Monday, June 28, 2010

There’s No Such Thing as Speed Editing!

Believe me on this one, I know. The painful truth is the only thing you gain for speed editing is a poor quality manuscript. Sure, you can speed read your favorite book and ninety percent of the time understand everything you read, but editing is a different animal.

When you read, your brain picks up patterns in words. You see the letters S-E- and before you read the next letter (E) you know the word to be SEE. This is because your brain has memorized this word; the appearance of it, the shape and pattern of the letters and the size of the word on a page. I’m sure we’ve all seen the spam emails where someone writes a bunch of words, leaving out unnecessary letters. If not, congratulations! I’d love to cut down on the junk mail in my box. The point is, you don’t always need all of the letter in order to read the word.

The reason this ‘pattern reading’ works is because over years and years of practices, your brain has taken pictures of every word as you read and stored it away in the big filing cabinet between your ears. (Some filing cabinets are larger than others, but we’re not here to judge.)

This pattern reading, or as my favorite High School Literature teacher, Mr. Gay, used to call it, photo reading, is a nice gift to have until it becomes so automatic you can’t shut it off. I can’t shut mine off by the way. When I edit my speed reader kicks in.

Editing with your speed reader on is like driving 80 MPH with foggy goggles covering your eyes. Sure you can make out the road, and yeah, you can see the big dog—or was it a deer—in the road, but the small detailed patterns on the road signs become invisible. Your brain starts using all those stored snapshots and you gloss over words that might be missing a letter, or are used incorrectly (homophones are the devil’s bitches.) without realizing you’re skimming even when you thought you were editing.

***tisk, tisk***

I’m a guilty party for editing with my skimmers on. I get so excited about a story I’m working on or a blog post, or, heaven forbid a Facebook post, that I miss the small yet blatant errors staring me in the face.

Are you a pattern reader? Join the club. We meet in the church basement on Monday nights and wear nametags that say…Hello. My name is… Oh, that’s another group entirely. In all seriousness pattern reading has an easy fix. Of course it is fine to pattern read when you’re enjoying someone else’s book, but if you find you’re having trouble when editing yours there are a few tricks that help.

First, and most obvious but worth mentioning, tell yourself YOU ARE EDITING. Sit someplace away from the main traffic pattern in your house. Turn off the music, the television, the kids and the significant other (yeah, mine has a button for that) and tune into your work.

Second, now that things are quiet, read each word one at a time. Hopefully if you are at the point of editing to this degree you’ve already fixed the plot holes and underperforming characters. Reading word by word slows you down and refreshes the snapshots in your brain.

Last, there is no substitute for reading aloud. If you’re writing a best seller you’ll need the practice anyway for all those book reading you’re planning. Reading aloud forces the brain to not only see the word but translate it to sounds in order to speak it. As you read you’ll be able to find missing commas and punctuation marks. You’ll also catch dangling participles and passive voice.

Once you’ve learned to turn off the skimmers you’ll find that editing becomes as second nature as picking up a book and reading. Of course it never hurts to read over your final draft a time or two just in case.

Happy writing.

The Reformed Grammar Guru


  1. Sounds like an interesting dilemma. Good luck to you with the fight against speed editing.

    The only time I could speed read is for policy debate. Reading the first speech of 20-30 pages of evidence in 9 minutes required such. But just reading books or my own writing, I'm kinda slow. Guess that might be a good thing after all.

  2. Great post, Ann! I have a hard time turning my skimmer off, but it makes such a difference when I do. And yes, homophones are the devil's bitches!

  3. Dawn, I have to speed read if I want to get anything done around here. I get going so fast I'll have a book done in a few hours. The hard part is turning off the 'speed' for when I really need to think about what I am doing. It gets me in trouble all the time! :-} Thanks for the comment!


  4. Jennie, I'm glad you agree about the homophones. Darn things mess up my spell checker all the time. Thank for the comment and the read.