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Self-Editing Hacks You Can't Live Without

Have you ever been at a cocktail party and heard yourself utter a piece of gossip that no one should have heard? As the words are leaving your mouth, you try to reel them back in, but it's too late. They've gone out into the world, and now everyone knows that your cat—and your husband—both hate your new neighbors. The same neighbors hosting the party. And standing just four feet away from you holding trays of cocktail wieners and honey-sweetened Daiquiris. Wouldn't you love the chance to stop yourself from making that mistake in public?

If you're an author, you're in luck. Authors get to stop themselves from making stupid mistakes in public. The catch is that they have to want to stop themselves.

As an editor, I see a lot of errors on my screen every day. Some of them are pretty basic—a missed period at the end of a sentence or a "their" instead of a "there"—and some of them are amazingly spectacular, such as: "From the depths of hell, Stan arose in his fiery glory." (Yes, the latter is just a simple typo, but what a great typo!)

What's sad, though, is that almost every type of error I see could have been caught if the author had just taken a closer look at what was on the page—and not just what was in his mind.

As I mentioned when talking about the Oxford comma, authors (both fiction and nonfiction) tend to live so much within the world they create that they read what they want to read on the page (or screen) instead of what is actually there.

How do you get around that? There are as many different techniques as there are people who don't write but like to give writing advice (yeah… we all know one or two of those folks), but here are some of my favorites:

Read What You've Written Out Loud

Yes, out loud. You're much more likely to notice what's actually on the page if you have to pronounce each word and listen to it. Of course, this only works if you truly read each word. You can't simply read it all really fast and assume that it's correct. Read it like a script. You'll find the places where you left in typos, as well as the places where the punctuation might be wonky.

For bonus points, have a friend read it aloud to you. I recommend someone you can pay in pizza, cat-sitting, or a reciprocal reading, since this may take a few hours/days.

Read It Backwards

Okay. This isn't easy. It's going to take some time. But if you know that you're prone to typing faster than you think, this could be a real eye-opener for you. Reading backward takes the context out of the words and forces you to see what's truly on the page. If it's not what you intended, you can change it before anyone else knows.

Re-Run Your Spellcheck and Grammar Check After You've Completed Your Work

My personal vote is to always have the spellcheck and grammar check pointing things out on my screen as I type. Yes, it can be annoying (after all, both programs are incredibly literal), but it forces me to rethink everything I leave on the screen.

Then—when I'm completely done—I re-run it with as tight a settings as possible (depending on your word processing program, you might even have "check spelling for context" as an option), and force it to re-check everything (even the things you've already declared to be okay).

This will force you to go back through the manuscript and look at everything the computer thinks might be wrong, but that you ignored the first time around. It's annoying as all get-out, but it works.

The Best Self-Editing Technique, However, Can Be Summed Up in One Word: Time

You may have noticed that the three previous suggestions each force you to slow down and truly read what's on the page. But if you're doing this the day after you've "finished" writing, you likely still have the whole book in your head. That preconceived notion of what you're going to read makes it much easier to miss the sometimes-glaring errors that others will see.

If you have the chance, close your files and put the manuscript away for at least a week (a month or two is better), then pull it back up and look at it again. (I'll admit that this is where having a printed copy that you can physically slam into a file drawer would be much more satisfying.) I've heard this referred to as the "oh shit" stage of self-editing, because when you re-open that file, you're bound to see errors in what you were sure was a perfect manuscript.

Why do these techniques work? Because each one, in its way, allows you to look at a manuscript as a reader, instead of a writer.

Now, I'm not going to lie. I work as an editor. I make my living as an editor. If every writer actually got really good at self-editing, my livelihood would fade away. Somehow, even though I'm giving away my secrets, I suspect that there will always be rushed authors who can't be bothered with fixing their own errors—just as there will always be someone at a cocktail party trying to eat a cocktail wiener around the foot he's just placed in his mouth.

Wouldn’t it be nice if that was always someone else, though, and not you?

What self-editing tricks do you use? Send them my way, and I'll try to include the best tips in a future post.

Originally posted on - 5/16/2016

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