If you choose to jump into editing your manuscript straight after you’ve written it, you won’t be able to spot all the mistakes. The problem is, you’re too close to the work. The memory of the prose structure is so fresh in your mind that you inadvertently jump to reading from memory while you’re reading from the page. Oh sure, you’ll catch plenty of mistakes, but you won’t catch anywhere near all of them. You also won’t effectively spot flaws in your plot, because you know it all off by heart. The only effective way to spot all your mistakes is with the eyes of a first-time reader. And you can achieve something close to that if you let the manuscript rest for a few months. Don’t read it, and don’t even think about it. Let yourself forget. Then, when you commence your editing, the story will seem fresh, and you will spot things you would otherwise have missed.
When editing your own work, chances are you don’t know everything there is to know about proper grammar. If your attitude is, “Ah, I’ve read so many novels, I’ve got an intuitive knowledge of what’s right and wrong,” you’re making a big mistake. I made this mistake with Ulterior. On retrospect, my grammar was still decent, and I didn’t make a mess of the thing, but having since read Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style, I realise that my first book could have been better polished. There is no excuse for not learning the craft. The fact is, if you don’t know what all the potiential mistakes are, then you won’t know when you’re making them.
It’s essential to get others to help you with your editing, because unless you are prepared to read through your manuscript fifty times, you will never spot everything. So get four or five persons to proof-read for you. Writer friends are best for this, because they will spot more flaws than the average joe, but make every interested party welcome. I allowed six persons to proof-read Chion. Two were aspiring writers, who made such a detailed analysis that I should call them editors. Another was a woman (who brought something different to the table, since I had a female lead character whom I wanted an opinion on). And the other three were non writers, each of which spotted many typos of the kind not spotted by a word processor (e.g. missing words, and wrong words such as “know” for “snow”). One person’s list of typos was never exactly the same as another’s, so all input was valuable.
When seeking help from others, you need to do it with the right frame of mind. When you finish a novel, it is so easy to believe you’ve written something wonderful and to expect that your peers will like it, too. The first problem is, you’re making it hard for anyone to give you honest criticism. And secondly, you’ll get your heart broken, if somebody dares to give you honest criticism. When I ask someone to proof-read, I always give them a little speech that makes it clear that the only reason I’m giving them the manuscript is so that they can tell me everything that’s wrong with it. And when one of them tells me, “I didn’t like chapter twelve. It was unrealistic. Nobody would ever do that,” I rejoice. Because everything that’s broken can be fixed. My only worry is that I won’t see everything that’s broken. I love to see lots of red-pen marks on a manuscript. They don’t scream, “You’re crap,” they scream, “Come fix me.” The time to seek praise for your work is when you’ve done everything you’re able to do and you’ve got the actual paperback in your hands. (Notice I said “praise for your work,” not “praise for yourself,” but that’s another story.)
On the flip-side, don’t let the fact that you’ve got outside help prevent you from personally reading over your manuscript several times. It’s not all about spotting mistakes; it’s about looking for ways to improve your prose. Restructure everything that reads awkwardly. Keep your eye out for opportunities to communicate with your reader more effectively. Polish, polish, polish.
My final proof-read is the most gruelling of all. I read the manuscript to myself whilst pressing a pen-lid onto each word. It forces me to read slowly and carefully. One of the biggest curses of writing is how hard it is to spot missing words like “the,” “a,” “of,” etc. When we read, we naturally skim past these minor details. There’s an old trick you can play on your friends where you write down a sentence that contains several instances of the word “of” and you ask them to count how many instances of the letter “F” they can spot. Almost always, the person will skip the “F”s in the word “of”. So, pressing a pen onto each word helps me catch these lapses in concentration caused by our naughty brains taking shortcuts.
7. Perfection -1
The sad truth is that even with all of the above, the chances are you’ll not discover every single error. I was fairly thorough when editing Ulterior four years ago. When the book came out, I kept track of every error reported by readers. There were six or seven in total. However, when I scrutinised the manuscript again recently, with a view to publishing a second edition, I found four or five more. The best advice I can give you is aim for perfection, but settle for a little less. Otherwise you will be re-reading your manuscript until doomsday.
That’s it. That’s what I do. It’s not a routine that anyone taught me. It’s my own, and I think it works pretty well.