Tips for Self-Editing

Writing, no matter what niche or genre you're working within, can be as frustrating as it is fulfilling.

My editing portfolio spans quite a few writing styles and niches - blog posts, articles, business proposals and guides, portfolios, academic essays and introductions, short stories, story collections, non-fiction e-books, recipes, novels. I don't limit myself too much and I've found that being up front with the client and finding out what they really need is a large part of making a collaboration successful.

But, I'm first and foremost a writer. Sometimes that means content writing for clients, other times it means I sit down and let a story pour out of my ears. At this point, I've come to believe that I work so well with clients because I understand the struggle of self-editing and not wanting to admit that maybe we need some outside help.

Common Fears that Hold Writers Back

There are a couple of reasons writers don't want to seek out an editor or even a beta reader, but these are some of the most common I've come across:

  • Wanting the work, whatever it is, to be entirely theirs. Meaning no eyes have seen it nor voices changed it until it is "finished" ( it ever, really?).

  • They're insecure about what they're writing about. This can be genre specific (a lot of fantasy writers try to over-explain their story instead of just believing that it has potential), or it can be because the topic is particularly personal (a lot of memoir clients feel this way) or it can just be in a very unfinished state, and they're embarrassed that they're seeking help so early on.

  • They don't want to pay someone they don't know, especially a freelancer, if they can't figure out exactly what kind of quality work they're getting.

I get it. I've been this way as long as I've been a writer and have resisted using every one of those reasons to justify keeping a story to myself, but then the story never really moves forward. Or if it does, it's literally a year later after I haven't touched it at all.

I only started hiring beta readers this past year and I struggled at first with what was an appropriate fee and what exactly I was offering them. But I can tell you that 3/4 of the time they went above and beyond and I ended up giving them bonuses for how thorough and thoughtful their work was. It made a huge difference and invigorated me into diving right back into the story.

Because I have a writing background and not just an editing background, when I edit or make an offer to edit someone's work, I'm very upfront about what they're getting. Here's my usual pitch:

A full edit from me includes grammar, punctuation, sentence structure, overall format, word repetition/choice, developmental suggestions, and a short write-up if desired of suggestions and what worked. I'm extremely communicative and have a pretty quick turn-around time that doesn't sacrifice quality of work. If you have any other questions, feel free to reach out. I'd be happy to discuss how I can meet your needs and what you're looking to gain from this project.

That underlined part - a short write-up - that is the most important thing I can offer a client.

I have a lot of repeat clients, and that feels amazing. They get to know me and what quality of work to expect, and I get to know them well enough to meet those expectations. But I'm most satisfied when a client doesn't come back.

That might seem counterintuitive but to me it's never losing a client. It's having given someone the tools (usually through that write-up) to approach self-editing a little more effectively.

Although I have a degree in English, most of my suggestions come from common sense (after taking a step far, far back) or personal experience. I also take into consideration very common mistakes or problems I see with the broad spectrum of clients I work with. So, I'm going to give you guys the talk that I usually give my clients - the write-up - because if you're not ready to jump into working collaboratively with other writers, you might as well utilize the tools you have at hand.

How to Self-Edit Effectively

1. Ditch the apps

Tech and how quickly it is evolving is great. I could easily argue that spell checkers and auto correct are making people more stupid, or that physical books are better than carrying around a Kindle, but when it comes down to it, we're always going to evolve. At one time people thought that women reading books was going to ruin them. Or that rock music would corrupt teenagers. So complaining about advancement is pointless and often misinformed.

But as convenient as things are these days, when you edit, I suggest staying away from the apps.

That means resisting the urge to download Grammarly, no matter how many commercials you see for it. Grammarly is the app I see most commonly mentioned. Some clients specifically ask for their editors to use Grammarly because they believe it is more efficient and catches more errors.

It doesn't.

Actually, I've caught errors that Grammarly makes. Even Word's system will suggest incorrect grammatical changes.

The best thing you can do is just go through your text carefully, by eye, and catch those mistakes yourself. Relying on tech for this is just as inaccurate as relying on someone who doesn't know basic grammar, as many of the mistakes are silly and not the more complex (Oxford comma, or no Oxford comma?) ones out there.

