Some pitfalls of editing your own writing

I’ve worked as an editor on all sorts of documents for way too many years to mention. But it wasn't until I started writing romance stories that I finally understood how hard creating stories other people really want to read, actually is. Not sure why I thought it would be easy. But boy, have I made some embarrassing mistakes! Some I immediately picked up when going through the editing stage; while others crept through numerous edits without notice.
 

Anyway, this article discusses some of the pitfalls I encountered while editing my story. I'll also make some suggestions on what you can do to avoid these happening to you.

You can't see your own mistakes

Yeah, you'd think this was kind of obvious, but it isn't. Because it was like I'd suddenly gone blind. Pesky little (and not so little) mistakes just seemed to disappear into the ether, hiding in plain sight, blending in better than any chameleon.
 

So, why can’t I see my own mistakes? I should be able to, right? I am an editor, after all.


The only explanation that makes sense is because it’s my story. I know what I mean. It’s right there in my head.

So, it doesn’t matter how careful I am, I still see what I expect to see. I’ll always see ‘through’ even if I spell it as ‘though’. Spell check won’t pick it up. Both are correct. But one is the right word, the other totally wrong. And most of the time I don’t even see that pesky missing r, no matter how many times I go over my work.
 

I know I’m not alone.

 

Thank goodness for my amazing beta readers and detail-oriented friends who are willing to read and correct my work. Because I now know that silly little mistakes will always slip through. This doesn't mean I won't edit my work, because come on. I'm an editor. It would be impossible for me not to do this. Nor am I saying editing your own work is a Bad Thing. It's not. I'm just acknowledging I can't do this successfully - or to my high standard - without someone else giving my story the once over.

So, what can you do to make your manuscript as error-free as possible?
 

  • Leaving things for a while does wonders.
    When you come back to your writing after a year, a month, or a week or so, you’ll view your words like any other reader. That’s because the time spent away from your wonderful story gives you the new perspective you need to “see” your mistakes. And the biggest caveat ever is this: make sure you spend enough time away from your story that you've forgotten all about your original intentions. Yep, might be difficult to do, especially when you're under a deadline.

     

  • Ask that annoying friend and/or relative who always points out all the errors in road signs and shop windows to help.
    Sure, they’ll be as smug as all get out highlighting your mistakes while you’re hiding in the corner, rocking back and forward, groaning loudly. That’s fine. Thank them politely, even if you are imagining the best way to horribly maim or destroy them.

     

  • Embrace the Read-Aloud function in Word.
    Yes, I know it’s the most boring electronic voice you’ll ever encounter, but hearing your words read out loud uses another part of your brain. A practical example: In my last novel, I used this before sending it off to my critique partner for comment. Low and behold, I discovered an embarrassing number of mistakes – from missing commas and full stops right through to wrong or missing word/s. Even after all that, when my critique partner read my story, they still found four or five errors, so it’s not totally foolproof. Even so, four or five small errors over 75,000 words isn't too bad.

You're often blind to what's really going on in your story

This all about the theme, the underlying message; the idea behind your story; it's "aboutness". It's the real heartfelt things your characters have to discover and overcome within your story. It's the way what your story is about that determines how it unfolds; which means the plot, the way the characters behave and everything in between. And it's usually your theme that makes your story connect so well with others.

 

My main problem is how I go about writing stories. You see, I come up with a thought, or a scene, or something, and immediately begin to write. No plan. I simply begin. As I continue, I get to know the characters, and allow them to take me on a wild journey mining the depths of their inner beings. Creating a first draft is the only time I’ll ever have god-like superpowers, but it sure doesn't give me any clarity about the underlying theme. That little nugget seems to love hiding out in my subconscious.

 

So, when it came to editing my first romance, I floundered. I mean, I knew it wasn't quite right, that something was missing. But I had a hard time defining, let alone discovering, what that 'thing' was. So, the first thing I should have done was discover what my story was really about. Of course, I didn't. 

Now, you might think you know what your story is going to be about before you start writing it, but what if that changes? What if you can't recognise that's happened? What do you do then?


You see, I thought my first romance was all about finding "home" - a place to belong and be accepted. It wasn't.

 

It wasn't until after I gotten to know my characters inside out that I finally worked out it was about acceptance. My heroine has always believed she didn't deserve love, so she had to come to terms with accepting herself before she could find love. Surprisingly, my hero also thought the same thing - he didn't deserve love - but for completely different reasons.  So his journey was about forgiveness - and about accepting his actions, along with what happened next.

 

It wasn't until I was half-way through the third draft that I discovered this! Yep, I'm quick off the mark...not! But eventually, the penny dropped. And then everything changed. The way I approached the story; the way I wrote the characters; and even the ending drastically changed. All because I now knew the real reason why my characters were acting and responding and being the way they were.

 

Likewise, once I'd finished writing my romantic suspense, I realised it was all about loyalty. It took me much less time to come to that conclusion, thankfully. But nevertheless, knowing the theme, the message, the idea behind the story made me sit up and take notice. I could then the underlying theme - loyalty - was central to everything my hero and heroine did. And I changed the name of the story to reflect this. 'Captured' (my initial title) was changed to Loyal at Heart.

Knowing your characters too well can be a problem..

Whenever I begin writing a story I only have a vague outline of who my main characters are. I do spend time 'visualising' what they look like; what their backgrounds are; and what values and beliefs they live by. But somewhere along the journey of writing that first draft, they often bring up aspects of their personality that surprises me. They change and grow and become almost like close personal friends during the writing process. I am, after all, spending a lot of time with them, so it kind-of makes sense.
 

But because I know my characters so well - I mean I know all their flaws, their hopes, their weak points and exactly what they will or won't do no matter what - doesn't mean I am showing them clearly on the page. Have you ever been at a party when the person you are talking to is telling you all about someone they think you know but you have no clue who that person is? It's confusing. And annoying - mainly because they assume you're right there with them and understand all the nuances and between-the-lines hints they are giving out. But all you're doing is nodding your head, getting more uncomfortable by the minute, frowning or shaking your head in disbelief. Well, sometimes, that's what happens when a reader reads my story. They don't know my characters as well as I do. And I certainly haven't done my job of showing them - in all their different hues - as clearly as I could. And the only way I find this out is by getting someone else to read my story.

If my beta-reader or critique partner or competition judge questions why a character does something; or why they react the way the have - this means (mostly) that I haven't (1) shown my character's goals, or motivations, clearly enough; or (2) given enough hints as to what these are so that the reader can work it out for themselves. I've just assumed you (the reader) knows them as well as I do. Which, obviously, will never be the case. 

Like the underlying theme of the story, who your characters are - how they react and the decisions they make - must be consistent throughout the story. Sure, they must grow and change in some way but it's my job - as the author - to  pay attention to any comments - or questions - in relation to how they appear on the page. It's my responsibility as the author to ensure I spend time refining how my characters so there is no question about who they are or why they are acting the way they are. And the only way to ensure that happens is to have someone who doesn't know my story as intimately as I do read it and give some constructive criticism on how to improve my characters and the situations I put them in.