Avoid Mistakes When Editing Your Own Work – Part 1

HoHEvery writer should make an effort to edit their own work. It doesn’t matter what skill level the writer has – self editing is a crucial part of the writing process because not only does it allow the writer to understand their writing on many levels, as well as style and voice, but it also helps them to recognise those common editorial mistakes. Learning to edit, even on a beginner’s scale, empowers the writer; and that’s always a good thing.
It’s no secret that good writers know how to self-edit. To gain an understanding of how to self-edit takes time, because the process of writing is a learning process – the more we write, the more we understand our writing and how it works, but there are a number of errors writers make when they try to self-edit, so here are some of the most common writers should look for:
Don’t Edit As You Go
This isn’t a rule. It’s tried and tested advice, which works. Yes, there will be writers who are adamant that this works for them, but in almost 35 years of writing, I haven’t seen it work.
If you edit as you write, you’ll make some obvious (and not so obvious) fundamental mistakes in continuity, consistency, plotting and formatting. For instance, what happens in chapter 13 could have a bearing in chapter 35, but if you’ve already edited everything up to then, you may find yourself in a spot of bother and you may have to back track your entire story and rewrite because you’ve created a huge plot flaw. There may be a clue in chapter 40 that you didn’t tell the reader about in chapter 17, because it’s already been edited. Not only that, but the chronology of the story could be affected if you mess about and edit constantly without finishing the draft first and taking a step back to analyse it before you begin editing properly.
These are big beginner’s mistakes. Characters act and react to situations that we put them in. We throw problems and dilemmas at them, and sub plots are written around the main story arc, which means the story changes organically – so how would you incorporate all this if you edit as you go?  The simple answer is you don’t. As writers, we can’t know exactly how the story will go until we write it, which is why the first draft is the working copy. It’s there to tweak, cut, add, stretch and do as we please. More importantly, any flaws and plot holes will jump out and slap you in the face when you read it through from start to finish.
If you edit as you go, you won’t see any of these mistakes.
There is nothing wrong in going over the last chapter you wrote each time you return to the story after a break, just to get you back into focus and to make some notes. Almost all writers do this, but what they don’t do is go back to the beginning and edit, or go back five chapters and edit etc.  
Time Out
Many new writers don’t do this, yet it is a crucial step for editing your work. The time out means that after that first working draft has been completed, it should be set aside and left for a few weeks at least. This allows the mind to reset. Writers spend months writing their novels and they become heavily invested in the story and the characters, so in order to avoid ‘seeing the wood for the trees’ (i.e. miss obvious mistakes), it’s best to rest and take as long a break as needed away from the story and to disconnect.
Time away from the novel makes it easier for writers to spot errors, flaws and plot holes when they return to it.  That’s because they’ll look at the manuscript with fresh eyes and a rested, open mind.
Read Through
Beginners often don’t do this and just jump into editing. The precursor to editing is always the read-through. Why?  Because the writer must understand how the story reads, from start to finish. They must read it in the same way as they would if reading someone else’s novel, so they can see the flow of the story, the pace, the character dynamics, the subplots and the themes and so on. They can see if the story actually makes any sense or is complete nonsense.
Writers should make notes as they read through. They can do this on the manuscript if it has been printed, or they might make separate notes with page numbers and chapter references, for example, ‘Chapter 4, page 25, para 9: Repetition of the words stairs/balcony’.  Writers can be as liberal or as thorough as they like with their notes, or how they do it. Each writer has their own approach.
When the read through is complete, the writer will see just how many things stand out. The things to look out for include a good story that flows well, complete with themes and good characterisation, continuity errors, inconsistencies, plot flaws, well written sub plots (or lack thereof), punctuation and grammar, correctly formatted dialogue, use of adverbs and adjectives, use of passive sentences, wordiness and repetition of well-worn phrases or words. There are many more, but these should stand out.
When the read through is done, take time out once again, because the next important stage is actual editing and redrafting, which we’ll look at in Part 2.
Next week: Avoid Mistakes When Editing Your Own Work – Part 2


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