The single best editing tip I ever received came from my most inspirational professor in college (thanks, Scott!). I had received a very high score on a history paper I’d written and I was pretty damn proud of myself. I said something to the professor and he said “Yes, it was fine.” Fine? I reminded him I got something like 98% on it and he shrugged and said – “yes, fine.” So I asked what could have been better.
What followed was a 3 hour examination of my paper, word by word, line by line. Now this was the early 90’s, when word processing was in its infancy and when I wasn’t the computer geek I am today. My professor pointed out spelling errors, punctuation and grammar mistakes, formatting issues, citation problems, and a general untidiness. He then got into sentence structure and content organization. At the end my very good paper was covered with red marks and we’d discussed every paragraph.
So what was this gem of knowledge for editing?
daeR tI sdrawkcaB (you wouldn’t believe how long it took me to type that)
Read it backwards. As I understand it, the human mind/eye doesn’t truly examine each letter of a word when reading. Instead, it reads several of the letters at the start of the word, then guesses the rest of the word and moves on to the next word. Great for reading, less great for editing details like spelling and usage. By reading backwards, your mind is required to consider every letter, which is necessary for detailed editing.
Obviously this isn’t a great practice for novels, but if there is some section, phrase or word that you know you must get right, try this tip. For longer works, take the spirit of the advice. Read the sentences of the paragraph in reverse order, read the paragraphs of the scene in the reverse order. This will help you notice sections that don’t flow logically, as well as consider overall sentence and paragraph structure.
I realize this isn’t a new trick for writers and editors. A quick Google search will pop this technique up very quickly. I believe it is still a worthwhile method to expose, however, and it is one that has helped me immensely since the day I learned it.
!yaD eciN A evaH
** for those in the computer industry, I teach my students this trick when working at the command prompt. They are blown away by how effective it is. Whether working in bash or PowerShell, give it a shot.