Writing and editing are two very different beasts. Writing is very intense, very personal, a way of expressing all those thoughts that are in your head. Editing, to be effective, has to be a little less personal. You have to look at your work differently, which is difficult when those words on the page are the result of your hard work, sweat and tears (hopefully no blood. I’m not sure you’re doing writing right if there’s actual blood). And one of the best ways to look at your work differently is to, well, look at it differently.
Changing the way you physically read your manuscript can also alter the way you approach it, and this is why many editors, including me, will do at least one read-through of a manuscript in a different format (if time and budget allows). One of the things that makes editing and proofreading so difficult is that you have to train yourself to see what’s actually on the page and not what you think should be there. Your mind is a clever thing – it fills in missing words, takes out duplicate ones, rearranges letters. As an editor, you need to stop your brain from doing what it wants to do, and for some reason, changing the format seems to help with that. Mistakes leap out at you that you missed the first time.
My preferred method of changing the format is to email the Word document to my Kindle (instructions for this are available here), but you could also print it out (although I wouldn’t recommend this for long manuscripts because the environment, and also, cripes, printer ink is expensive). Failing that, even just changing the font and the background colour can help change the way you read.
And it’s not just useful for helping you spot typos and other little mistakes your brain hid from you while you were writing. Changing the way you read can get you into a totally different mindset – when you’re at a desk, tapping away on a keyboard, you’re very much in writer-mode. But if you curl up on your sofa with your Kindle or paper printout, it can be easier to put yourself in the place of a reader, and that’s who you really need to have in mind at editing stage. Physically taking yourself out of the position of the author and into that of a reader will help you get a much better idea of how your story flows, what your pacing’s like, whether your characters are coming alive.
Another thing you might want to try, particularly when you’re editing for style, is reading the manuscript aloud, or having the computer read it back to you. This will highlight things like unintentional rhymes, alliteration and repetition that can spoil the flow of your writing.
What all these things do is create a little distance between writer-you and editor-you, helping you edit more objectively and effectively.
I’ll leave you with a quote from this article about how our brains ignore mistakes:
“…a normal functioning human is one that sails blithely past mistakes in a text while understanding perfectly what it means.
The next natural step in this line of reasoning is that anyone whose job it is to catch these mistakes – editors, copyeditors, subeditors, proofreaders – has to be an abnormal and malfuctioning human.”
I wanted to add that becasue it made me laugh, but I’ve just noticed a typo in it. Now I can’t decide if that’s a perfect example of what the article talks about or the Guardian purposely fucking with us.