March 18th, 2012
Four tips for better self-editing
By David Sheets
The life of a freelancer can be a lonely one, especially when it comes to editing one’s own work and trying to polish it until glowing. Hours, days, weeks spent on a project can infuse a sense of entitlement regarding the content, with every word in every line considered sacrosanct, and pruning too painful to contemplate. After all, these words came from a place deep within, we think to ourselves, and they are as much a part of us as our own skin and blood.
Which is why Thomas Wolfe said what he did: “Writing is easy. Just put a sheet of paper in the typewriter and start bleeding.”
But prune we must, for as Wolfe and other writers of his ilk knew it’s the editing that makes fair writing good and good writing great. Rare is the successful writer who commits an unalterable thought to print. Rarer still is the one who does it without embarrassing himself.
Trouble is, for freelancers, effective editing first requires a sense of detachment from the work so as to develop a crisp perspective attuned to bias and fault. And when it’s just us writing and nobody else is around with either the skill or patience to perform a quality edit, seeking that detachment can be difficult.
However, there are a few tricks available to put freelance writers in the frame of mind they need to get the job done:
Walk away — That’s right, walk away from the story for a while. Put it aside and go do something else — exercise, house chores, yard work, whatever — for 20 minutes to an hour, deadline permitting, and don’t even think about the story during that time, the notion being that separation helps the brain reorder its thinking regarding what it has digested repeatedly over a long period of time.
You see, our brains are capable of filling in gaps in logic and order, so that many of us can read this …
It dseno’t mttaer in waht oderr the lterets in a wrod are, the olny irpoamtnt tihng is taht the frsit and lsat ltteer be in the rhgit pclae. The rset can be a taotl mses and you can sitll raed it whoutit a pboerlm.
… with little trouble, when in fact the corrected jumble says this …
It doesn’t matter in what order the letters in a word are, the only important thing is that the first and last letter be in the right place. The rest can be a total mess and you can still read it without a problem.
Because of this trait, even seasoned editors misread once in a while. That’s why they pour over their work two, three, four times to make sure they see what the writer intended to say. And that’s why the best among them take short breaks between re-reads, or longer ones before tackling another editing project.
Change the background — After writing in a black-on-white writing environment on a word-processing program, change the program’s settings to alter the colors, transforming the background to, say, blue, and the type to yellow or pale green. This, too, fools the mind into believing it’s seeing something entirely new and organic. Altering the screen font and font size also has somewhat the same effect.
Read aloud — Eyes alone are not the tools we use for reading; we also “listen” to words as we read. However, during the writing process, either the eyes or ears take over and subsume the other half of our collective perspective. Then, upon reviewing what’s written, certain words don’t “sound” or look right, or the sentence context deviates from what we thought we were typing. Reading a story aloud in the editing process helps the mind both see and hear the gaps and inconsistencies that developed while we were busy trying to get the idea nailed down.
Read backward — In other words, read the story from the end to the beginning, going against the flow of the intended narrative. This practice works remarkably well for parsing the true meaning of sentences and whether they were constructed well enough to make sense in the first place. It’s also effective for fact-checking, as backward reading tends to bring out whether there’s too much or too little of something in the overall narrative.
David Sheets is a sports content editor at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and STLtoday.com, and president of SPJ’s St. Louis Pro chapter. Reach him by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org, on Twitter at @DKSheets, or on Facebook and LinkedIn.