Can I edit my own writing?

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So, can you edit your own writing?

Sure you can, to a degree. You’ll make it a bit better. Leave as much time as possible between writing and editing, and you’ll benefit.

There’s a catch, though.

You knew what you meant when you were writing. You were making assumptions because, well, why wouldn’t you? You knew what you meant!

When you come to edit the text, you’re still in there – still seeing it from an insider’s point of view, still in the privileged position of knowing what you meant.

What about those readers who don’t live inside your head? Presumably that’s who your audience is: everyone apart from you, yourself. People who don’t have the right preconceptions, the right assumptions – you’re writing for them so you need to be clear and logical if you’re to get your message across accurately.

Don’t hire a copyeditor for your secret diary or for stories you write for your young relatives, or for your own pleasure. But if you’re intending to publish, your text needs a copyeditor. Depending on the circumstances, your publisher will provide one, or you’ll be expected to hire your own. If that fills you with dread – how do you know who to hire? – see my recent blog post: How do I hire a copyeditor or proofreader?

I do keep banging on about this, but I make no excuse for it. I see lots of training courses knocking around the internet that teach you how to edit and proofread your own writing in a couple of hours. It’s a fool’s errand. Doubtless they give you a few tricks to pick up bloopers and typos.

But they can’t move you outside your own head.

That’s where professional copyeditors and proofreaders live. If you’re writing for publication, then you can’t, realistically, do a good-enough job if you rely on yourself to edit and proofread your work.

Does it have to be a copyeditor?

Won’t a friend do?

Not unless your friend is a copyeditor.

Here’s what a professional, trained and experienced copyeditor brings.

  • First off, they’ve not seen the text before
  • they’re not inside your head
  • they’ve no memory of writing the text and
  • they’ve no assumptions about what you mean.

What a copyeditor does that you – or a friend – probably won’t

The copyeditor doesn’t just read through the writing, passively spotting things and fixing them.

No.

The copyeditor is a hunter:

  • We’ve built our own clean-up routines, to clear ropey typing and fat-fingered typos out of the way.
  • We’ll run analytical macros to harness the power of a computer to dig out things the human eye is less likely to notice faster than we’d manage on our own.
  • We review the reports from those macros to make decisions about preferences for spelling, hyphenation and so on, but we check variances against a dictionary, to keep you from travelling too far from standard English (big assumption here, but in my world of scholarly humanities and social science, standard English is what we want – other fields, and fiction, may well differ).
  • We’ll test the file for things like unmatched parentheses and brackets, hyphens instead of minus signs, or instead of en rules.
  • We’ll check for common misspellings, changing John Hopkins to Johns Hopkins, MacMillan to Macmillan, Guildford to Guilford, Benjamin to Benjamins, Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux to Farrar, Straus and Giroux, and that’s just a few publishers’ names. There’s plenty more.
  • We’ll actually test whether there’s an L in ‘public’, an F in ‘shift’, an O in ‘count’.
  • We’ll actually test whether you have ‘bare’ and bear’ the right way round, and ‘principle’ and ‘principal’ ditto.
  • We’ll verify the references and links by looking up each and every one.
  • We’ll check citations by comparing them against the edited references list, and we’ll ensure the formatting and styling is correct, that the page number fits within the range for the article or chapter and so on.
  • We check your headings are structured logically, and are formatted appropriately.
  • We check your tables and figures work with the text and are suitable for printing.
  • And then we’ll read the text. Forensically. Slowly.
  • We’ll fix what we can, and come to you for things we can’t.
  • We’ll make the changes.
  • And then we check it all again to make sure we’ve not made fat-fingered typos ourselves. We’re human; it happens. We try never to let them out into the world.

An acquaintance couldn’t understand why I was still working on a book three weeks after I’d started it. Surely, he opined, you just flip through it and see if it looks OK. It certainly didn’t take him that long to read a book! Friends, I facepalmed.

Surely I can do my own proofreading?

A lot of publishers will say you can, to keep costs down. I say you can’t, if you want a quality product.

The reasoning is the same. The copyeditor has spent anything between two weeks and two months on your book – shorter and longer texts will fall outside that range, but the range is typical for most books.

That copyeditor is now inside your head, and has been over the text many times.

They’re getting into your position – an over-familiarity with the text that means the human brain starts to rely on memory and expectation, rather than the pixels right there in front of your eyes.

Along comes a proofreader, fresh to the text. And they’ll find stuff. Some of it will be small potatoes. Some of it may be anything but.

True, once you and your book have been kept apart for a few weeks by the publishing process (and do, please, keep away from your text as much as possible during this phase, if you know you’re going to be required to do your own proofreading).

When you get the page proofs, it will look different – it’ll sit on the page differently, it’s been copyedited of course, and so there are plenty of small changes and probably a few more substantial ones – or a lot of substantial ones, let’s be honest.

The distance of time, and the change in appearance will definitely help you to approach the text afresh.

But they won’t hand you the skills, tools and experience of a trained, professional proofreader.

If you’re publishing, you’ll have to do your own proofreading, if that’s what the publisher dictates – although there’s nothing, I guess, to stop you hiring a proofreader yourself.

If you’re self-publishing, don’t be tempted to cut corners. It will show – and you probably won’t be able to see it for yourself.

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