Behind the cut are some thoughts on the importance of self-editing, as well as some suggestions about doing it effectively.
I’ve probably mentioned before that, prior to sending a story to a beta, an author should have been over it several times him or herself. In addition to editing for awkward sentence construction, logic lapses, OOC speech or actions by characters, unnecessary or missing words, pronoun confusion, and other things related to artistic or writing style issues, there may be mechanical problems (typos, misspellings and punctuation errors) that are going to detract from the story and create extra work for your beta. Most misspellings (except for homonym confusion) and punctuation errors will be flagged by your word processing program and should be easy to spot. As will any typos you make that aren’t actual words.
To someone like me, (who tweaks a story every time she rereads it even if it’s been years since it was posted and no one but me and my hard drive will ever see those tweaks – and yes, it’s weird, shut up!), it’s incomprehensible that someone would send a document off to a beta or a publisher without going over it several times to ensure that it’s in the best shape it can be.
By which I do not mean it will be perfect. Even the most detail-oriented, careful writer I’ve ever beta’d for actually had a typo once. I was very excited when I found it – LOL. In my case, I’m very aware of the most common typos that occur when my fingers are convinced they know what I meant to say, and I try to watch for them as I proofread. On the other hand, my brain knows what it thinks it put there, so that’s often what my eyes see.... And that’s often the case. Our eyes see what our brain is expecting to find there. Hence the need for extra eyes.
Speaking of betas... I know in my heart (and mind) that my work is a lot better when other eyes have gone over it. Not just to spot typos, but to point out logic lapses (stupid things – I haz them), unlikely actions, OOC words or behaviors, and stuff like that. You just do not see all that stuff when the story is fresh. (Hence my continual tweaking years after the fact.)
(I can think of at least three of my fics that are what they are because I had betas who said, basically, “this sucks. fix it.” But that’s a separate beta service – to tell you when you’re sucking. Not one everyone wants. :-) )
Now, I freely admit that finding a good beta is not easy. Nor is keeping one. People’s lives and interests change, as do their time commitments. And writers are impatient people. It’s hard to find someone willing to be on call 24/7 every time you have valuable prose that must be polished and posted...NOW! So what can a poor, impatient writer do?
First, you can reread as you go, trying to catch things that could be worded better, more clearly, less wordily (I made it up, deal with it,), whatever. As you reread, looking for things you could have done better, you will notice the occasional typo and can fix it on the spot. How often you reread a piece will depend upon how much time you have and how you felt about it when you were finished. I find if I like what I’m working on and it’s flowing well, I’ll find less to criticize when I reread it right away. And, often, if I come back to that piece I liked so much after a decent amount of time has passed, I’ll find all kinds of things I’d like to have done differently. Time is your friend – except when you have a deadline and it becomes your enemy....
Ideally, we would all be perfectly patient and would allow a newly written chapter or story to sit for a week or so before we go back to reread it. Rereading for both content and mechanics after your brain has stopped thinking about the piece is probably the best way for self-editing and proofreading to have a chance at doing as good a job as a beta. First you read for content, evaluating your priceless prose for those places where perhaps a rather low price could actually be set for it... And then you proofread it. Watching for those flags from your word processing system (if you haven’t already caught them all during the course of your several reviews of the piece).
With fanfic, where your “editors” are your unpaid and long-suffering friends, it’s just common courtesy to send them your best efforts. Don’t expect your beta to happily correct the same mistakes over and over when she’s already explained several times how to do something correctly. Not unless you and she have an understanding about what you can and cannot do on your own for some good reason (non-native English-speaker, dyslexic, etc).
Now, what if we aren’t talking about fan fic? What if we’re talking about something you plan to submit to a publishing house? Or to publish yourself?
With original fiction, IMHO, it is even more important that you present a well-polished product. After working as a copy editor for some time now, I am sad to say that is not always what happens. I’m sure it works differently at different companies, but I’m pretty amazed at how much stuff that is full of mistakes gets submitted and accepted. Mistakes that a word processing program should/would have flagged for the author. Really. Amazing. Never mind the stories written by people who apparently haven’t cracked a grammar book since elementary school....
But I digress.... sort of, but not really. Because, I wanted to address the theme of this post to those fanfic authors who are working upon becoming published authors of original fiction, or who may even already be so. The fact that a genre publishing company liked your story enough to want to publish it, and the fact that someone is being paid to edit it so that it is pleasant to read, does not mean that you are no longer under any obligation to present the best work you can present.
That means, at a minimum, you do whatever research is necessary for your story, geographical details, dialogue, character actions, etc. to ring true for the situation and area. Anything else is laziness. (And, as a side note, whatever you may think you have learned from TV or movies does not constitute actual research. Just saying...) And that you do your best to catch your own logic lapses and fix them before submitting the story.
Let. It. Sit. Give your brain some time to think about other things. Then come back to it and read it again. I’ll be amazed if you don’t find, at a minimum, words to tweak – and more likely, whole sentences that make you go “what the hell was I thinking here?” Not to mention finding a missing or too-often-repeated word here and there.
If this is a submission, and you are not an established author with that house, you need to be presenting the best, cleanest product you can. Some places will take anything they think constitutes a story that could please their readers, and then turn it over to the editing department to make it readable. However, for every house that is that accommodating, there are probably a dozen who won’t even consider reading a submission that has serious mechanical problems in the first several pages. You may have a wonderful story, but if you can’t get anyone at the publishing house to read past the first few pages, no one is ever going to see it.
If you are an established author with that house, with a known track record of pleasing readers and a fan base, you might get away with submitting something that needs a lot of work; however, that doesn’t mean you aren’t going to have to do the work. The editor(s) will do what they can to fix your mechanics, but your too-frequently-repeated words and phrases, awkward sentences, poor word choices, unlikely scenarios, geographical mistakes, logic lapses and developing plot holes are going to come right back to you to fix. How much better it would be for all concerned if those things never made it off your screen?
BTW – in many ways, all of the above constitute mechanics of writing. Not just punctuation and grammar, but sentence structure, word choices, logic lapses, plot holes and such are all mechanical things that you can learn to do correctly. The artistry that makes one author so much more entertaining and affecting than another really is not something that can be taught. That flair for writing is a gift and we don’t all have it. Alas.
To be a good storyteller is also a gift – but a wasted one if the story is being told so poorly that no one wants to read it. On the other hand, if it’s a good story and well-presented, it’s going to find readers. Maybe no Pulitzers or Edgars or Hugos, but plenty of readers. And isn’t that what everyone wants? People to read and enjoy our work?
ETA: rahirah has reminded me that when we see our work in different formats, things will jump out at us, even though we are sure there's nothing there to jump! That's why we so often get caught having posted something that we would swear had no errors left in it, only to find several when we see it on line. Her solution, and an excellent one it is, is to change up the margins, fonts, font sizes on her document so that it looks different. Do that, and your typos will sit up and wave at you. :)