Earlier, we established that you need an editor to check your work before you make it public. One reason is that a fresh pair of eyes will catch errors you miss; you’re so familiar with the work that your brain will “see” what’s supposed to be there, even if it’s missing. Another reason to use an editor is that this professional will catch flaws in logic or the flow of your argument and will point out steps you’ve missed.
An editor also usually knows more about correct grammar and expression than you. You want to communicate clearly to readers, and correct grammar is understood by most English speakers no matter which regional or group variations of English they speak. It’s the great equalizer.
So if possible, you will want to hire an editor before you publish your work. However, sometimes it really isn’t possible, for financial or other reasons, so you must edit your own document. Here are a few tips to help you avoid some of the pitfalls.
REMOVE THE FAMILIARITY
Leave the Work for a While
An editor usually provides “fresh eyes,” without prior knowledge or assumptions. But you can approximate your own “fresh eyes” by setting the work aside for at least a few hours or, preferably, for six months. All right, maybe six months is an exaggeration – but not by much.
While writing, you are immersed in the work; the information is in your mind, so you tend to see it in the document. But once you’ve had time to do other work for a while, you can look at the document from a less immersed perspective. It feels more “new.” That’s when you start noticing missing words, spelling errors, or even logical flaws. So put the work away as long as you can, to achieve some distance before you read it again.
Change the Look
Another way to become less “familiar” with the document is to make it look different and fresher. If you wrote it onscreen, can you print it out? Read it on your tablet rather than on your laptop. If you wrote it in Scrivener, can you copy it into Word to read again? Or maybe change the font color, size, or style.
If you can “trick” your brain into seeing your document as new, you might overcome your inherent familiarity enough to give it a pretty good edit, in a pinch.
CHANGE HOW YOU READ
Read Paragraphs in Reverse
This method really helps overcome your “familiarity” with the work. You are no longer following the logic of your argument and subconsciously inserting any missing bits. Here, you read the words alone to discover how they sound and work together.
Working backwards allows you to concentrate primarily on the language. While there is also an internal logic to how a single paragraph works, so you might still insert missing ideas, the likelihood is much less. But if necessary, you can even read individual sentences in reverse order.
Read it Aloud
This goes well beyond just changing how “familiar” your document seems. Things go into the brain differently through the ear than through the eyes or even through touch. (That’s why it’s good to use more than one “sense channel” when trying to memorize something.) So the first benefit of reading aloud is that in certain respects, the document seems “newer” to your mind.
But the prime benefit is that you will detect awkward phrases and overused words. Do some phrases sound like you were trying to be cute, sarcastic, or dismissive when that wasn’t your intention? Are some of them real tongue-twisters or far too complex, pompous, or frivolous than the topic merits? Have you used the same word four times in one sentence, meaning that you need to reword and create more variety?
If you stumble over words or hesitate in expressing a phrase, you probably need to edit. Reading aloud can reveal a lot of flaws.
ANALYZE LOGICAL FLOW
Here you check the actual argument in the document. Try creating an outline summarizing the main points, and keep watch for problems in logic. Does one idea lead logically to the next one or build on the previous one? Did you start with the most foundational idea and build your way systematically through all the steps to reach your conclusion?
Did you include all the vital information early in the document that the reader will need to understand what comes later? If you have had to backtrack anywhere to explain things the reader should have known earlier, your information is out of order. Unless you were saving it for a surprise “reveal” near the end, you will need to place it earlier and rework the argument.
It is not ideal to edit your own work, because you are very likely to miss something important. But if you take care to follow the above steps, you can reduce potential errors and increase your chances of producing an acceptable document.
Still…if at all possible, it’s always better to seek out a professional who has been trained to discover and remedy problems and who knows how to avoid pitfalls.