Which brings me to my next point.

2. Take some time away

This means stop looking at your story every single day.

A lot of writers - a lot of really famous and successful writers - will talk about how important routine is. Sitting down and doing the work every day. That's not what I'm arguing against - you know that saying, You can't see the forest through the trees? If you're standing knee-deep in your story every day you're not going to catch the inconsistencies in plot or see where characters are lacking in depth. You just know them too well, at that point.

Sometimes stepping away can look like taking two days to work on a separate project. Writing a few poems or outlining another story.

Sometimes it can look like stepping away for three months.

I've done both, and while it's frustrating not to be churning out a story non-stop (because that's what all writers do, isn't it?), in the long run stepping away is very helpful.

In some cases, I needed to experience something in real life to know what was going to happen next in the story. In others, I just needed a break from the characters so that when I read them again, I could ask myself, "Okay, but why is he like this?" Maybe in my head I know why, even if I haven't consciously thought it, but most of the time a writer knowing something can result in the story lacking in areas and leaving the reader confused. And almost all of the time, I come back and catch a handful of small grammatical errors that I got so used to looking at, I missed completely on a dozen read-throughs.

So come back with fresh eyes and see if anything changes for you. You might return with new ideas or just have a slightly different perspective, because you've been standing next to that character the whole time you were writing but now you're coming up behind them and you can see how two-dimensional they are.

Stepping away, either briefly or for longer stretches of time, is a way to flag what is working or not working. This is what you would usually get out of a beta reader - finding the missing pieces.

3. Deep-Dives

A suggestion similar to the above step, but my suggestion for deep-dives is to do them at least once a year. Maybe twice a year.

By genre, if you write in more than one genre. At least that's how I approach a deep dive.

I pick a day and spend a few hours going through the stories or poems that have just been sitting in a folder. Something might catch my eye; I might pick a story back up. I could just cringe and delete a piece that I'm absolutely sure, now, is not going anywhere.

It's just general housekeeping, but a lot of writers let things sit for ages and ages. Try to be at least somewhat organized so that when you do sit down to do the work, you're doing the work, not sorting through old files and procrastinating.

(Side note: the cool part of doing deep dives is seeing how far you've come as a writer.)

4. Read out loud

This is the one that everyone hates and rolls their eyes at.

I know it sounds ridiculous - the first time it was suggested to me, in middle school, I thought to myself There is absolutely no way I'm going to read an essay on Moby Dick out loud to myself.

But once you get past how absurd the idea sounds, you'll realize it's actually very helpful.

Unless you have a very specific writing style, reading a piece out loud will help you identify the clunky areas that might slow readers down. Sentences that need to be worded differently, words that almost sound right but aren't, run-ons that are too hard to understand - you'll catch it all if you read out loud.

This doesn't mean you need to pace your room like you're putting on a Shakespeare adaptation. I usually read out loud when my dog is in the room, because it somehow seems less ridiculous. And when I do, I can catch not only the pieces that don't fit right, but the higher end of language that we love as writers; alliteration, assonance, bits of humor.

Many people were probably told at some point during their education to read their writing out loud. They also probably promptly ignored it. (Perfect example - if I read this blog post out loud, I'll see that the last sentence there sounds clunky. But I'm feeling lazy.)

I'm reiterating it, right now. Read out loud. Don't just power through it. Read it naturally, the way you would read to a friend, a niece, a child, and make notes as you go. You'll be surprised how many things you catch along the way.

These are the basics for getting out of a rut when you're self-editing.

It's easy to shy away from collaboration, and working with beta readers or editors isn't for everyone and isn't always necessary. But that doesn't mean you can't use the same tools they do to look at your story through a different lens.

Keep an eye out for future posts that get a little more in-depth with self-editing tips. Paying attention to info dumping, tropes, and developmental editing can be genre specific or just areas you struggle in as a writer. Whatever you're trying to get past, there's a way to do it; you just need to be open minded to trying new things instead of being stuck in the same place, on the same sentence, for weeks, months, or years.

Happy writing!

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