Editing your own work… the horror…

I usually do a book review on the 3rd Sunday of the month, but this time I thought I’d talk a little bit about the nasty business of reviewing one’s own work.  It’s the hardest part of publishing for me, but certainly one of the more important.  Over the years I’ve tried lots of different ways to go about it.

I’ve used online checkers like Grammarly (even their plagiarism checker because, as Tesla would say, no one likes an idea-stealing-Edison, unintentional or otherwise) which work well but take time on large word-counts.  I’ve tried asking intelligent friends to read my work and look for errors, and found that they tend to miss things in the really exciting bits.  I’ve asked English professors to comb through my verbiage, and found that they really don’t know how to read non-essays.  I’ve used Spell Checker and swore at the screen when it told me ‘Twist” shouldn’t be capitalized for the 1000th time.  I’ve gone over the work myself for the 10th time, and been amazed I didn’t notice that on the 7th run through.  In the pits of desperation, I’ve looked for professional editors and swooned at the prices. (usually around $3000 for each of my books)

In the end, I find myself glaring at my doc file with Gollum-like adoration and loathing, honestly wondering if I speak English at all.  Some things work, others work better, but Gaiman’s Law remains true: “Being handed the first copy of a book you wrote, if there’s one typo, it will be on the page that your new book falls open to the first time you pick it up…”

I don’t believe in no-win situations.  I find that the only way to deal with a brick wall in your way is to fake it out.  Glance away, pretend it doesn’t bother you, and then rush it when it least expects it.  I tried ALL of the above listed attempts to edit my first book, and worked out a method that actually kind of works.  If, like me, you’re too broke for a professional, then give this a try.

0. Before you do anything, I highly suggest researching the kinds of things that authors of your genre/format usually make mistakes on.  If you know the rules, and know that you know the right rules, you can save yourself a lot of later pain.  Are homonyms a typical problem?  Punctuation?  Arcane spelling?  Find out what to expect.

If you have the time, take a remedial English class (or watch on on-line) as a refresher.  If you’re like me, and always did well in English class, then you probably do a lot by feel.  This might be fine for 99% of writing, but when you’re trying to edit something, you really need more detailed knowledge.  And in remedial English, they only teach the rules, not the art.  If you already have the art, then extra knowledge can only help.

And once you gather your rules, start a notepad file or grab a notebook, and write out every bit of info you found important (anything that was new to you, or you never thought to check for).   This is a vary important step and will save time later on.  Be sure to keep your notes close.

1. Now, to editing!  The first step, once the book/story/essay/love-letter is written, is to put it away, and don’t even think about it for at least 3 days.  Then, pick it up again and read it through yourself.  Most of us notice things that are amiss instinctually, but familiarity can blind us. (This is also a great method to tighten up your plotting)

While you’re doing your edits, start a list of every error you notice yourself making a lot.  Most of us have issues that come up over and over.  Just write down what it is at the bottom of the note file you started earlier.  If you prefer paper, I still highly recommend you start a digital note file at this point.  You’ll want to be able to copy and paste.

2. Once you’re done reading your work through, have someone else look at it.  This could be a random friend who likes to read, a relative, a postman, whoever.  Just getting any other pair of eyes on it will help.  They’re sure to find things that you missed or didn’t even know weren’t correct.   Actually, get as many people to look at it as you can.  And if they’re unable to read the whole thing, then ask them to just check a part of it and give you feedback.  If you know someone else who writes, then offer to swap and edit their work in return.  Practice will only help.  If you know a tech-writer, then make sure you use them.  Those guys know their grammar.  Again, try  Grammarly or another on-line grammar checker.

Once you get your feedback and edits, add a note of every single issue to your growing note file.  Trust me, you’ll want every one.  This might take time, but it’s worth it.

3. Now it’s time to compile.  Look at the notes you’ve built up over this process.  Put them into whatever kind of order is easiest on your brain.  I find it easiest to group common issues.  For example, my biggest problem is homonyms.  I have a three-page list of every single homonym that I or someone else has found in my books.   Also, once you have your issues in order, double-check and make sure that you know what is actually correct.  The word “lay” just about killed me.  Also, be sure that you have the correct correctness for your work.  I use the spelling “leaped” instead of “leapt” because they are arguably both correct but one is better suited to British and the 1800s.

When in doubt, Google it.  I found that searching things like “Laid vs lain” and reading grammar blogs was a quick and easy way to get the answers I needed.  Sure, the internet isn’t perfect, but the people on those blogs can’t help but correct things.

See, I told you the note file would be helpful.  Add notes to your notes with explanations if you thing you needed it, but don’t let it get too cluttered.

4. Now, take out your writing file and search the document for the first issue/problem-word on your list.  Even if you already fixed the error that caused you to put it on the list, there may have been more than one instance of it.  Then, continue down the list of issues.  I promise, this won’t take long once you get into the flow.  I can run through this step on a whole book in less than an hour now.  While you’re going, you might start to realize that there are even more issues that you can think of looking for, once you get a few tools to work with.  Keep adding issues until there is really nothing left.

5. Ok, now for the last step.  By now, you probably could recite your work by memory.  But, familiarity makes us blind.  So, it’s time for something extreme.  Try reading the work backwards: not as in reading sentences backwards (silly be would that) but read the last sentence, then the one before it, and so on.  Taking each sentence individually and out of context, I found loads of silly and embarrassing typo issues that I’d never seen before (like skipping an h in “where”), even with searching for known issues.  However, my books average 80,000 words each and this step took me over a month to complete one book.  As always, make a note of any common issues.

And voila!  One lump of English, edited to within an inch of it’s life.

Emma Taylor

I’ll bet, after all that, you’re thinking about only doing some of it and skipping the rest.  I sympathize.  But I developed this method after the first publication of my first book.  Not a good idea.  I thought I got it all the first time, but kept getting “hey, great story, but you miss-spelled this word…” in my comments.  Don’t do that.  It’s better to edit yourself silly than release something that’s just not done yet.  If you look carefully, you might notice that there is now a 2nd edition of my first book…  Now, it’s finally done.

So, do you wish you’d mortgaged the house and gone with the professional editor after all?  So do I!  When I realized that I’d have to do all of this again with my 2nd book, I felt a bit faint.  Don’t even talk to me about the other 10.  But, providence took mercy on me.  A family friend decided to start a professional editing business, and offered to give me the family-friend discount so that she could test her skills on my 2nd book.

And let me tell you, this girl is good!  Her name is Kelly Cozy, and she added more than a few thing to my issues list.  Luckily, I hadn’t used any of those words in the 1st book.  I checked.  She also changed her editing style on request, when I noticed that a lot of her edits were too focused on making it sound like modern writing.  Being a steampunk novel, I’m going for a little old-fashioned.

If you just can’t handle the self-flagellation of editing your own novel, then keep Kelly Cozy in mind.  She’s an author herself, and really knows her way around a comma.  As soon as her editing site goes live, I will let you know.

I hope some of this helps.  Please leave me a comment or suggestion of anything that you’ve tried in the past.  And remember, never edit while you write!  Put it off till you’re done, or you’ll never be finished with the book.

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7 thoughts on “Editing your own work… the horror…

  1. Great posting on what it takes to properly edit. I’m still in the beginning stages (second read through of a first draft) of my own editing, so this is a huge help! Thanks! :)

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