Not long ago, a new reader checked out my Tip for the Week. When she found a typo, she vowed never to read my blog again. While this is sad, it also drives home the point: Check your work.
Writing Tip for Today: What are some ways we can be writing clean?
Read and Reread
If I hadn’t been in such a hurry to post that day, I might have caught my error and retained a reader. I broke my own rule—reading my work aloud. When you’re pressed for time, it’s easy to think you have written clean copy. But our eyes can play tricks on us. On another occasion, I didn’t notice an omitted word on the first page of my manuscript. The first page! Only when I read my work out loud did I catch the error.
Reading work out loud can do more than simply catch typos or omitted words. That sentence you thought was so brilliant as you typed? When you read it out loud, it can reveal a confusing or convoluted mess. Reading aloud processes your words in a different brain area than sight reading. Use this advantage to smooth out your prose. Also, invest in a Strunk & White Elements of Style book.
Some writers either skip this read aloud rule or are shy about it if they don’t have a critique partner or group. Grab your cat or dog and read your work to a nonjudgmental audience or even into a mirror or tape recorder. Avoid reading aloud to your spouse or your mom—these folks can’t help but either love it or hate it. A neutral audience may spare your fragile writer’s ego.
Let it Cool
Another rule I broke that day was that I didn’t allow my work to “cool off.” When we create, we aren’t objective about the words we write. If we’re “too close” we are less likely to remain neutral. Writers who put aside a piece for a time gain much-needed distance from their “darlings” and pet phrases.
How long should you put your work on the back burner? Of course, it depends upon deadlines, but as a rule, the longer the piece the longer you might let it sit. For instance, a blog post might sit for a few hours or a day. A book-length manuscript might benefit from a few weeks to even months to sit and cool before you take it up again.
I try to follow a twenty-four-hour rule for essays or shorter stories: wait at least twenty-four hours. For novels and memoir, I set aside for at least two weeks. During that time, I work on other projects or start a new work. I think it’s wise to have at least two projects going at all times—that way I always have something to work on.
Allow your work to cool at least 24 hours.
Get an Expert
When you’ve read aloud, set aside and then edited your work as far as possible, you may want (need!) an expert’s eyes. Especially if you are self-publishing, hiring an editor to proof your work is vital. No matter how well you or your mom did in high school English, a set of fresh and professional eyes can boost your chances of attracting readers.
Beware, though. Virtually anyone can say they’re an editor. Be sure to ask for references and ask if the editor offers a free page of edits to show their skill. Most pro editors are glad to share references, and many do offer a bit of free editing as an introduction. Only pay half up front in case your “pro” editor turns out to be not-so-great. Here’s a resource for copy editors.
Also, be sure to request an editor who specializes in the service you need. There are developmental editors (also call substantive or content editors) who can help you with your “big picture” items such as structure or voice. Don’t use a copy or line editor until after you’ve fixed any of these bigger issues. Ideally, you’ll hire a copy editor to catch all the stuff you didn’t see. After all, your readership (as I learned), depends on it.