Sunday, August 22, 2010

17 Editing Tips ... if You Absolutely HAVE to Do It Yourself

17 Editing Tips ... if You Absolutely HAVE to Do It Yourself

It is my opinion as both an experienced, professional editor and as a writer, that it’s a fool’s errand to attempt to edit your own work – particularly anything as important as a book manuscript. Self-editing is a lot like performing a medical procedure on yourself. It’s just not possible for any author to bring an objective, critical eye to his or her work. You’re too close to it and, understandably, protective of it. In the long run, it’s unlikely that you will be able to see all the intrinsic changes necessary to make your writing as good as it could be.

However, for those of you who remain unconvinced of the benefits of getting a professional on your team to elevate, enhance, and improve your writing, I offer the following tips for self-editing.

1.       Find the right synonyms. Buy the best thesaurus you can find. It helps if it has a “category” section that allows you to browse by large ideas. Read your work and look up synonyms wherever you feel a better word might more accurately describe your ideas. Be careful though: remember to match your words to your audience's level of sophistication. The last thing you want to do is turn your readers off with words that are overly complex.

2.       Be selective with your similes and metaphors. Use them sparingly, and try to be appropriate within the context of your descriptions. Sometimes too broad a metaphor (or too flashy a simile) can distract from the actual meaning of your message. Don’t mix metaphors by comparing something to a teapot only to compare it later to an automobile.

3.       Use positive language. Occasionally the word “not” is useful for emphasis. Most of the time, though, a sentence is stronger when it uses positive language; use your word processor to search for the word “not” and rewrite the sentence using other positive descriptives. Example: Rather than say, “He was not in the mood to work,” you might say, “Shawn’s lazy, contemplative mood led to lying around the house all weekend.”

4.       Write actions and use the active voice. Your writing will be clearer if you structure your sentences as subject-verb-object, which means it works best if you employ action rather than describing situations. Use your word processor to search for words ending in “-ed” – if this word is preceded by “is,” “was,” or similar verbs, the phrase would probably be better rewritten. Also check for instances of “there is” and “there are” and eliminate them as much as possible. Example: Rather than write, “After chasing the ball for an hour, the dog was tired,” you might write, “The tired dog collapsed in a heap after chasing the ball for an hour.”

5.       Check for verb tense consistency. This is a basic one, but a mistake almost everyone makes at one time or another. Make sure that your writing consistently uses the present tense or past the tense – or that if you switch tenses, you have a very good reason for doing so that is absolutely transparent to your reader. Confused tenses are another easy way to confuse your reader.

6.       Be consistent with your voice. Decide at the outset of your writing whether you will write in first person (I/we), second person (you), or third person (he/she/it/they). It’s essential that you maintain consistency in this aspect of your writing, and not switch back and forth – as this can seriously confuse your readers! An amazing number of people start out in one voice, and then inadvertently switch at some point.

7.       Use caution with commas. A comma followed by the word “but” is okay. Commas separating a list of things are okay. Commas setting off parenthetic expressions are okay. Other commas, however, need careful scrutiny — should it be a semicolon, a colon, an em-dash, or parentheses? If you’re still confused, go get the great book, Commas Are Our Friends, by Joe Devine.

8.       Reorder your words and sentences. Keep related words together – adjectives next to their nouns. The important words go at the end of the sentence; the important sentences go at the end of the paragraph. Avoid dangling modifiers, like “Taking a shortcut home from school, a giant boulder sprung up unexpectedly in Joe’s path.” Who was taking the shortcut, the boulder or Joe?

9.       Words have rhythm – notice it. Sometimes reading can be awkward due to the “bumpiness” of the accented syllables. You can avoid this by taking the time to mark up your document with the accented syllables and reword singsong-y passages or places with too many accented syllables on top of each other. Occasional alliteration and rhymes do work to punctuate your copy.

10.   Cut the cuties. If something sticks in your mind as being ever so clever, that’s probably a good sign that it's actually too cute for your readers.

11.   Watch for repetition. This may be something about which you need to consult an objective, third-party reader, as you may be too close to your work to notice it. From little things, like reusing an odd word more than a couple of times, to repeating descriptions and actual content . . . try to avoid repetition. Some authors use it as a literary device with great effect. However, if this is not a deliberate effort on your behalf – and you will know if it is! – all it does is exhaust, and perhaps turn off, your reader.

12.   Pay particular attention to your references. References require particular care. Keep a printed copy of your reference list and, while reading through your text, make sure each reference that appears in the text also is entered into your reference list. It is surprising how many references in otherwise excellent works are missing or contain inconsistent or incorrect details.

13.   Check the dictionary. Go through your document and look up in a dictionary any words where you aren’t 100 percent sure of their meaning. I’ve surprised myself a couple of times when I have used a word repeatedly only to one day look it up and find it has an utterly different meaning from what I'd been presuming.

14.   Always print and proofread a hard copy. Although we’re all very adept at using word processors for writing, it is virtually impossible for our eyes to catch everything on a computer screen that we notice when we’re reading printed materials. Make sure you print at least one version of your text for a hard copy read.

15.   Read in short sections. Avoid reading large sections in single sittings, as you will likely miss a lot by doing this. Rather, concentrate on a chapter or several pages at a time, so you can focus your attention. Otherwise, the writing that is so familiar to you stays familiar and you fail to notice new aspects that need attention.

16.   Read aloud. Read the text aloud, as your ear will find clumsy rhythms, repetitions, awkward and complex sentences, missing links, etc. that your eyes might easily skip over. Don't worry – no one's asking you to do this in front of other people. Surprisingly enough, even reclining on your sofa all alone, you can immediately catch awkward phrasings and words you may be using too frequently. 

17.   Perform a spell and grammar check. Finally, give the document the good old SpellCheck. Remember, though, that you cannot rely on it alone. A word that is spelled correctly might not be the correct word. The ones I often confuse are “your” and “you’re.” Since they are both correctly spelled, they will go unnoticed. Unfortunately, the GrammarCheck is wrong almost as often as it is right, so I’d forego that one in lieu of a living, breathing editor/proofer/grammarian.

It's simply impossible to proof and edit your own work as well as an impartial person who brings "new eyes" to your writing. If you find yourself needing to do so, whether it's because of cost or time considerations, here's hoping the above tips will help you.

This is Day 33 in the 60-Day Content Challenge. See you tomorrow for the next post!

Sign up today for Laura's next workshop, Want to Charge More? Start Writing! Or e-mail your editing, marketing, or design questions to Laura.

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