Self-editing is a tricky business. You need to do it to better understand how you write and to create something others will want to read. But noticing the flaws in your own work is difficult. Here are some tricks you can use to improve your editing once you’ve mastered the fundamentals.
Use Physical Tricks to Avoid Skim Reading
Even when you mean to be focussed and attentive, your brain will find ways to skim over parts of what you’ve written. It’s a fundamental part of how we read that we learn to skim over things we already know or patterns in the text that we recognise. It makes you quicker as a reader, but as an editor it’s problematic.
To reduce the risk of missing something this way, use physical restrictions to focus on the words one at a time. Place a sheet of paper over the page that you’re reading, covering all the lines after the one you’re working on – that way your brain can’t skip far ahead. Try placing the tip of a pen on each word as you read it, so that you won’t miss one and are really focused on the details.
Go Backwards for Spellings
If spelling and punctuation are your weakness, or you’re focussed on them for your current draft, then consider going through the manuscript backwards a word at a time. This way you’ll be looking at the words in themselves, not as part of a sentence. It cuts down the risk that you brain will see what it thinks should be there, instead of what actually is.
Look at Blocks of Meaning
Consider your story in terms of blocks of meaning. Does each paragraph have a purpose within the scene? Does each sentence express a complete thought that contributes to the story?
Thinking in these terms reduces the risk of either using excess words that aren’t needed or under-explaining part of your meaning.
Check Character Voice
One of the best ways to make your characters stand out, both from each other and from those of other authors, is through their voices. This isn’t anything so crude as spelling out an accent. It’s the words they use, the length of their sentences, whether they use slang or jargon, the sorts of things they think to say, even their moments of silence.
It can be hard to get this right as you’re going along, skipping from one character to another in your head. So while editing, picking one character at a time and read through all of their dialogue. Look for what’s distinctive about how they talk, and if there isn’t anything then add it. Check that they talk the same way throughout, and that you haven’t reverted to using your voice for theirs. When you’ve done one character move on to the next, and the next, and so on.
Ask Awkward Questions
Look for the potential problems with your story, the awkward questions you don’t want readers to be asking. Why does he keep going when things are so tough? Why don’t those characters tell each other what they’re thinking? How did she know to go there? Isn’t it a weird coincidence that those two people were in the same place at once?
Then find answers to those questions and weave them in. Make motives and justifications clear. Wipe out coincidences through reasons. Make sure your readers never ask those questions.
As well as the logic of your plot, think about its emotional beats. What is the emotional tone of each scene and chapter – joyful, scary, exciting, romantic, etc. This isn’t just about the emotions that the characters are feeling. It’s about the emotions you’ll provoke in your readers.
Map out the emotional beats and look at the pattern. Is there plenty of variety? Does the tension level increase towards the end? Are there chances to recover between the peaks?
Once that’s done, consider adding or rearranging scenes to create a better emotional pace and rhythm.
If you can create a good emotional rhythm then people will be far readier to enjoy your book and to overlook other mistakes.