I find self-editing to be very difficult for a number of reasons and it’s taken me a while to develop the discipline to read through my work carefully. But no matter how hard I tried, mistakes kept slipping through, so I decided to do some research on the matter, trying to learn tricks to help me self-edit and produce more professional writing.
The main hurdle to self-editing is the psychological phenomena known as pareidolia. Even if you’ve never heard of pareidolia you are more than aware of it. Our brains are wired to recognize patterns and this causes us to see patterns in meaningless data from seeing shapes in the clouds to seeing the image of the Virgin Mary in a potato chip. Our brains are powerful processors capable of feats of pattern recognition that even the most powerful computers are not capable of, and we do with any effort. This comes with a downside, we see things that aren’t there.
So what does pareidolia have to do with self-editing and why is it the biggest obstacle? It’s simple, our brains are great at finding patterns and filling in the missing data to form the expected shape or most likely shape. Since your brain knows what you wrote and knows what you intended to say, your brain will often see what you think you wrote. This is why homophone mix-ups are hard to catch. You meant to write ‘there’ but instead you wrote ‘their’. Because your brain knows what you intended, you could read it a dozen times and fail to realize you used the wrong word because of pareidolia.
Now that you know about the issue, you’re probably wondering how to combat this phenomena. If you’re an indie author (like me), a student writing a paper, or a professional writing a report or presentation then you know the importance of self-editing and you don’t want to put out an unprofessional product. You need to divorce your words from your writing, putting barriers in place to keep you from seeing your work as a whole and seeing the trees that make up the forest. So here are a few tricks I use that I find are quite helpful:
- Word Search: Every word processor software has a find/replace function that you usually can find under the edit menu or using ctrl+f. I have a list of words that I know I mess up on, such as there/their/they’re, were/where/we’re, your/you’re, fill/feel, now/know, new/knew, form/from, who/how, etc. So I search the document and read every instance I wrote the word, making sure I’m using it correctly. This forces me to see what word I wrote in the context I wrote it and catch mistakes. Whenever I’m editing and I find I’ve made the same homophone mistake before, I add it to the list. I usually find one mistake per 1000 words with this method.
- Read Backwards: Another way to help combat pareidolia is to read your document backwards. You start at the end of the document and you read it paragraph by paragraph from the end to the beginning. This helps to divorce you from the story’s flow and concentrate on what you actually wrote instead of what your brain thinks you wrote.
- Text-to-voice Software: Hearing your work spoken aloud is helpful to spot missing words. Did you forget a the or an? Did you misspell a word that you don’t search for? Did you use the right verb tense? All of these mistakes become very apparent when you hear the text spoken. You can read it aloud, but I prefer to use a text-to-voice software. I use NaturalReader. You can purchase it, but you can also use it for free, though it pops up an annoying ad for the full version every 1500 words or so.
There is another technique that I’ve read but never tried. If you change the font of your text, it changes what your mind expects and helps to spot mistakes. If you wrote your document in Times New Romans, use Courier New on editing.
So I hope this helps with your writing because these techniques made a big difference with my own self-editing and while I still can’t achieve perfection, at least I have achieved professionalism.
Note: I edited this document using my techniques. Find/Replace method discovered an ‘are’ that should have been an ‘our’. Reading backwards found a few grammar errors. Text-to-voice discovered that I forgot to write ‘be’ in the very first sentence as well as five other mistakes (verb tense, wrong word, and missing word).
21 thoughts on “Self-Editing”
Great tips there. Will be using them for my writing. Never heard of changing font one but will give it a go.
I find printing it out and reading is a different experience and tend to spot mistakes in its new form.
Thanks for the printing tip. Never tried that one. Falls under the same principal of making it different so your mind’s not seeing what it expects.
I knew about this phenomenon but didn’t know it had a name. Thank you for this article. It’s so true that authors see the big picture in their minds while writing and sometimes leave things out that they thought were in there. That can be a big issue. On that part of the problem, it helps to have someone else read what you’ve wrote. And listening to your writing, in addition to reading it, is very helpful. Great article!
Thanks! I should have added having a second person look over it to the article. Take care.
I am a writer. I am an editor.
The two do not do the same job or wear the same hat. My books were edited by a number of people and years later I caught errors I had never seen (usually all the cutsy tricks)
Editors are worth their worth in gold and will make a book that is good turn into a great work of fiction. If you just want to publish, then edit it yourself.
sorry typo: using… not usually
Editors are great! Happy writing!
Another tip is to search for ” this will highlight all your dialogue and let you make sure they are in pairs and you can check the punctuation. There are so many chances to make punctuation errors in dialogue.
“Because your brain know what you intended, ” should have used “knows” or “knew” 😉
Thanks for the helpful search idea. I do have a bad habit of missing end punctuations. I corrected my typo.
Good tips. I like editing but that doesn’t make it easy. Especially like changing the fonts. If I have the time I still think the best advice is to wrap it up for a month and then read it aloud. Be ready to cringe.
Thanks, Dennis. Glad you liked the post.
I try not to edit my own work as soon as I have completed it, I leave it a few hours until I have done something else and can go back to it fresh. I too will read it aloud, making sure there are no distractions around me. I also get my son to read my work as well as a back up just to make sure that I have not missed anything.
Always good advice. I like to at least take a day before looking at something I wrote.
a variant of the change a font tip (which does work) is to read the book on a different device. Each displays slightly differently so what read fine in your word processor looks different enough on the ebook readers. And if you dont’ have multiple readers, there is always the programs that emulate them. No matter how many people have gone through a work, at least a couple little blips not caused by word processor intelligence are found in the digital proof.
Yes, that’s a great one. I found this one out around Christmas. I picked up a Kindle fire, not a big one, but with a screen the size of a paperback. It’s like reading a book, but i can add comments to the .doc file.
I think you missed, ” and we do without any effort.”
Good points though.
I never thought of changing the font – that’s genius.
Btw. is it “stories” or “story’s”? 🙂
Yeah, glad you found it helpful and found one of those blasted, stupid errors. 🙂
Thank you for the self-editing tips. I wrote these down for future use. I was also interested to learn a new word–I had never heard of “pareidolia”. Thanks for defining it for us. This was a very helpful article.
Glad it was helpful! 🙂