Self-Editing: Learn to Love the Red Pen

After a couple of weeks of final edits, Tyburn is almost ready for you. It's been awesome going through it again, particularly with the help of my amazing editor, and I was surprised by how many things I just spotted myself that needed to be fixed. It just goes to show you that even if you read your own MS two hundred times, you're always going to miss something!

Whether you are lucky enough to have an editor or not, self-editing is a great skill to have, and crucial if you're a writer (of anything!). It's not as hard as you'd think. I was an editor for several years, and although magazines are very different from long fiction, a lot of the same rules apply. Here are a few of mine:

1. Learn to love the red pen. 
The first thing you need to do is to get past the fear of editing, or the idea that the piece couldn't be improved in any way. Even Hemingway had to write the last page of Farewell to Arms thirty-nine times before he was satisfied with it. With any luck, you won't have to rewrite your piece so extensively, but even if it's phenomenal, you can always make it a little bit spiffier. 

2. Get some distance.
If you've been working on the same pages day in and day out, you're not going to see them clearly. Put them down for a week (or more) and go back to them with fresh eyes. During my early edits, the one thing that made the biggest difference was looking at it in a different format. I uploaded the MS onto my Nook and started reading it like it was someone else's book. It's funny how much of a difference looking at something in another font can make. Some people swear by printing it out, and this might work for you, but the key is to try to find new ways of looking at your work. Read it slowly. If you're stumped, try reading it out loud to yourself. This is a great way to pick up on any grammatical errors, missed words, awkward phrasing, and unnatural dialogue. Sure, it takes awhile, but it's worth it!

3. Ask a friend
No matter how many times you look at it, you're going to miss something. That's what friends are for! This is especially helpful for larger issues such as working out the plot, consistency, character development, pacing, etc. It's incredibly helpful to have someone to bounce ideas off of, especially if they actually know what you're talking about. Your friends and beta readers are worth their weight in gold. Cherish them! 

Things to look out for:
  • Spelling, punctuation, and syntax
  • Repetition: Everyone has certain words they tend to fall back on, and everyone has a weird word or two that keeps popping up. It's never what you expect. Mine used to be "raucous," but I caught myself using it so many times that I deleted them all out of spite. Now you find it once, unless the bastard managed to sneak back in there...
  • Sentence length: It might not come naturally, but check that the sentence lengths are varied. The piece reads more naturally and consistently when they are varied throughout. 
  • Tone: This is the mood of the whole piece. Is it bubbly, conversational, serious, dark? The tone should be consistent, and whether the characters are buying groceries or escaping death, you can maintain the tone through imagery and word choice, taking into consideration:
    • Connotation: How words make you feel. Words meaning more or less the same thing can make you feel differently or picture different things when you read them. Consider slender vs scrawny - one can be a compliment, the other sounds like you're describing a chicken. Think about the words your using and the image they're creating.
  • Consistency: It sounds obvious, but check that all of your information is consistent throughout. Check the names, titles, ages, locations, everything. In my last round of edits, I found a scene where I described the same dress as "lilac" and "lavender" on two different pages. Some people might not notice, but this is the kind of thing that drives me nuts. They're two different shades! 

Is there anything you do to help you to edit your own work?


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