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When an editor goes over my writing, even if most of their feedback is Writing 101 advice, it's still super helpful because my writing has a lot of flaws.

But I never notice these flaws (big picture stuff, and subtle stuff alike) while writing and editing my writing. Even if it's something as basic as the beginning and the ending not matching up well, or the main character being unlikable and uncool, or introducing way too much terminology early on -- I've criticized other people's works for these mistakes and more. So how come I'm literally blind to the glaring faults in my own work?

How can I learn to find the errors in my writing? Or is it impossible to get better at this, and should I focus on getting a lot of editors?

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    You have more in your head that is actually in the story. This is also a problem for programmers, and the solution is the same - have somebody else look at it, because you can't until you've forgotten what is in your head. Apr 7, 2023 at 9:26

8 Answers 8

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The problem to overcome is be a different person, which implies changing focus, metrics, perspective, involvement, interest etc.

A few suggestions to broaden your limits, in arbitrary order.

  1. Pick a few role models, and try being like them when you review your text. E.g. how would Inspector Columbo deal with it? Or Cinderella? Or a person you admire?

  2. Define a set of topics to check, and stay on one topic per review. E.g.:

    • focus on logic in a first run
    • scan all tenses and their variations in a next run
    • examine each character, if it‘s a novel or so, and have one run per character (convincing? evolving or static? conclusive? etc.)
    • look for potential to cut and make shorter
    • look for missed opportunities
    • look for missing thingies in yet an other run
  3. Change order of pages, i.e. run through your script in a random fashion. Use random numbers for this purpose.

  4. Take notes for each run … will be a long list. From these:

    • identify your pattern, e.g. for errors/trouble
    • make an other focus run with this knowledge
    • identify new aspects to check
    • etc.

With some practice you‘ll start perceiving "your baby" from a more objective perspective.

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    "Pick a few role models, try being like them and review your text" -- Such great advice! I'll remember this!
    – Jack Pan
    Apr 5, 2023 at 9:11
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Let the Manuscript Rest

In order to see your own errors, you often need a little distance. Can't see typos? You brain is filling in what you meant to say. Can't see plot holes? You're still too close to the plot to look at it objectively.

Take your manuscript and put it in a drawer. (Probably figuratively, most people write on a computer nowadays.) Work on something unrelated. In a couple of weeks, or months, come back and read it again.

Be prepared for some "What did I even mean by that?!"

For a shortcut, try reading the manuscript out loud. You'll identify flow issues, as well as seeing more typos.

Some issues you may still never see. It's hard to replace a second opinion.

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    I second all of this, but I want to emphasize the last line. It is very hard to replace a second opinion. I am a fairly good editor, unless I wrote the original. Then I am awful. Letting it rest a little helps, but it is never as good as getting someone fresh. Apr 4, 2023 at 20:33
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    @TimothyAWiseman: Time does still help, if you just give it enough of it. But stuffing your manuscript in a drawer for 10 years just so that you can look at it with completely fresh eyes isn't usually a very efficient or practical approach to editing. Apr 5, 2023 at 0:57
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    This is the best advice. What I do is this: (1) Give the manuscript to beta readers, if you have any. That way you both get feedback and gain distance in the time you wait for the responses. (2) In the meantime write the next book. That way you make good use of the time, remain in the writing mindset, and gain even more distance, because your mind will mostly forget the details of your first book while you write the second one. (3) After finishing the 2nd, edit the 1st, then start on the 3rd, while the 2nd one is with the beta readers. This is a good process and rhythm to be prolific, as well.
    – user55858
    Apr 5, 2023 at 7:21
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    Ironic that literally the first word after "Can't see typos?" is itself a typo. I was going to fix it, but I think it adds to this post rather than subtracts! Apr 5, 2023 at 12:40
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    @JackPan Something we use in programming is "rubberducking". You explain your code and your problem to a rubber duck. Or if you don't have a rubber duck, you can grab a colleague too. And it's magical how effective it is. So I can second that reading out loud is always a good shout. Otherwise you have Archimedes' technique of doing literally anything else, so you can put your old perspective behind and get a new one. Apr 6, 2023 at 7:37
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One trick that's helped me in the past quite a lot is to change the entire document into a different font. I'm not exactly sure how or why this works but I remember reading about it somewhere and trying it, and being pleasantly surprised by how many of my own errors I was able to catch. I believe this tricks your brain into seeing the document as "new" and therefore something to actually read instead of skim.

