So, you’ve just finished writing a brilliant chapter where your characters have been extra clever or have done something incredible, and you are completely fired up to charge into the next part of the story. Or, perhaps, you’ve completely finished the entire book, and you’re ready for the next challenge. With all due respect, my I humbly suggest that once “writing time” is over, “editing time” needs to follow fairly quickly. Invariably, as you were writing, your mind thought a word which didn’t actually come out of the pen or hit the keyboard. You used the wrong version of the word “poured” and were supposed to use “pored” instead. The sentence which sounded clear as a bell coming out of your head makes about as much sense as automatically translated Chinese (which doesn’t make a lot of sense, usually).
In order for you to truly feel pride in your work, you need to go back and edit it, and that is a complicated prospect. First, there are things you “mess up” that your brain has a very hard time actually recognizing, even if you read the same sentence fifteen times. You’re going to miss things. That begs the question, other than hiring an expensive external editor, what can you do, on your own, to polish your work? Well, here are a few ideas.
Learn the Rules
Lots of people have opinions about what is and is not acceptable in terms of grammar, spelling, composition, and flow. While standards in this day and age are quite flexible (think of the apologies and excuses in the signature blocks from cell phone e-mails), there are still standards. You don’t have to go digging around for the three hundred page style guide or hijack your daughter’s schoolbook to find these rules, either. There are a number of much smaller, commercially available alternatives. For example, one firm I know publishes laminated guides that are never more than four pages, regardless of the subject. I also know of another that “simplifies” English in terms of grammar, punctuation, meanings, spelling, and usage in about forty pages. These guides are out there, and if you are wondering when to use a dash and when to use single quotes, go check them out.
Read it Aloud
If what you’re writing can’t be easily read aloud, then that’s a problem. Now, it’s not like everything you write will be that way, but every so often, you’ll hit a sentence and go, “Man, that’s awkward. It’s a tongue-twister.” Well, your readers will probably think so, too. So, for example, I read aloud each chapter to my wife, and I warn her that I will stop at times to make quick notes or marks in the printed page or on the computer. Hopefully, you have someone tolerant and patient in your life who will listen. I am very ably blessed in this department.
Have it Read to You
Before the advent of modern computing, this would have been a difficult prospect. However, now, even a moderately powered computer can run software to turn your text into spoken word. The more popular commercial operating systems have this ability in a rudimentary way, but the voices are pretty clumsy and are very distracting. It is worth seeking out a program that allows you to buy voices that are highly sampled, natural sounding, and do a decent job with pronunciation. Expect to pay around $50 to $100, but given that many of these programs have the ability to convert a document into an MP3 file that you can listen to on any portable music player, the extra cash is completely worth it. You will be stunned by how many errors you find this way.
Read it in a Different Light
If you’re reading exclusively on a computer screen, then you’re not really seeing the work as it would appear on the printed page. There are a few print-on-demand outfits out there who will print a paper copy of your work. Plan on spending between $20 or $30 to get that done and shipped to your house for a book of about 400 pages. Also, “e-book” readers which can consume different file types are also useful tools. These are particularly good at allowing you to make use of periods of time where writing is impossible or impractical. If you can’t be writing, the next best thing to me is editing – reading what you’ve done and polishing it. (See “What I use” for more information.)
Give it to a Friend
You probably have a friend in that large group you’ve amassed on social networking websites who likes to read. They may not only like to read, they might be a truly ravenous reader. Or, perhaps, they are a comma crusader, a semi-colon slayer, or even a paragraph pundit. Somewhere, in your life, you may have someone who will read your work, give you an honest opinion, and may even point out mistakes you have made at a detail level. If you have someone like that, you’ve found a true friend and a true treasure. It takes a lot of courage for someone to tell you, “Yeah, I didn’t really understand why Sue would be the murderer.” It takes a degree of real self-confidence for someone to say, “That comma shouldn’t be there.” If you get that kind of feedback, be exceedingly grateful.