The Importance of Editing Yourself

Red PenIt’s probably right after you press Post, Upload, Publish or Send that the myriad of flaws in your writing are discovered. Suddenly, reality sets in, clouds part and you can see clearly. No matter how many times you might have glanced at your work, you missed a few things. Maybe more than a few things. Embarrassing gaffs. Amateur errors. But now, it’s out there.

Sure, you might be able to send a revision (unless it’s a pitch or an email to your boss), but that’s just as awful Andrew McCarthy’s reshoot wig at the end of Pretty in Pink. It calls way too much attention and it ain’t fooling anybody. Better decisions should have been made before you believed you were done.

Now humiliated, you start to kick yourself, bang head on desk because HOW ON EARTH DID YOU MISS THAT?!? But you did. And now it’s done. You sent out shoddy work. You are human. But that holds little consolation.

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I am the first to admit I suck at proofreading my own work (no doubt you’ll find at least one or two errors here). Perhaps most writers suffer the same fate. Our brains know the writing so well, it inserts missing words, corrects typos, and makes our eyes cross as we read the words crafted. But that doesn’t mean we should skip the proofing and editing processes–entrusting someone else to do the dirty work for us, or rest assured that few will mind or notice. One must persevere–and, more importantly, break bad habits.

Whether you are writing a business email, a stodgy report or the opus of your soul, taking the time to really read your work is something that seems to be lacking. It’s understandable to a degree. We run at a very fast pace. We count on Spelling/Grammar Check to catch our mistakes. But, even after decades at it, those “tools” still stink. Even if you’re an author who has set aside fun money to save up for a professional edit, doing that hard work yourself is key. Good writing comes down to craft, patience and responsibility. And you want to come off as a good writer before you send your work to anyone.

Even (or especially) for something short (a business email or professional text message), one should always, ALWAYS proofread before pressing Send. Double-check to whom you are sending it while you’re at it; Autofill is as dangerous as Autocorrect is annoying. Not only that, shepherd your words. Do they flow? Is the message clear? Are you assuming the reader will know what you are referring to, or do you state it? Concise clarity is the goal. Get to the point and make it shine. Then, think how it will sound if you’d have to read it on the witness stand. You heard me. Long ago, I had a boss who would drill that in for all correspondence, not because anything untoward was afoot but because writing can easily be misconstrued if it’s not put into context. Clarify the context, don’t overstate, don’t offer more than required, stick to the facts, be polite and exhibit professional etiquette. This kind of writing will get you that raise.

Writers are often told to “kill your darlings”. Bloggers need to skip the filler. There’s nothing worse than reading a post and, two paragraphs in, realizing the writer is trying to achieve a word count. Most of us visit a blog to be informed or entertained; we don’t want our time wasted by repetition or attempts at being clever. Respect your reader. Skip the filler.

When conquering longer works, such as that opus of your soul, editing and proofreading become quite the bugger. This is where your mind can really play tricks on you, filling in the blanks or making your eyes cross. I recommend the “pay as you go” method of editing. Go back to the beginning every so often and give it another read-through. How is the flow? What can be omitted? What needs flourish? Catching errors and repetitions, fleshing out details and characters help keep you on track and can guide you back to your original intent if you find yourself wandering off the mark.

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Writing is all about the rewriting. I’ve been fortunate to work with several “young” writers (those just starting out, no matter what their age), and have attempted to drill that adage into them. The hope is to alleviate the frustration they feel when getting edits and notes. What’s always surprising is when I get the revision back, and more errors of the same nature are made. That’s when I ask, “Have you read this out loud?”

If you are writing a 200+ page book, you might have fallen off your seat thinking of taking the time to read your book aloud. But you should. At some point, you need to stop being the writer and put yourself in the reader’s seat. How does it sound? How is the flow? Is that description clear? How is the plot developing? Is there still a plot? Keep in mind that not all readers consume a book in a few sittings. Many (like me) pick up and put down a book with long pauses (days, weeks) before returning to it because, as much as we enjoy the tome, we are super busy. Your writing should allow for that. Be generous to your readers in that way. If someone found your book with the first 30 pages missing, they should be able to piece together those absent aspects because of thorough writing. At the same time, you don’t want to over-explain things to a point where those who will take the time to finishing your writing in a sitting or two aren’t annoyed. That’s a fine line, and it’s where taking the time to vocalize your work helps immensely.

Writers cannot be so precious with our words that we don’t see the need for improvement before anyone else passes us a note. Sometimes, we are too close to the work to see what’s working, what’s not, what needs to be cut and what needs to be explored, and a trusted, outside eye is not only welcomed, but needed. But becoming your own editor first is a skill worth acquiring. Especially if you are an independent.

On occasion, I’ll meet a writer who believes their job is to “create”, and it’s an editor’s job to “shape”. Oh, golly. Where does one begin with that? It’s a wonderful fantasy to have, I suppose, but the days of an editor finding raw talent and polishing it into a stunning career is long gone. Even if you are fortunate enough to land a deal with a traditional publisher (congratulations!), you need to bring in solid, well-crafted work. Talent lies not just in the creativity, but in the skill to shape the work yourself.

It really isn’t that hard once you develop an editor’s eye. One of the exercises I give clients is to grab a book by a favorite author. Take any paragraph on any page and edit it. Make improvements to it. Trust me, it can be done, no matter how wonderful the writing. Try it right now. See? Not only is it easy, it’s kind of fun. And if you can do that for a superstar, you can certainly edit yourself.

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