While not everyone will be able to afford the services of an editor, I firmly believe authors can get into the habit of good self-editing to catch many of their gremlins. Believe me, there’s nothing that gives me the conniptions as much when I hear some writer talk about how they’re going to release their novel or novella a mere week after they’ve typed “the end” on the first draft.
Anyhoo, here are my favourite, top five tips for better self-editing that I’ve gathered over the past few years. Use these, don’t use these.
1) Sleep on it. This is self-explanatory. Don’t dash off a submission the moment you’ve finished writing it. Yeah, yeah, I get it, your hairy little palms are all clammy and you can’t wait for someone to verify your brilliance the instant you unleash this little beast into the wooly wilds. But seriously. Don’t. Close the document. Step away from your machine. Go walk the dog. Hang upside down from your balcony. Do something that’s NOT writing. Come back tomorrow. Or a week from now, and then look at the document again. You’ll have fresh eyeballs. You’ll see all sorts of weirdness you didn’t imagine you could ever have hacked up.
2) A different view. Change the font. Save this as a PDF. Make the type bigger, with larger spacing. You’d be amazed how many errors jump out when you do so. Now, look for any places where you’ve repeated words. Read with the view of finding any sentences that are too long. Spelling that looks off. Defamiliarisation is the key here. If you make the text look different from that doc you were working off, you’ll have a better chance to catch anything odd. Watch out for words that end with ‘-ly’ – do you really need so many instances of “really”, “actually”, “finally”. Are you starting sentences with filler words like “He saw”, “She thought”? Did you just write “their” instead of “there”? Can you tell the difference between “its” and “it’s”?
3) Learn to love the sound of your own voice. Seriously, read the story or sections out loud to yourself. This is a great way to find clunky constructions … or even sentences that are way too long. [A hint, if you find yourself gasping for breath, you probably need to have ended that sentence a bit sooner.] Also, typos you missed earlier may jump out at you at this point. Dropped words too … you might gloss over them otherwise, but you’ll most certainly hear them when you read out loud.
4) Print it out. Yep. Kill some trees. Take a red pen or even any other kind of coloured pen or pencil, and scribble on the document to your heart’s content. Colour code your comments. I use this method to proof my printed layouts before I set up my print files for CreateSpace. You’ll find loads of gremlins this way. [Hint, you can use this method while busy with early structural edits too.]
5) Learn from past mistakes. This should be a no-brainer, but you’d be surprised how many authors have the incredibly bad habit of saying, “Ah, the editor will fix it” and they make the same bloody mistakes over and over again. If your editor points out that you have a habit of constructing sentences with misplaced modifiers, figure out the root of this bad habit and fix it. Too many filter words? Start viewing those constructions as if they were radioactive. So, what I’m saying is, know your bad habits and rein them in. Put them in a box, seal it, and set it on fire. Make an effort. Your editor will thank you (and be less homicidal). And so will your readers.
PS, I know I said I’d only have 5 tips, but I’d like to point out these great resources online for days when you can’t figure out your effect from your affect: Grammar Girl and Grammarist. I refer to these sites OFTEN, and I’m not ashamed to admit it.