Self-Editing Your Manuscript: It’s All About Perspective

“To edit is to listen, above all; to hear past the emotional filters that distort the sound of our all too human words; and to then make choices rather than judgments. As we read our writing, how can we learn to hear ourselves better?”

— Susan Bell, The Artful Edit

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There are two common misconceptions about the relationship between writing and editing. The first is that the two must be kept completely separate. Writing is one job, and editing is another; the writer is one person, and the editor is another. The other is that they can be one and the same, and that authors can save time by editing as they write.

As with so many things in our lives, the sweet spot is right in the middle of the two extremes. While every author does need an outside editor, the author who can shoulder some of that editorial burden herself is better prepared to finish her manuscript in a creative, collaborative way with her editor. On the other hand, the writer who edits as she works—constantly undoing and redoing and tinkering—is likely to hand over a manuscript that sounds beautiful but says little. And she’s also likely to be frustrated and uncertain about her progress.

The key to finding that balance between over- and under-editing is to create enough distance between yourself and your work that you can come at it with an objective eye and a clear perspective.

As early as high school English class, we’ve all been taught that the best way to create that distance is to put a manuscript away for a few days—or even a few weeks—so we can come at it with a fresh eye when it’s time to edit. And that’s not bad advice, but it’s not the only way, either.

Here are three ways to distance yourself from your manuscript in order to approach it like an editor when the time comes.

1.   Stop Reading as You Write

Many authors are tempted to reread their writing every few pages—or every few paragraphs or even every few sentences—in order to refine as they go, making sure each word is perfectly chosen and each sentence flows beautifully into the next. (I’ve caught myself doing it half a dozen times just while writing this blog post.)

The danger, though, is that you’ll get so lost in the minutiae that you stop making progress and lose track of the overarching story or the true nature of your character. In cliché land, we call this “losing the forest for the trees.”

Instead, just write.

Without worrying what came before, allow your characters and your plot to develop without constant interruptions from the backspace key. You’ll find that you’re progressing much faster, and when you finally finish that draft and sit down to read, it will feel new. You’ll be able to discover the story you’ve written, recognizing what’s working and what isn’t on a macro level. You’ll be able to look at the manuscript through an editor’s eyes, having a conversation with yourself about how to better tell the full story.

If the temptation to scroll back up and reread what you just wrote is too great, try handwriting. Unlike polished-looking text in a Word document, pen and paper allow for mess, and they’ll encourage you to focus on writing rather than interacting with what you’ve just written.

2.   Read Your Work Out Loud

Way back in the day (think knights and round tables and The Odyssey), all editing happened out loud, on the fly. Travelling storytellers would borrow stories they’d heard from other travelling storytellers, modifying them slightly with each telling.

Granted, this was mostly because the printing press hadn’t been invented yet and storytellers relied on memory, but the bards were on to something. When we read our own work silently, we tend to skip over bits and pieces, reading what we think is there, rather than what’s really there. But when we read aloud, we don’t have that luxury, and our ears will pick up on things our eyes would have missed. We’ll catch inconsistencies, clunky prose, and static scenes that we might have glossed over otherwise.

So next time you pick up a draft to read, listen to it instead. If you find it disorienting to listen carefully as you read, try recording the reading and playing your book back you yourself, or ask a friend to read it to you.

(FYI, reading out loud is especially useful for dialogue-heavy work.)

3.   Find a Change of Scene

Have you ever wandered from your bedroom into the kitchen, realized you’d forgotten why you did, and given up, only to remember as soon as you made it back to your bedroom?

In some ways our ideas live in the spaces where they were generated, and the same is true for the stories we write. If you wrote your entire manuscript sitting at your desk, then as long as you’re sitting there, you’ll always see it in the same light. Just as it can change the way we think, a change of venue can change the way we interact with our manuscripts. When you’re ready to begin editing, take your draft somewhere else—a coffee shop, a friend’s house, the hotel room you’re staying in on your next business trip, or even just a different room in your home.

If a new location is unfeasible or uncomfortable, at least change the way you’re reading your work. Print the manuscript out and read the hard copy. Better yet, hang the pages on a bulletin board, clothesline, or a wall in your office so you can see them all next to each other as you read them standing up.

It may sound a little silly at first, but when you get those pages out of their comfort zone, they’ll start to feel less familiar, and you’ll be able to look at them more objectively.

As authors, our manuscripts are our babies. It’s never easy to study them from an unbiased perspective. But when we can learn to step back and give ourselves some distance, we become far more effective as self-editors.

What are your favorite strategies for gaining perspective on your own work?