Thursday, July 12, 2012

The Secret of Successful Self-Editing

At long last, after much chattering and discussion and random interruptions, we reach what you really want to know: the secret of self-editing that works.

This secret applies to fiction and non-fiction, to school essays and independent work, when ghostwriting under NDAs and writing under your own name—though it applies a bit differently under some of those, but we'll get to that. (NDA = Non-Disclosure Agreement, by the way.)

Honestly, it's not exactly a secret. You probably do this already, without realizing it. I've even hinted at it before.

What's the secret to successful self-editing?

Beta readers.

I hear some of you chuckling or snorting in amusement, but others are surely startled. How is it self-editing if you have beta readers? …And, um, if you're not legally allowed to have someone else know that you wrote something—as when you work under a NDA—how can you have it beta read?

First, you might remember my post on how to find beta readers. (If you're new or missed that one, well, there's the link.) In the "Warning" section, I brought up something important:

You have to find the beta reader(s) that fit your needs.

Now, what are your needs? That'll depend on you.

Is your weakness grammar? Ask around, try to find someone who both knows what they're doing and can actually do it.

Maybe you need language translation. Ask folks you know; see if you can find some native speakers to translate. Play online games? Ask guildmates. Hang out on a forum or at a coffee shop? Ask around. You might be surprised by the people you know.

Me? The rules for commas, for semicolons, for em dashes, for en dashes, for suspension points—I know all that. Sure, I'm naturally blind to my own mistakes, but there are tricks to help with that. (We'll get into those in a later post, but for now, here's an article I wrote a few years ago, geared for freelance article writing.)

One thing I always I need on early drafts is content comments. Easily confused readers are particularly handy for me as beta readers, because I don't think with transitions. Because I don't think with transitions—seriously, I confuse myself sometimes—I have trouble writing with them, and I've found that easily confused readers are fantastic for stumbling over spots where I omitted a transition.

In fact, I recently wrote a novelette that I knew had problems. It was a transition-less mess that assumed the reader was already familiar the world it was set in, and I was pretty sure some of it was out of order. I intentionally found a beta reader unfamiliar with the series or even with me as a writer, someone who would hack my story into puzzle pieces for me. (I've spent well over 2 hours on the content of those original 6.9k words, stitching it back up and plying it like taffy for the resultant story of 8.8k words. That's about 2k words I added, mostly in transitions. I did say it was a mess.)

Now, what if I'd handed that mess to a proofreader-type beta reader? That person might've found a few details, and he might've said "I'm confused," but I may or may not have gotten the type of feedback I needed for what I knew needed to be done to fix that story into being what I'd originally intended it to be.

In short:

You must pick an appropriate beta reader for the type of editing you need for each story.

If you don't pick the proper type, you'll be wasting the time and effort of both you and your beta.

But even so, contrary to what some folks will tell you, having your story beta read by at least one person who's an copyeditor/proofreader type—particularly if you're already good with grammar, yourself—can actually warrant you a good edit. The problem is that you need to have some idea how to edit, yourself, to be able to identify when someone does as good a job as they say they can. I've encountered many an author who cheerfully had their books "cleaned up" by an editor that they think is amazing…until typo complaints come in, backed by proof. Or until readers complained about "poor editing" (meaning pacing, or structure, or plotting, or…something other than what the author had edited).

However, that issue remains regardless of whether you rely on free or paid content editing, line editing, proofreading, etc. You have to know what "good" is for that task, to recognize it when you see it.

Remember my post on reasons authors should dabble in cover design? One reason: Playing with the parts helps you learn what goes into a cover, and it helps you eye covers with an eye for what you want and what you don't want in your covers. Personally, I prefer covers that have text on top, if not also the bottom. But also, I want the text (not an image) on top, where the eye will be first. The cover for "Romeo & Jillian" violates that for me, but I also didn't design it. I bought it from Dara England's clearance bin for pre-made covers.

Thus why this series on self-editing has focused on what goes into editing, etc.—if you don't know, you won't be able to recognize good editing of the type you need if you see it.

And believe me, when you use beta readers, you need to know what you're dealing with and how to take their input, because otherwise, they might just screw your story up.

But when you pick ones that fit you, fit your story, ones you know how to work with… They can help make your story the best you can get it.

That's why some authors pay their beta readers: gratitude and acknowledgement for the time they spend helping—although some probably also pay because they can't return the favor and beta read for the person beta reading for them.

Now, what do you do in situations like school essays or writing with NDA agreements? How do you find a beta reader?

In those situations, you already have one: the teacher or client. In some situations, the teacher or client actually starts out acknowledging that the two of you will need a round of discussion to make sure the writing matches expectations on both their ends. In others, the client or teacher will expect you to somehow be telepathic and know what they want.

Either way, that's their choice for how they want to run their classrooms or business. If you dislike it, find another client or teacher.

Just like, in the more conventional sense, you can find another beta reader when you need one.

Do you rely on beta readers? Do you know what kind of editing your worst at? Do you know people who can help you with it?


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