So you’ve made the leap and are now a writer. Congratulations! Surely, you have made the right choice. I hope that these tips will save much frustration in the editing process as well as making you a better writer. And, dare I say, a better person as well.
The decision to write doesn’t come with an editor. Unfortunately, we writers quickly learn that writing is editing, the single most important and time consuming step in the process. Regrettably, it is one where we can be our own worst enemy.
Conscripting friends or relatives to do our editing is an ineffective workaround. There’s a big difference between a kindhearted (and patient) beta reader and a proper editor. And even if you decide to spring for a pro, this is not a magic bullet. Writers still need to edit our work sufficiently to develop ideas and language in advance for anyone to consider them critically. There is no avoiding it: we must be our own editors to some extent. However, don’t fret, this necessary step in the process will help deepen your writing, and maybe the understanding of yourself too.
The main obstacle in editing one’s own work is skim and block reading. The brain strives to make things easier for us by sorting through the sensory chaos of life immediately discarding what is superfluous and unnecessary. It endeavors to make reading easier by skimming over recognizable blocks of text, therefore bypassing words and phrases it believes it already knows. And because you wrote it, the brain is especially susceptible to this anticipatory skipping when in edit mode. Obvious word or grammar errors are easily missed because we assume what we are reading without actually doing so!
This #amwriting post will focus on five editing tips. There are many more, of course, but I will stick to the wider, holistic stratagems that tackle our well-intentioned, but betraying mind’s congenital ineptitude to self-edit.
Put the manuscript aside. Time away will allow the mind to forget the specifics of what it wrote. I would suggest six to eight weeks away, if possible. Let your short-term memory purge the finite details. Editing is easiest when you are reading something new and have little expectation of what is coming next. In forgetting what was intended in each paragraph, sentence, and phrase, the brain is forced to read precisely. As will be a recurring theme, the mind needs to be tricked to be able to see things as they really are.
Edit with a different device where you don’t write. Another way to reset the brain is by changing the look and feel of a work-in-progress. We assume a certain mindset when sitting at a desk in front of a computer than we do in our kitchen nook cradling a steaming cup of coffee and an e-reader. We have different past experiences in these places each with an unconscious set of expectations. When I am at my desk, I am a writer. When reclining on the sofa, I am a reader. It is the same when looking at a story in a word processor versus a creased paperback.
Use a text-to-audio reader. Some writers read their work aloud to catch errors, but I find this a half measure as you will narrate in the cadence of what was intended, not necessarily as the words actually sit on the page. The subconscious will stubbornly help us by inserting words and changing tenses that aren’t there. A text-to-audio reader will read exactly what is on the page, making none of the mind’s unconscious adjustments. Also, find a voice that works for you. For example, I have found that I am more attentive to a stern woman with a slight British accent.
Use a pseudonym. This doesn’t mean you necessarily publish with one, but rather write in a temporary name on all drafts. Writing a pseudonym into a manuscript’s byline, and inserting it into a header, will subtly fool the mind into thinking it’s reading something from another author. Again, the brain works its critical best when it believes it is reading words from someone else.
To enhance this last tip, look at yourself in the mirror before you write. Address the reflection by your chosen pseudonym. Start talking. Say anything. There’s no one to offend or trigger. Forget who you are. Believe that mirror self is a different person. Let your mind drift when confronting this separate identity and carry it over into your writing sessions.
It is best to make this other you a whirlwind of ego. Suppress your dreamless id and prudish superego. Have your pseudo-self be confrontational, aggressive, and abrasive. Make them different from you, a polar opposite if possible. The editing process works best if your alter-ego is intimidating and loathsome. This will motivate you as an editor by fearing to miss an error thus incurring the ire of this mirror psychopath. It will also incentivize you to catch mistakes to keep their repugnant arrogance in check.
When you have mastered giving a unique voice to your pseudonym (and only after you have mastered this), it’s time to make this other self three-dimensional, flushing out their flaws, talents, and desires. This is complex character building—the same as you should be doing in your writing. Look in the mirror. This should be a daily ritual at this point, but now look deeper. Much deeper. It is no longer another person. It is you. Crawl into its skin, occupy its head. Forget your real self—deny there is such a thing as a real self—there is only that mirror person.
Set up some dates for your pseudonym. It’s easy with the plethora of dating apps. It should go without saying, but please be discreet if you have a significant other. Arrange these rendezvous in faraway cities where your pseudonistic self can act without the risk of running into the crushing expectations of anyone you know. And always stay in character! Use this time efficiently to evolve that impulsive secret self. Insult your date at the end of the night to make sure you break any chance for a second date no matter how well you may have hit it off. Remember—this is research, be professional! Besides, stirring up some drama will have an ancillary benefit when crafting such scenes in future writings.
After a few successful dates, spend an entire Sunday in the house as that other self. Doesn’t everything look weird. Who is this other person who lives in such banal squalor? Call in sick a few days to be alone only as your pseudonym. Don’t break character. When you’re ready, take a vacation. Stay inside your constructed second self the entire trip.
Lose the mirror. Its a crutch, you don’t need it. Walk the streets at night. Say your name again and again. It’s no longer a pseudonym now, is it? No, it’s you: the writer. Find a deserted alley and in the darkness be that impetuous dark soul. Frolic in the desperate shadows where the outcasts reside; there is much you’ve always wanted to do there.
Think profoundly of the repressed desires and fears buried inside, those monstrous ideas that your defense mechanisms would never allow you to access, but the other, detached self can. Steel yourself for the last step of becoming a truly superior self-editor.
Don’t think. Act. Be.
Maybe it’s that lying ex-girl/boyfriend which there was no closure. Maybe the former boss who always took credit for your hard work. That degenerate bully in grade school. The professor who told you that you would never be a writer; that you were incapable of ever understanding the difference between an author and a writer. But you are a writer now aren’t you? And you are powerful.
I don’t need to tell you what to do, because you already know. Don’t you?
Go and drink in the night. Don’t overanalyze. Don’t self-edit! And always at night. There is too much light in the day for you to see your old self, and for others to see. Remember the lessons of tricking the mind. The foolish need for consistency under the expectation and judgments will edit your spirit to a nub.
It is life as it is in books! The nightmares of Puck, the vengeance of Macbeth, and the madness of Lear. It’s all yours in the darkness.
And remember—it’s all a first draft. Writing is the proactive process, the raw emotional release. Leave the consequences of revising to the dispassionate editor, that tragic husk of a person, that phenomenally ungrateful piano-key whose spirit withers in the light of day! Let them do their menial job and clean up your wonderful mess.
Look at those words left for you on the page each morning. Those maniac thrills and vulgar enchantments. Despair in the words that are not your own, rather the person you could have been. No, who you should have been! It’s so easy now isn’t it?
Congratulations! You have completed the fifth tip. You are now a master editor.