Editing is hard work for every writer. Being able to objectively critique something that has come out of your own head is a skill you have to develop over time. You need the honesty to admit when a line isn’t working, and the confidence to know when you've truly improved it. If you’ve spent hundreds or even thousands of hours staring at the same project, it’s easy to gloss over clumsy, awkward or misleading sentences that another reader might be able to identify straight away.
Luckily for you, I've compiled seven easy ways to trick your brain into seeing your manuscript as a brand new piece.
1) Leave it alone. No, really. The urge to crack on with editing as soon as you’ve written the words THE END is about as tempting as the first knife-cut into a birthday cake. But half of those words are going to be so fresh in your mind that you won’t have a hope of distinguishing the good from the bad. The best thing you can do before tackling edits is to put the novel away and forget about it for a few weeks or months. Work on another project to refresh your brain, or get lost reading a few new books. You’ll feel much calmer – and more objective – about the novel when you’ve forgotten all about it.
2) Change the font and formatting. Sounds simple, but it can make a huge difference. Change the font to something drastically different, ideally from a serif font to a sans-serif font, or vice-versa. Make the point size a little bigger and widen the line spacing as well. Now the book you have to edit looks drastically different to the ugly creation you cobbled together three months ago. It’s almost like you’re editing someone else’s work, now. Just don’t forget to change the font back to something sensible before you submit the final draft!
3) Print it out. Admittedly not for everyone, especially if you don’t have a printer and don’t fancy paying to have it printed. But if feasible, reading on paper as opposed to a screen will change the way your brain processes the information. Scientists suggest that people may read more slowly and retain more information when reading on paper as opposed to a screen. Plus, you can scribble on it, make notes and generally pick it to pieces in an old-school way with a red pen. Or green, if you want to be kind to yourself.
4) Read it aloud. This works especially well for dialogue, but really, it’s a great idea to do this with an entire novel. Pay attention to the commas and full stops in your writing. If something doesn’t sound right when you read it aloud, your punctuation may be giving the reader incorrect cues, which can affect understanding, meaning and general enjoyment.
5) Read it on an e-reader. If you read a lot of books on a Kindle or e-reader, this is a brilliant (and cheap) method of tricking your brain into treating your work-in-progress like a “real” book. It’ll also give you a great idea of how visually “large” your paragraphs are. If you’re seeing pages and pages of text without line breaks or indentations, that’s your cue to break up the narration. Compare to another ebook you enjoyed – what does your ratio of dialogue to narration look like, and roughly how much white space have you got?
6) Use a text-to-speech programme. This also works with the text-to-speech tool on Kindle. The intonation leaves a lot to to be desired, but if there’s an extra word or a word missing, having the story read aloud to you is the easiest way to listen out for it. Wait... “a lot to to be desired?” Yep – precisely the sort of thing text-to-speech is great at catching!
7) Ask a beta-reader. It’s time to take the plunge. Find a willing beta-reader, otherwise known as a guinea pig, to read the thing for you. Absolutely nothing will compare to a real, live human being telling you, ‘I don’t understand what this sentence is trying to say’. Ideally you should wait until your book is as polished as it can be, in order to give your beta-readers the most authentic reading experience possible. Remember: you already understand the intricacies of your narrative. What makes sense in your head may not necessarily make sense to someone unfamiliar with the story. Precisely why beta-readers are an invaluable tool. Just remember to repay the favour!
These steps may seem like a lot of work, and there’s absolutely no need to follow through on all of them. (I for one will not be printing out four-hundred pages of double-spaced fiction any time soon. Don’t look at me like that. I'm being environmentally friendly!) However each one that you do try is sure to help. The more edits you go through, the stronger, and ultimately more enjoyable, your novel will be. Happy editing!