So you’ve made the leap and are now a writer. Congratulations and condolences. Excuse the new writer humor; 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.
The decision to write is a personal one and doesn’t come with an editor. Unfortunately, we writer quickly learn that writing is editing. It is the single most important and time consuming step. Regrettably, as will be explained, we can be our own worst enemy.
For the writer who can’t afford an editor, using friends or relatives may seem like an elegant solution. However, be forewarned, editing is a painstaking and highly skilled process. There is a big difference between a friend who is willing to read for you and a proper editor. Chances are you don’t know a pro, and even if you do, they aren’t going to want to log extra hours of what they already do for a living.
Even springing for a professional editor is not a panacea. You will still need to edit your work sufficiently enough in advance for them to even consider it. There is no avoiding it: we all need to be our own editor. However, don’t fret, this step in the process will improve your writing.
This post will focus on five of the best self-editing tips. There are many more of course, but I will stick to the more holistic stratagems that tackle the inherent problem imbedded in self-editing.
The main obstacle in editing one’s own work is skim and block reading. The purpose of the left side of the brain is to make things easier for us by sorting through the chaos of life. It strives to make reading more efficient by skimming over recognizable blocks of text, therefore bypassing the words and phrases it already knows. And because you wrote it, the brain is especially susceptible to this anticipatory passing over when in edit mode. Obvious word or grammar errors are easily missed because we do not actually read them!
So, here are some of the best tips on how to counter these self-inflicted barriers:
Put the manuscript aside. Time away will allow the mind to forget what it wrote. I would suggest six to eight weeks away, if possible. Let your short-term memory purge the finite details of the story. Editing is easiest when you are reading something new and have no expectation of what is coming next. In forgetting what was exactly 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 in a different location with a different device. Another way to reset the brain is by changing the look and feel of a manuscript. We assume a certain mindset when sitting at a work desk than we do in our kitchen nook cradling a steaming cup of coffee. We have different past experiences in these specific locales 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 Kindle. Changing the perspective from where and how you do your writing can fool the mind into believing it is reading something for the first time.
Use a text to audio reader. Some writers read their work aloud, but I find this a half measure as you will narrate in the cadence of what was intended, not necessarily as the words really sit on the page. The subconscious will stubbornly “help” 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 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 actually publish with one, but rather put a temporary name on all your drafts. Writing a pseudonym in a manuscript’s byline and placing it into a header will subtly trick the mind into thinking it’s reading something from another author. Again, the mind works its critical best when it believes the words are someone else’s.
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 and everything. Forget who you are. There is only that mirror self. 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 be 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. 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 positively 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 it), it’s time to make this other self three-dimensional, to flush out their wants, desires, and flaws. This is complex character building: the same as you should be doing in any of your stories. Look in the mirror. This should be a daily ritual, but now go further. It is no longer another person. It is you. 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 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 other, secret self. And insult your date at the end of the night making sure you break off any chance for a second date. 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. Call in sick a few days to be alone only as your pseudonym. When you’re ready, take a vacation. Stay inside your constructed second self the entire trip.
Lose the mirror. Walk the streets at night. Find a deserted alley and in the darkness be that other person. Say your name again and again. It’s no longer a pseudonym now, is it? No, it’s you: a writer.
Think profoundly of the repressed desires and fears buried deep inside you, 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.
Believe. Be. Act.
Maybe it’s that ex-girl/boyfriend for which there was no closure. The boss who often takes credit for your work. The degenerate bully in grade school. The professor who told you that you would never be a writer; that you are 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?
So do it!
Go out at night and don’t think. Don’t overanalyze, don’t self-audit. And always at night. There is too much light in the day for you not to see yourself, and for others to see you. Remember the lessons of tricking the mind. The foolish need for consistency under the expectation and judgments will edit your spirit down to a nub. And you are no editor—you are a writer!
The nightmares of Puck, the vengeance of Macbeth, and the madness of Lear. It’s all yours in the night, in the darkness.
And remember: it’s all a first draft. Writing is the proactive process, the raw emotional release. Leave the consequences to the dispassionate editor, that tragic husk of a person, that phenomenally ungrateful piano-key who withers in the day and its light. Let them do their job and clean up your wonderful mess.
Now 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, you should have been! It’s so easy now isn’t it? You have completed the fifth tip.
Condolences and congratulations. You are now a master self-editor.