History That Never Was

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Self-Editing Tips, Part 1

Red pen and edited manuscriptLast week, I talked about the different types of editing. This week, I’m going to share some of my tips for editing your own work, or self-editing.

I begin with a caveat, as an editor: paying an editor to edit your work is ALWAYS a good choice, no matter how much experience you have as a writer or an editor. However, when you’re writing short and flash fiction, or when you’re submitting a novel to find an agent, there are often practical reasons why hiring an editor might not be feasible. So the tips here are meant to help you put your best writing foot forward, not to replace the need for an editor entirely. This will just help you present clean writing to whatever venue you’re sending it to!

1) Finish First! When I started writing, I would often go back to my first chapter or opening scene again and again and again. The result of this was that I would have a lovely, polished opening scene, but I didn’t necessarily finish what I was working on. Currently, when I’m working on a first draft of something, I have to try very hard to not re-read much of what I’ve written in that piece previously, lest I fall into the trap of polishing before something is done. If I need to re-read, I resist the urge to poke at the text, unless I see something that’s definitely wrong and needs to be fixed so it doesn’t lead me astray later. But then, I need to get on with writing new words, until I’m at the end of that first draft. Editing as you go may seem like it has the potential to be efficient, but it really isn’t, especially when it comes at the expense of finishing.

2) Give It Some Space! When you’ve finished a piece, it’s a good idea to take some time away from it before you edit, to give yourself a more objective eye. Many writers are their own worst critics, and tackling the editing on a piece you’ve just finished may lead you to over-edit that finished piece. By taking some time and space away from your first draft, you’ll allow yourself to come back to it with fresh eyes, so that you might find that you actually like what you wrote. The time and space also help you to see errors more clearly, as you’re not as emotionally invested in the piece–you can read it almost as if someone else wrote it. The amount of time you need to spend away from the piece can vary based on your personal preferences, your schedule, and the length of the piece. For me personally, I like to give myself a couple of days away from a flash fiction piece, a couple of weeks away from a short story, and a couple of months away from a novel or novella. If I were working on a deadline, I would at the very least try to finish one day and edit the next day. But if I had to finish and edit on the same day, I’d make sure I spent some time away from writing tasks and doing something completely different–like watching a TV show and crocheting–in order to give my brain the mental space it needs!

3) Read Aloud! When I have the time, reading aloud is one of the most useful tools in my editing arsenal, whether I’m editing something of my own or something written by someone else. When I’m editing for my day job, when I come across a sentence that seems off to me, I’ll often read it aloud quietly to myself, as that often helps me find where the sentence breaks down. When I’m editing my fiction, I sometimes work with my husband on reading and following along with the text in order to catch errors. But I also rely on Text to Speech Reader if my husband isn’t available or if I prefer to work on a piece alone. For most editors, this reading aloud pass comes toward the end of an editing cycle, but I’ve found it can also be useful if I just want to see how something sounds, to see if it’s taking the right shape for what I’m trying to do, while I’m revising or editing a draft.

Check back next week for some more self-editing tips!

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