The Editing Mentality
Proofreading and editing your work is hard. It’s a completely different skill set than simply reading and something that isn’t really taught. At least I wasn’t. So, what makes it such a different skill? I’m glad you asked.
To edit and proofread effectively you need to stop reading as you normally do. You need to examine it. There are different things that you need to be on the lookout for when you’re doing this. I like to break them up and focus on one thing at a time when I’m going over my work.
This brings us nicely onto the different types of proofreading. You can just as easily do all of them in a single pass of your work, but I like to focus on one particular task at a time.
Spelling, Grammar and Typos
You tend to subconsciously ignore the spelling and type errors in a piece that you’ve written, because your mind knows what you meant. You know what the sentence is trying to say and, when you read it, your minds fills in the gaps and does corrections on the fly. This is a habit that you need to break out of.
There really is only one way to do this and that is to look at each word individually to see if it’s the right one. With practice, I’ve found that I can do it quite easily while reading normally, but when I started I had to make a conscious attempt to do this. Reading things out loud and focusing on the word itself is quite helpful. Is that one word correct? That’s mostly why I do the different stages separately. Using this system “dog, fish, car, cat, drill and France” is a perfect sentence. We all know that it isn’t. But it does have good spelling, grammar and there aren’t any typos there. I’ve found, for me at least, trying to everything in one stage causes me to make more mistakes than if I split up the task. Once I’ve passed through the piece for this, I move on to the next thing.
Consistency and Goofs
There’s a lot involved in this one. Again, we, as the writers, are hampered by our extensive knowledge of what we meant. When I write a sentence I know what I mean. It doesn’t always come across that way in the writing, however. When I go back and read it I have a habit of glossing over the mistakes I made because I know what it should be. When I was editing my third book, my protagonist is living under an assumed identity for the first few chapters and the narration refers to them by their new name. Except for the few times when I called them by their original name. I passed though that book three times and didn’t pick up on it. I knew what I meant. Another writer had a look and saw it instantly.
I’ve heard a lot of different authors come up with tips at how to overcome this. The best one I’ve seen comes from Darren Shan. He will finish a draft of a book and then put it away for a year or two before coming back to it. When you start your editing you’re looking at it with a fresh mind and can pick up on these kinds of mistakes with a lot more ease than before. You don’t have to go to quite that extreme but I would thoroughly recommend putting your work away for a period of time before you go back and look at it again. While you’re waiting you can work on something else. Trust me, it really does help.
Structure and Story
The next stage is where you’ll check the structure of the piece. Does it flow? Does it read well? Things like this are really important in your finished product and make the difference between an okay book and a great one. All you have to do is read your work normally. Read it as a reader would. If you’ve taken a break in between writing and editing you should have enough distance to look upon it with the fresh eyes you need.
This one is actually quite easy to do physically, you simply read it. However, emotionally it’s the hardest stage. Fixing mistakes is easy. Admitting that there’s a fundamental flaw with your piece or that the story doesn’t work is much harder. We invest a lot of ourselves into our work and it’s difficult to look at it and point out the flaws of this nature. You will write entire chapters, or even books, that just don’t work. It happens. You just need to identify where and why it doesn’t work, and make the changes that you have to. Sometimes slightly altering a small part is all that’s needed. Sometimes you have to go back to the drawing board and redo the entire thing. It’s not a bad thing—the finished product will be better because of it. You’ll be a better writer because of it.
Proofreading and editing your work is one of the hardest skills to master. You will never be able to pick up on every mistake that’s in there. Even professionally edited and published books have errors in them. But it’s up to you to make sure that it’s as good as it can be. Keep going until you can literally go no further, then give it to someone else to pull it apart. The more eyes on your writing, the more chances those errors will be noticed.
© 2016 David Chitty
Available under the Thanet Writers Education Policy
David Chitty was born and raised in Thanet in the 90s. He devotes most of his energies to writing fantasy fiction novels.