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    This... is insanely insightful. TIL-level stuff. +1 indeed Apr 5, 2023 at 8:12
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    By errors, are you referring to lexical errors only, or are you including big-picture stuff as well? Like characters not meshing well with a certain plot or theme, etc.
    – Jack Pan
    Apr 5, 2023 at 9:11
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    @JackPan mostly just lexical errors, but it can also help me catch plot flow as well since it tricks my brain into reading it as "new." For plot flow I tend to draw out flow charts and read dialogue and action scenes aloud (sometimes with a friend). Nothing truly replaces a good editor, though.
    – RiverTam
    Apr 5, 2023 at 16:21
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There are several factors that can go into problems with self-editing.

The foremost is that editing is hard. Whether it's developmental editing, line editing, or copy editing, it takes effort to learn how to do it well.

Familiarity can be a problem that makes editing hard. As writers, stories start in our minds. When we write them down, they still live in our minds. But for readers, they only get the story from the writing. When you remember the story, you don't have the same experience as the reader. As @Jedediah recommends, you let it rest. Put the pages away and work on something else for a while. (How long 'a while' is depends on your memory) Then, when you read it again, you'll experience something more like the reader experiences them and will find it easier to recognize what is working and what isn't working.

Next is do you recognize why a story or a sentence is good and bad. Can you critique a piece and identify what story elements and craft skills are being use and how effectively they are being used? It's a big reason why reading is so important to being a writer. Reading Steven King, for example, I learn how to write better sentences and tell better stories. Also, reading 1-star novels on Amazon (using the Look Inside Feature) teaches me to recognize poor storytelling methods and poor writing craft. I also recognize many of my own methods and techniques being used in those 1-star novels.

In short, by reading well-written stories and badly written stories -- that aren't your own -- you can cultivate a strong understanding of how to write better. When you edit your stories, you'll better recognize what is working and what doesn't

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One thing that can help (at least for gross lexical errors) is listening to your work via text-to-speech. The visual system already works by 'filling in', and you will very often see what you expect to even if the reality does not match. Hearing is different, mismatched tenses, wrong words, etc all stand out to a very great degree when listening. Though, of course it doesn't help with homophones.

I was amazed at the number of errors I caught after going blind (thus being forced to use TTS) and then reviewing material I had previously written.

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First and foremost I don't know anything about writing outside from what one had in school. I am a software developer but I think there is actually an overlap here and I could offer some perspective.

As a software developer, in my team we have code review. Where we basically look at code from other people in a tool and leave comments. These can be obvious mistakes, things that could be done better, general questions why something was done a certain way and so on. The end goal is to improve the quality and train people.

After doing this for a while one learns to catch the common mistakes and kinda develops a feeling where something might be off. What helped me most in the beginning was seeing what other people commented on the same piece of code I also looked at. Through this I was to learn to see things in a new perspective, got to learn what other people find important and how they look at the work.

So if you can review some writing of someone and also getting to see what other people commented about it, it could really help. It can train you to think more like other people when reviewing, which then improves your skill to self edit dramatically. Since you can kinda "simulate" an outside perspective. But even without it just reviewing others people writing will still improve your skill to find mistakes. Since either way one develops this skill to spot the mistakes or just this sense of "something is off".

Also a big part of being able to review myself is that the review tool present the code in a very different way, font, color, spacing .... This forces me to read it as it was something new and I don't fall into the habit of glossing other parts subconsciously. It creates some sort of distance between what I see when writing and what I see when I see when reviewing.

The last part is basically what @RiverTam suggested. Changing how to present your writing at least should force you to read it more carefully. This should help you to find a lot of basic mistakes.

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'You can't edit your own work' is a truism. But there are ways to help spot errors. If you write on-screen, print out a copy. Mistakes often become more apparent. Also shift the line-breaks (an easy way is to just increase font size a few points). Again, that can give a fresh perspective.

Critical assessment is harder. That really DOES take another person's input. Or, maybe, you after a substantial passage of time. But there probably isn't time for that!

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  • Thanks!! This is great stuff.
    – Jack Pan
    Apr 13, 2023 at 13:01
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I would say: Self Editing is not only hard, it's almost impossible. Yes - as others mentioned - you CAN let the project rest and go on it with a fresh mind, but this will be still only YOUR mind - and more importantly - mindset

People are very different and tend to go blind on their own errors. One thing I learned the hard way was: You don't see the flaws in your own writing. For you things tend to be clear and logical or even perfectly written. But if another person gets your manuscript, they could have problems with understanding your Plotline, or following your Storytelling. And that is the whole point. You CAN improve your own work after a while with fresh eyes, but the Opinion of others is also important.

So, I would say: Getting the Opinions of other people is more helpful than taking everything on your own shoulders. Yeah, too much opinions could also be damaging and influence your work negatively, but a few should be better than limit it to yourself

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