A beloved teacher and writer once told me that editing one’s own work requires two things above all else: the ability to be Detached and Methodical. In editing my work (and working as a professional editor where being methodical is practically holy), I think I’ve pinpointed the things that help writers achieve these things:
1. Create some distance. Most parents will tell you that it’s difficult to be objective when it comes to their kids. For writers it’s the same way. They struggle to take criticism and to dole any out because their characters and plot line are perfect JUST THE WAY THEY ARE. But you have no way of knowing that until you can look at your writing with some degree of objectivity. I find the best way to create objectivity to give yourself some time and distance. I put my first novel-length project away–didn’t look at it, barely thought about it–for almost a year. That’s a really long time, but it enabled me to step away from the story and view it as an editor would, with fresh eyes. You don’t have to wait a year to feel this effect: even a few days can help.
2. Create some distance by making it look ‘real’. Get your book printed out and bound. Making it look professional performs some kind of magic trick, making it easier to see the work as someone else’s. Seeing it as someone else’s helps you to rip into it without as much angst, and seeing it on paper can help you catch things you wouldn’t have on-screen. I’ve also discovered the lovely effects of putting your book onto your Kindle. All you have to do is email the document as an attachment to your Kindle account and put ‘convert’ in the subject line, and the thing looks like any other book you’ve got on there. Reading through my drafts this way really helps me get some objectivity.
3. Create an editing checklist. I learned this once the hard way when editing travel guides. Editing–no matter what you’re editing–is hard. In order to become efficient at it, you need to break it down into manageable steps. If I was in the proofing stage, they would look something like this:
- check that page numbers are present/correct
- proof photo captions
- Make sure that photos are placed correctly
- make sure that all map icons and headings are correct
- check that photo credits are present and correctly spelled… etc.
When you look through a manuscript for everything that could be wrong all at once, it’s impossible to catch it all. But when you break it up you miss fewer mistakes, and the ones that are there are clearer to you.
4. Start from the end. I always used to read my stuff front to back, over and over. The problem is that once you get to the end, your editing eyes (and editing brain) are all sorts of tired out. Sometimes reading from back to front helps bring back some objectivity and lets you see your work in a new light.
5. Ask for help. Get someone you trust to read your work. Better yet, have them read it out loud to you. It becomes ten times easier to pick out what’s not working when your work is filtered through someone else’s voice. Find some critique partners. I’ve got two, and I don’t how what I would do without them. They give it to me straight up, without any fruity syrup or dollops of whip cream. Critique can be painful, but it can help you more than anything else can.