Self-Editing Tips: Part 1

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Much has been said about the stigma of self-publishing, and probably the most oft-repeated criticism is that self-published books are frequently poorly edited or not edited at all. As an editor, I wouldn’t dream of publishing a book without hiring an outside editor to go through it with a fine-tooth comb. Of course,  good editors don’t come cheap, but it’s an expense that will pay off down the road when your published work is recognized for its high quality. It’s almost impossible for us to fully edit our own writing. We are too close to it; our eyes (and our brain) don’t always register errors–we unconsciously supply what we meant to write. That makes self-editing quite a challenge.

Joanna Penn Editing, Self-editing
From Joanna Penn via Flickr Commons: She describes it as an almost final draft of “How to Enjoy Your Job” edited by a professional editor.

Look closely at author and blogger Joanna Penn‘s image on the right.  It might not surprise you that her editor marked up her manuscript so thoroughly, but she says she paid for this edit after several other edits and proof-readers. [emphasis mine] Professional authors hire professional editors. Even if you don’t yet consider yourself a professional author, I urge you to begin acting like one or you may never achieve that goal.

There are a number of self-editing strategies you can use to make sure the manuscript is as good as it can be before sending it to the editor who will make it even better. If the editor charges by the hour, you’ll save a little money if you’ve done your homework and ferreted out all of those pesky errors and problems ahead of time.

That said, it is possible for you to do some serious self-editing. After all, the less work you give your editor, the faster she will get the job done. Here are some things you can do before the editor takes over your manuscript:

Self-editing those pesky errors you already know you make:

  •  Omitted and superfluous words
    • Sometimes when you are revising on-screen, you select a portion of a sentence and type your intended revision, allowing the word processor to replace the text as you type. You may have left in a word you intended to eliminate, or you think you typed in your intended revision but missed a word or two.
    • Writers often use words that are unnecessary to the meaning of the sentence. He sat down.  Unless he was climbing up on a stool higher than his butt, down would have been the direction he went. Mary was just going to the store. Unless you mean to say that the store was the only place she was going, the word, just, is not needed. Even if your intent was to limit the destination to a single place, you still wouldn’t need it because if she had more destinations, you’d likely say, Mary was going to the store and then to the movie.
  • Depending on the spell/grammar checker in your word processor
    • Of course, the spell checker doesn’t identify homonym errors (there, their, they’re) because you’ve probably spelled the homonym right.
    • The spell/grammar checker never fails to flag the word but when it appears at the beginning of a sentence, suggesting the replacements, however or nevertheless. That’s fine in academic and formal writing, but not necessarily  in fiction when you really do want to use but for the informality of it. Other times, it’s exactly the word you need. For example, in my forthcoming novel, The Clay Endures, I describe an Apache standing beneath a paloverde tree when my main character, Esperanza, sees him. “But for the red bandanna tied around his head, he would have blended easily into the background.” My spell/grammar checker always suggests I replace it with however or nevertheless, which would render the sentence incomprehensible.
    • The grammar checker sometimes offers suggestions for revision that simply baffle me as a former English teacher, so I worry about folks who don’t have a strong background in grammar who might unwittingly follow a suggestion that really muddies up their prose.

Self-editing other common errors:

  • Filter words: My guess is that a lot of writers don’t know about these words and how they affect their writing. In fact, I was unaware of them until a new critique partner pointed them out. (And I’m an editor, for crying out loud!) These are words that unnecessarily filter the readers experience through a character’s point of view; that is you place a character between the detail and the reader or you remove the character from the action you want to present. Filter words are usually variations of these verbs:
    • to see, to think, to sound (or sound like), to wonder, to realize, to feel (or feel like), and many more.
    • See writer and blogger Suzannah Windsor Freeman’s excellent tutorial on filter words at Write it Sideways: Writing Advice From a Fresh Perspective.  Her examples clearly demonstrate how filter words can be a problem:
      • Sarah felt a sinking feeling as she realized she’d forgotten her purse back at the cafe across the street. She saw cars filing past, their bumpers end-to-end. She heard the impatient honk of horns and wondered how she could quickly cross the busy road before someone took off with her bag. But the traffic seemed impenetrable, and she decided to run to the intersection at the end of the block.
      • Revised: Sarah’s stomach sank. Her purse—she’d forgotten it back at the cafe across the street. Cars filed past, their bumpers end-to-end. Horns honked impatiently. Could she make it across the road before someone took off with her bag? She ran past the impenetrable stream of traffic, toward the intersection at the end of the block.
    • Makes a big difference, don’t you think?
    • It doesn’t mean you can’t use these verb forms at all; sometimes they are not filtering:
      • I felt the cold draft—the cardboard mom put over the broken window did little to shut out the night air
    • One strategy for finding these types of errors is to do a search for these words and their variations. Search for feel, felt, feeling, or others, and revise the sentences if you discover you are filtering the reader’s experience by using these words.
  • Word Echoes: This involves the repetition of words in close proximity, especially if used in the same position in a sentence or paragraph. (Might be the same as superfluous words, but not always.) See author C.R. Hodges’ blog for an overview.
    • But was there something else there?
    • Starting consecutive sentences/paragraphs with the same word (often He or She)
    • The repetition of an uncommon word, especially in unrelated contexts, even if not in close proximity. “I really liked Steven’s umber eyes” followed three paragraphs later by “The spaceship was the color of burnt umber…”
    • It’s distracting when word echoes appear in your writing, when you repeat homophones or homonyms or even use inadvertent rhymes. “He spent hours scrolling through his Tumblr feed, trying to find a post to fulfill an aching need.”

Self-editing is not all that hard once you get into the habit. In part 2, I’ll share additional types of errors or problems you can learn to spot in your own writing, along with strategies to help you clean up your manuscript before passing it along to your editor. In the meantime, look to see how many of these errors show up in your writing and let me know what you find. Your comments will be appreciated.