You’ve heard how expensive editing can be, but you’re hesitant to send your work out into the world without someone else’s eyes on it—someone other than your mom or well-meaning friend. You want an editor, but you don’t want to blow your budget on round after round of editing because there’s just so much to be done. Surely self-editing isn’t an option, so what’s an author to do?
What is self-editing?
No, this doesn’t mean you won’t need an editor (because here’s a secret: even editors have other editors review their writing). Think of it like checking your homework before you hand it in. A cleaner manuscript will ultimately cost you less in terms of editing; the more your editor has to find and clean up, the more there is to miss in the first place, which can mean further rounds of editing and multiple rounds of proofreading to catch what’s left after your revisions.
Come on, you’re thinking. If I knew what was wrong in my writing, I’d have fixed it the first time. Or the 500th time. How do I know what I haven’t caught?
That’s what I’m going to help you with in this column.
Self-editing is more than just re-reading
Self-editing is more than re-reading your manuscript over and over hoping something jumps out at you. You will always find another missing comma, misspelled word, or lack of capitalization. These are important to catch, but do you want your editor focusing on things you could fix yourself, or on things you don’t know how to fix? You want to feel like you’ve spent your money well. If 75% of the changes in your manuscript are duplicated words, changing character names, and other simple errors, you’re going to be annoyed with yourself.
Self-editing is an intense look at your own story to find not just the things that you’ll want to slap yourself for missing, but also making your own writing stronger. Each change will give your editor one less thing to try to help with. This means one less revision you need to make. As those add up, you’ll have a better finished product. You don’t want to get back an edited manuscript that requires so much revision and rewriting that it needs another round.
With that, I bring you my first tip: the Editor’s Mask.
The Editor’s Mask
No, it’s not part of a superhero costume—but if it makes you feel empowered as you improve your own work, then by all means, go for it! In reality, an editor’s mask is a piece of paper with a few slits cut in it. The restricted view lets you more easily isolate words and phrases as you go through a printed manuscript. (It has also done double-duty helping my ADHD-kiddo with her reading skills!)
Grab a 3.5″ index card (or other heavy paper), a ruler, a pencil, and a pair of scissors.
First, about 2/3 down the index card, you’ll make a long window. This one is for viewing phrases in isolation. It’s easiest to mark the edges of the window by making a margin with the ruler, leaving a 2.5” window. A little above the first window, I make a smaller one to isolate individual words or shorter phrases.
Then I make a similar long window at the top of the card, and another short one on the side. The one at the top keeps your place as you review, without blocking the context of the text you’ve already gone through. The one on the side is mostly helpful for smaller formats. See what works! You may find holding the card that orientation is simply easier.
Just like a superhero’s costume, this is your mask—feel free to customize it! For height I just use the pre-printed lines on the card, but if you print out your manuscript in a larger font you can make the windows as thick or thin as you want.
How to use it
Once you’ve marked where you want your windows, cut them out. The masks hide what you don’t want to see while letting through what’s important. In this case, that’s whatever you’re self-editing at the time: filter words, being verbs, gerunds or participle phrases, dialogue tags, etc..
Do you have some specific self-editing tools you want help working on? There’s a lot we can cover, so I’m open to suggestions! Stay tuned as we focus on or two at a time in future articles.
Susan is the mom of two kids and a furbaby/editorial assistant who knows the phrase “Let’s write!” means she gets to curl up on Mom’s bed and look out the window. Susan has been writing stories since she was first able to write, and she started editing in college when her studies and interests led down that path. You can find her on Twitter and Instagram.