5 Essential Tips on Self-Editing from Catherine Ryan Hyde

While I’m in bed, sick as a Schnauzer, be-virused and ensnotified, and my brain seems to have gone on a journey somewhere far, far away, one of my favorite authors, Catherine Ryan Hyde, has kindly offered to Pay It Forward with a guest post.

Some Notes on Self-Editing
by Catherine Ryan Hyde

I’ll open with the words of cartoonist Joe Martin, creator of the Mr. Boffo comics—

“Pay attention to detail: the five most important words in business.”

If you’re wondering why that’s funny, you need some tips on finding flaws in your own manuscript.  And you probably need someone else to double-check your work.  But don’t feel bad, because we pretty much all do.

Years ago I was rereading a short story of mine, which contained the following line:

 “In the morning she photographed Vincent making coffee in his boxer shorts.” 

Now, I had already read that line dozens of times.  And nothing had struck me as out of place.  But on that last reading, something broke through.  It was…laughter.  I began to laugh uncontrollably.  Real hurt-your-ribs kind of stuff.  And I said, out loud (when able), “Why doesn’t Vincent just use a paper filter like everybody else?”

“In the morning she photographed Vincent in his boxer shorts, making coffee.” 

That’s what I had meant to say.

Unfortunately, you are the author.  And you know what you meant to say.  Ergo, you are the least qualified person on the planet to judge whether you are saying what you meant to say.

I have no magic bullet to remedy this special form of blindness.  If I did, I’d be a rich author, indeed.  But here are a few helpful hints.

1). Always use spellcheck but never rely on it.  Do an editing run-through dedicated to the errors spell-check won’t catch.  Look at every “through” and “though,” and pay special attention to “it’s” and its,” and…well…I could go on, but you get the idea.

 2). Try the proofreader’s trick of reading one sentence at a time, starting with the last one at the end of the page and working backwards.  It helps you not to get caught up in content when you mean to study form.

3). Create your own “search list.”  Pay close attention to the errors that are pointed out in your critique group, or by your beta readers.  If they note that you’ve misused a semi-colon or put your punctuation on the wrong side of the quote marks, make a list of these shaky areas.  Then open the manuscript file and do a series of computer searches.  Enter a semi-colon in the search field.  It will stop at each semi-colon, one at a time, allowing you to check its usage.  Then move on to search a quote mark followed by a comma or a period.  I guarantee you, your eye will miss instances of the error.  I guarantee you, the computer will not.

4). Read your work out loud, slowly, to a friend, or, better yet, have them read it to you.  No friends, or friends out of patience?  I know.  I empathize.  You’re a writer.  It comes with the territory.  Read it into a recording device.  Read slowly, and read it exactly as it appears on the page, pausing where there is a comma, not pausing where there is not.  See if it comes out the way you thought it would.

5). Give up and seek help.  No one ever said writing could be accomplished as a solo flight.  A helpful member of your critique group can be quietly enlisted.  You can arrange a trade.  You will do a great job editing his or her manuscript for obvious errors, and he or she will do a bang-up job on yours.  It’s just one of the many unwelcome truths in the life of an author: it really helps when the page is not fully memorized.

One of the best self-editing strategies you can develop is more an attitude than an actual technique.  Take pride in the cleanliness and correctness of your manuscript.  Imagine that you are preparing for a job interview, and that you want this job more than you’ve ever wanted a job in your life.  Prepare your manuscript the way you’d prepare yourself for that interview. 

The sneakers with the holes in the toes won’t do.

Maybe that seems unfair to you.  After all, it should be about whether or not you can do the job.  You’re qualified.  So why should your sneakers matter?

What if 200 fully qualified applicants show up to apply for one opening?  Then the choices boil down to more subjective factors.  And the applicant in the clean, un-holey shoes is showing better judgment, more desire for the job, and a good overall personal ethic.
But it’s up to you.  Just ask yourself how much you want this job and go from there.


Catherine Ryan Hyde’s latest novel is the fantastic JUMPSTART THE WORLD  which has been called one of the four best YA books of 2010 by the winner of the “Best Kidlit Book Blog,” award, There’s a Book by blogger "1st Daughter."

And if you’ve got a ms. ready for the editing process, you’re in luck—because Catherine is offering manuscript evaluations for a limited time. For a very reasonable fee, she will evaluate your first 30-50 pages and give suggestions for further self-editing. Contact her for details at ryanhyde@sbcglobal.net .  

Thanks Catherine!

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