Editing by Reading

I’m working on a list of my top self-editing tips to send to people who sign up for my email list. So those of you who are on the list already will have that coming to you in the future! But I’ve decided to go ahead and expand on some of those tips in blog posts. Today I’d like to talk about two of these tips: reading your manuscript cover to cover and reading your manuscript aloud.

Reading Cover to Cover

Unlike reading, you can write a book completely out of order. Or maybe you wrote it in order but then went back to change one of the subplots. Or your plot needed major restructuring. Or any number of other fixes. Once you’ve got a final draft, please read the entire thing again from beginning to end.

You may think you’ve made all the changes, but you never know when you might have left some small consistency error behind. Say you rearranged your romance arc. Instead of their first kiss happening on page 78, it now happens on page 128. But you forgot that on page 103, she mentioned the kiss to her best friend. If you haven’t read your book front to back at least once after making any structural changes, you’re liable to miss small (or even big) things like this. Make sure your book is internally consistent before you submit it to an editor or publisher.

Now, you may have been through your manuscript so many times that you want to scream at the idea of reading it again. Even if you’re not tired of it, you may have a hard time remembering what happens when in which version. So I highly recommend you don’t start this stage of the self-editing process until after you’ve taken a break from the manuscript. Set it aside for a few weeks, maybe even a month or two. Then pick it up again and read it from cover to cover with fresh eyes.

You can very easily combine this step with my next tip:

Reading Your Manuscript Aloud

One essential method to ensure your writing flows and sounds natural is to read it out loud. This exercise is particularly useful with a partner. Read your book out loud to a friend or relative or amiable stranger. Take note of sentences you have a hard time saying or dialogue that sounds stilted once you say it aloud. I find this can be even more useful if you have a physical copy of your manuscript, but it also works if you read via screen. Reading aloud forces you to slow down and thus pay more attention to what you’ve written. I also think it must activate a different part of the brain than reading silently—I should do some research on that! Regardless, I can practically guarantee that by reading aloud you will find more errors you never noticed and improvements you can implement to make your writing more natural.

Perhaps even more useful is to have that friend or relative or stranger read your book out loud to you. This will provide you with even more feedback, because the words won’t be filtering through your brain first. Your mind has a tendency to put in words you didn’t actually write, because it knows they’re supposed to be there. And you may have internally gone over a sentence so many times that you can say it easily, but someone reading it for the first time will still struggle. Take note of where your reading partner stumbles or looks confused as they are reading. Come back to these sentences later to reword or clarify.

Reading out loud is most useful for spotting typos, poor word choice, problems with flow—things that would tend to fall more under the line editing or copyediting stage. But you may also find bigger-picture problems when you read aloud. So if you find yourself making large changes after your manuscript’s vocal performance, don’t forget that you may need to read whole thing again from cover to cover. But you probably don’t need to read the whole thing out loud again!

Fiction or Non-Fiction

Note that these two tips are useful for both fiction and non-fiction writing. I’ve made more references above to aspects related to fiction, but I’ve seen both reading cover to cover and reading aloud put to great effect in non-fiction as well. My generous husband was kind enough to read my essays to me when I was working on my Master’s. I was able to recognize and cut down my wordiest sentences and clarify points I hadn’t made clearly. Through hearing it aloud and asking him what didn’t make sense, I did often ended up making bigger changes to my argument and organization. And afterwards I would read it through one more time from beginning to end and make any last-minute changes for consistency and clarity.

So whether you’re writing fiction or non-fiction, please take the time to do both of these exercises before submitting your work. The hours it may take are well worth the effort, I promise!


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