At this point in my career I'm able to edit "by ear," so to speak. When I look at a sentence, the issues with it pop out at me. When I read a paragraph, certain repeated turns of phrase or ugly, insufficiently descriptive parts jump out. And I have to say, it's no longer conscious, or even voluntary anymore. If there's something "wrong" with a piece I've written, I will sit there and be unable to move on until it's "right." In a way it's infuriating - and one of the reasons why it's taken me a year to edit NOTES FROM THE UNDEAD.
In another way, though, I understand that this is a skill and a talent, perhaps an enviable one. So how did I get here? Let's make a listicle!
1.) Edit. A lot.
The simple, almost glib, answer is I've done this shit a fuckton. In the last five years I've done author edits followed by professional edits on seven novels and nine short stories. That's significantly more than the million words often cited as required for mastery as a writer. But perhaps you're saying, "But Steve, I don't write professionally and I'm not getting book deals like that. How does that help me?"
Well, my friend, you're also looking at a helpful tool for editing mastery this very instant. I try, with varying degrees of success, to write three blogposts a week. Even if they're no more than 500 words, that's 78,000 words a year that I need to edit. And I edit my blogposts a hell of a lot more than I do my published work. Blogs have to be instantly pithy and quotable. People will give your novels a little more leeway.
2.) Work with a professional
It's a truism that "you don't know what you don't know." But there's a reason it's a truism. I didn't know shit about editing until I worked with a couple of really great editors on my first novel.
A professional editor sees the same issues over and over. Overused words. Ugly metaphors. Cliches. Stuff that would never even occur to you.
Here's an example. In my first draft of THE GHOUL ARCHIPELAGO I used the word "niggardly" once or twice. It's a perfectly innocuous word meaning "miserly." It had literally never occurred to me that because it sounds like an unrelated and very ugly slur, you should just generally avoid that word.
The more you work with professional editors, the more you'll be able to identify what they're looking for, and the more you'll be able to find it yourself. Not only that, but regardless of how good your editor is, they're a different person. Which leads into our next topic.
3.) Work with non-professionals
Editors are great for teaching you the technical ropes. But you're not writing regulatory manuals (I assume.) You're writing for public consumption. And quite often we as writers can disappear up our own assholes. Trust me, I know. I do it twice a day, and three times Sundays.
The reason you want to use beta readers is that when they're confused, you'll know you're doing something wrong. Since you're writing the book, everything makes sense to you. You know each character's super secret backstory, so you won't be confused when the guy with the alcoholic mother smashes a hobo's bottle. But your beta reader will say, "Why is he being a jerk to that homeless guy?"
The more you work with beta readers, the more you'll be able to identify what regular ol' people are looking for in a story.
4.) Try Reading in Different Fashions
Common editing advice is to read your work out loud. Things will ring false to your ears that don't to your eyes.
I've also heard that you should read out loud into a mirror.
I've also heard that you should record yourself reading out loud, then play it back.
I've also heard that you should print out your manuscript, because things look different on the printed page than they do on the monitor, and edit the printout.
I've also heard that you should edit the printout using different colored markers to look for different issues - grammar, story, character, etc. - because different colors pop out at you.
Look, I've tried all of these methods and I don't get much out of any of them. But I get the concept. You need to step back and look at your manuscript in a different way. Frankly, the only way of looking at my work that I find helpful is to set it aside for a few weeks or months. That gives me the fresh eyes I need. In the case of NOTES FROM THE UNDEAD...they're very fresh eyes indeed.
What about you, dear friends? How do you hone your editing skills? Let me know in the comments below.