Tips for Self-Editing Your Writing (and Saving Money on Editorial Services)
I don’t know too many people who don’t love a bargain (honestly, I don’t know any people who don’t love a bargain, but I’m assuming somebody, somewhere enjoys paying full price). Finding a bargain is not just finding something inexpensive. Rather, finding a bargain means getting something you want or need, believe is valuable, and expected to pay more for. One thing most authors eventually shop for is an editorial service, and one strategy for attaining a high-quality editing service at a lower-than-expected price is to hone your ability to self-edit your work.
Editors base their pricing, at least in part, on how quickly they’ll be able to edit your manuscript. That means the cleaner the project, the lower the price (and the less you have to pay for an editing service that you need, want, value, and expected to pay more for). A quick look around Google turns up loads of books about the nuts and bolts of self-editing, including what to look for as you review for pet words, purple prose, showing vs. telling, and basic grammar, spelling, and punctuation. What I’m writing about today is not what to look for, but how to look for it. These are some techniques to help you catch the greatest number of grammatical mistakes and style missteps in your writing so that you can get a quality edit at a bargain price:
1. If you’re able to do so, set your manuscript aside for a few days or weeks. One of the things you gain by hiring an editor is a fresh set of eyes. You know your story and you know how you want it to sound, so when you edit, your brain automatically fills in the gaps between the words on the page and the insights in your brain. You can reclaim a little of the distance that an editor brings to the table by setting your manuscript aside for a while. When you come back to it, you’re more likely to notice mistakes, see gaps in the narrative, and bring objectivity to the table. (You may also experience the rare gift of coming back to a section of text you were worried about and realizing it’s much better than you thought it was!)
2. Read your manuscript aloud. There’s nothing quite like realizing you can’t get through a sentence without running out of breath to help you realize you’ve missed a comma! Reading aloud as you edit can feel tedious (or silly!), but it’s also effective. Reading aloud also reveals clunky sentences, awkward word choice, missed words, and other mistakes better than running your eyes across the page. There is software that will read the manuscript aloud for you, but if you’re able to do it, try reading the manuscript aloud. Reading in your own voice enables you to see where the tone you intended doesn’t match the words on the page.
3. Print your manuscript in hard copy and edit on paper. Like reading aloud, reading on the printed page makes it easier to catch mistakes that your eyes might miss as you skim on the computer screen. Rather than overwhelming yourself with a full-length, printed manuscript, consider printing one chapter at a time. You can read the chapter, mark it up with good old-fashioned red pen, and then print the next chapter and continue the process. By doing so, you’ll still see the overall flow of your manuscript without having to sit down with 200 pieces of paper in your lap. Once you’ve edited the whole manuscript using this process, you transcribe your edits back into the soft-copy (you can do this one chapter at a time as well). You may not want to go this route until after you’ve done some revising on the computer in order to prevent yourself from having to transcribe complex revisions from the page back into the document. That said, reading the hard copy is a great last-round proofreading technique.
4. Expect your editing to be a time-intensive process. Nothing makes us cut corners quite like feeling as if we should be done already, damn it. So when you sit down with your freshly-completed manuscript, do so with the expectation that editing takes time. When I’m working with student writers, I tell them to plan on spending as much time editing as they did writing. For those of you who just panicked, go ahead and take a deep breath (in through your nose … out through your mouth …). Student papers are generally between 10 and 20 pages long; students spend a day or two writing and I request that they spend a day or two revising as well. You don’t have to spend years revising your manuscript even if you spent years writing it! You just have to take enough time to gain some space, be methodical about finding mistakes, and correct them, even when that means tweaking significant portions of the manuscript or adding whole scenes. All of that will feel easier if you don’t go into the editing process feeling like it should be quick.
5. Look for different types of errors on different passes. Most line- and copy editors make multiple passes through your manuscript with a different goal in mind for each pass. Consider taking the same approach as you self-edit. It’s challenging to look for every mistake simultaneously. Even if you can pull it off, addressing every type of revision all at one time will undercut your ability to see how well the story flows. Your first pass might be a quick skim through the whole document noting any sections where you were confused, got pulled out of the writing, or remembered “oops, I mean to fix that.” Your second pass could be reading aloud and correcting wordy sentences or questionable word choices. And the third pass could be printing your manuscript to look for basic grammatical, spelling, and punctuation errors.
Using some or all of these techniques will make you a more effective self-editor. That way, when you seek out editorial services your wallet (and your editor!) will thank you.