How to self-edit by ignoring your manuscript
guest post by Adam Fenner
(reposted with permission from 13Thirty Books and with minor edits)
I am going to open this up by saying that my grammar is poor—at best. I think in run-on sentences, and I rely heavily on crutch words. What does this mean for me when it is time to edit? Pain and self-loathing. It wasn’t until I had completed my first manuscript, On Two Fronts (which, mind you, I thought was just fine the way it was) and was faced with my pre-agent barrage of edits, that I learned the true meaning of “writing is rewriting.”
My biggest problem upon reviewing and editing my own work is that I simply can’t see my own errors. I can’t even see them when I read aloud. But I have figured out a few tricks through trial and error and the advice of friends, namely Rick Taubold, my content editor.
The first and primary trick is to let your work settle. Step away from it and work on something else. The second trick is to return to it when you are ready and come at it with a fresh mind, almost as though you are looking at a different author’s work. I assure you if you do this, you will dive into your edits and be chastising yourself for the simple errors you committed.
I will put a caveat with this, however. When I wrote On Two Fronts, and then went back to re-edit it a year later, after my writing partner and I had finally given up on a traditional publisher, I was tempted to rewrite some things. Where you should carefully consider doing this is when you are producing a personal work or a non-fiction. I had to stop myself from censoring the younger me, and addressing the foolhardy thoughts of my youth, because that was me at that time, trapped in a neat little bubble. I grew up, but that kid never will. As a result, I simply made my line edits but never changed my voice from that time.
[PERSONAL NOTE FROM RICK TAUBOLD: When I wrote the first draft of my first novel, I had the main character, who was twenty-four, sounding somewhat younger and a bit less mature than perhaps he should have. I played around with revisions for several years before I finally settled down to write the final version. In the intervening years, my writing had matured and my voice had changed some. I found myself writing the character’s voice a bit differently, and I had to be sure to carry that different voice all the way through. Unlike Adam’s work, mine was fiction, so it didn’t matter (and the novel was better for the changes). Adam wisely resisted temptation and made the right decision for his book.]
The second trick is to read your work aloud as it is written. I find this difficult because I naturally fill in the blanks, and after attempting this with my 115,000-word fantasy novel, I decided I’d just suffer through Rick’s wrath, following my reading of 10,000 words aloud. But this is still important and I need to have a little more discipline about it. What you will find, as you attempt this technique, is you will read it aloud and then you will make a disgusted face because you can’t believe you placed a comma there, or you ran out of breath on a ten-line run-on sentence.
Remember that no matter how hard and how well you edit, it will never be perfect, and nothing works as well as a fresh set of eyes. Dig deep into your pool of resources to find those grammar-Nazi friends, or a mom who loves to read, or maybe a friend who just likes to point out all the things you do wrong, and have them go over it. There is nothing fun about editing. No one likes it, but it is a necessary evil. It is also the type of thing that, when done properly, no one will notice, but when done poorly will draw the attention of everyone.