and researcher she returned to her roots as a writer and has never looked back.

5 Responses

  1. Connie Morrison

    Thanks for the editing tips, Felicia. I’d never thought of reading backwards; that would be word by word for me. I do use the Word grammar help but sometimes what it finds is aggravating. It is interesting to see how many times I use a particular word. That one really helps me. Good advice about not editing one’s own work, very difficult.

  2. Wendy Thornton

    Great tips, Felicia – I’m going to use these for my publishing class in the spring.

  3. Robin Ingle

    There are two favorites of mine here. Reading a piece aloud is a sure fire way to improve the rhythm of your prose. I don’t use this often enough, but in an ideal world, I’d have plenty of time for it! And reading it backwards is brilliant — that definitely helps me to catch typos and the like. Thanks for sharing your editing expertise with us, Felicia!

  4. felicialeewriter

    Thanks so much, guys! (Or girls, if you prefer). Some of these are things I’ve learned from others, and a few are things I’ve found to work for me. Your mileage may vary — let me know if you have any other ideas!

  5. Diane C

    Great blog, Felicia. It’s good to see you in print. I’ve told clients that editors assume something is wrong, and check to see it isn’t. Sometimes, though, we can ‘edit’ things that people don’t like. Like (I’m not writing for publication, so like the two likes?) when I pointed out that someone’s business name floor mat at their front door was misspelled. It can be an obsession. Keep on writing!