Practicing on Project Gutenberg

Editing and proofreading one’s own writing is traditionally considered difficult, but I find that all one needs to do this is (a) time, and maybe (b) a little bit of self-deception. To me, editing is a process of broad discovery, then one of focusing in on the details, then getting the big picture in order. Someone else isn’t just reading your manuscript, they’re mining it, discovering things, looking for problems. To edit your own stuff, just pretend you’re doing that.

Also keep in mind that they’re also looking for reasons to leave things exactly the way they are, or at least things they can do that will leave as much of the original text intact as possible. Self-editing is a different process than non-self-editing, because the self-version always includes the possibility of making major changes, or introducing new stuff.

I think I learned quite a lot about non-self-editing by practicing on old public-domain text. Which may seem odd, since you can’t really make any changes when doing that, aside from formatting and fixing transcription errors. But it’s a great way to start. Almost anyone who reads e-books has heard of Project Gutenberg by now. It’s a crowdsourced effort to digitize public domain books. It’s been around much longer than the Kindle or Nook–for over three decades. It’s also succeeded brilliantly.

You can read Mark Twain’s novels, or the Sherlock Holmes stories, or Plato’s The Republic. When I first discovered Project Gutenberg, I gravitated towards Arthur Conan Doyle and O. Henry. This was in the days of CRT monitors, devices that were essentially electron guns firing into a glass and metal mesh located inches from our eyes.

Then, I had a twenty-one inch monster on my desk at work, and a similar, slightly smaller giant glass vacuum tube on my IKEA desk at home. Reading a novel on those too-bright headache generators wasn’t an option, so I tried pouring the text into Microsoft Word to print the books out, but each line included a line break at the end–usually one that did not line up with the margins of my chosen layout and font size.

Getting the text to flow well on the page necessitated a bit of work, much of which could be initiated automatically. Of course, you can’t trust that the computer will get everything right–whatever rules you set up for mass find-and-replace operations, there will almost certainly be some text that falls through the cracks. And if you set a mass replace operation up incorrectly, you can actually damage the text. We haven’t yet gotten to the point where computers understand text, and even now, the human editor still has to read every word.

But even then, in the days of the dot-com, Word had some pretty advanced find-and-replace bells and whistles. And I used a lot of them: Because as long as I was doing the line-break search, I did another to make sure that there was only one space after a period, since those who input these books seemed to learn how to type on manual typewriters. And then, another to convert straight quotes into proper typesetter’s quotes. Because I went to design school, which fosters the attitude that straight quotes are only used by the ignorant masses. And then, after replacing hundreds of instances of “. ” with “. ” and setting up that clever operation to delete thousands of manual line breaks yet preserving them at the ends of paragraphs, I’d skim the text to make sure that these changes hadn’t had any unintended consequences. I found myself pretending that this was a new book and that I had been given the job of printing it up, that people would be reading them.

By the time I actually got to reading the book, there was no point to it, since, like Madonna reading the Zohar, I’d already at least passed my eyes over all of it. But even then I’d find “problems” I’d missed, like making the chapter-heads look good, numbering the pages, and inserting ligatures. Eventually I gave up and just read the books on the screen anyway, which probably wasn’t very good for my eyes. If I were doing this now, I’d probably just print the books to PDF and read them on my Kindle.

In retrospect, I was doing a rough automated pre-proofreading job on those books, and my final “reading” was what I’d now call a cleanup pass. Some years later, when I started working as an editor, I had already figured out a lot of the techniques that new editors are taught in classes and books. But it also taught me, in the most extreme way possible, how to leave things alone. (Even when finding an awkward passage in an unpublished manuscript, I’ll usually just leave a note to the author, unless it’s possible to fix something with just a few words or maybe just a change in punctuation. I may still leave a note explaining my reasoning.)

Back to non-self editing: Many editors do more than one pass through a story, and I know that I do. I’ve often changed a word or a sentence that seemed like an obvious choice, then later realized–that strange thing the writer did in chapter two? Yeah, I see what’s going on, now, go back and put that back like it was. This seems obvious to me. On the other hand, I’ve never had a reason to use the traditional proofreader’s marks, since my few attempts at editing on paper seem pointless and prone to error. In reality, marking out a printout and then typing in the changes isn’t any less accurate–people tend to find new errors when doing the typing and mousing–it’s just a different way of working.

I treat it like looking at a complicated painting. First, a glance to look at the overall design. Then, I’ll start focusing my attention on detail-laden areas of the design. Maybe then I’ll back up and look at the whole painting again, but knowing what’s in the picture’s crevices and crannies of detail makes me look at it differently, taking in the whole thing.

When editing my own work, or someone else’s work, I try to puzzle out what the original author had in mind. No matter if that writer is on the other end of an email thread or in my own head. Pretending that my past self is another writer usually puts me in the right frame of mind to self-self-edit. Whether the goal is to get rid of embarrassing mistakes only, leaving as much of the text alone as is possible, or to completely rewrite a piece I wrote yesterday, finding the original author’s intent is always valuable.


Neil Fein is a freelance editor who specializes in novels. If you’ve written a manuscript or are getting close to finishing, you can get in touch with him here, and even ask for a free sample edit. He’s also the guitarist in the band Baroque & Hungry, he rides his bicycle as much as he can, and he paints when he damn well feels like it.

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