The Problem with Self Editing

Please welcome my friend, Erin Healy to the blog today. She is a novelist and an editor of novelists (owner of WordWright Editorial Services). She lives in Colorado Springs with her family, her style manuals, her red pens, and many of her editorial colleagues. Follow her here: www.erinhealy.com

Today I received this e-mail query from the editor who’s neck deep in my latest manuscript: “Erin, can the principal be named Walter rather than Walters, so’s we can avoid the whole ‘Mr. Walters’s office’ bit? Or are you feeling defiant and thumbing your nose at 7.16?”

Yes, she really did write “so’s.” We editors do thumb our noses at convention when we can.

The 7.16 reference is to a Chicago Manual of Style rule, which says an S should be added to the possessive form of proper names ending in an S, X, or Z. In other words, I should have written Walters’s, even though it looks and sounds bad. Instead I wrote Walters’, reflexively following a different rule I had learned in college. Of course, I should have known better.

I hear you yawning over this triviality of correct punctuation. Don’t fall asleep yet. There’s something here for you about self editing and the importance of having an editor.

I’ve spent more than twenty years learning “the rules” of “good writing.” I know a thing or two about forming possessives, and also about fashioning clean grammar and authentic dialog and the writer’s voice. I’ve taught other writers about storytelling technique, and I understand why certain creative choices are more effective than others in accomplishing particular goals.

BUT …

when my red pen rolls away under my desk and gets lost among balls of crumpled manuscript paper, it doesn’t matter what I know. Erin the writer isn’t thinking about being an editor, she’s thinking about story.

Which is a good thing for a writer. Because although there are many things you can do to “self-edit”–that is, to polish and improve your work–a great writer can’t also be a great editor of his or her own material. Here’s why:

 

(1) Your story lives inside your mind. Readers live outside your mind. And mind melding is still science fiction.

How to put the story in your head to paper? This is the writer’s great challenge. A story world is full of assumptions, contexts, histories, sounds, smells, textures, atmospheres, emotions, color, and human nature—but all we have are symbols for these things, those symbols being words. So much can be lost in translation, though you speak the native language. Only a visitor to your new world can tell you what is missing, unclear, confusing, misleading, or even embarrassing.

I once wrote a fight scene between two men, and because violent conflict isn’t where I like to spend my or my readers’ time, I glossed over the gory details. But my intentional omissions caused my editor to ask, “Was this a sexual assault?” This potentially story-busting misunderstanding never would have occurred to me without her objective eye.

The best editors, as trained readers, can help you build a sturdy bridge between the story you envision and the story your reader will experience. The more you write, the better you’ll get at connecting with your readers right away, but you’ll never fully be able to bridge the gap alone.

(2) Worry over rules can be a dam in your creative flow.

Too many writers in early-draft stages spend too much time worrying over whether they’re getting stuff “right.” They spend hours in Facebook debate over whether it should be gray orgrey when the chapter they need to write doesn’t depend on the answer. Or they second guess every decision and tear down story walls that are only three bricks high. Build the wall before you test its durability, okay? Give it a chance to stand, or you might give up the building of it entirely.

I advise this while assuming that you are a student of your craft. I am not suggesting you stop applying yourself to learning all you can. To the best of your ability you should make informed creative decisions, such as whether to tell your story as a first-person narrative or as an omniscient narrator. But keep this important fact in mind: Your learning will never end, and your novel’s greatness will not depend on its mechanical perfection.

(3) It’s your job to do what the editor shouldn’t do.

When I was a greener editor, I used to categorize my revision recommendations into “major,” “minor,” and “nitpicky” categories. It was a gesture to help writers prioritize their efforts. The “nitpicky” stuff included trivial details—such as that pesky possessive S, typos, inconsistencies, and so on. Unfortunately, some writers would return the manuscript saying, “I did 90 percent of what you asked me to do!” meaning they fixed all the typos and opted out of the “major” issues, which usually included things like plot holes, characterization problems, and pacing obstacles.

I quickly dropped the nitpicky stuff from my memos, because I didn’t really need the author to fix these things—I could do it. (Job security!) “What I need you to do,” I learned to say to any author who was worried about minutiae, “is all the stuff I can’t do for you. The world building, the plot weaving, the voice crafting, the portrait painting, the theme singing.” Some editors can do these things, but what writer would give up ownership of the most valuable components of a story?

Yes, you should care about sending a publisher your most polished work. Failing to run the spell checker matters—but not as much as nailing a Big Idea. While I was an acquisitions editor, I rejected plenty of mechanically perfect manuscripts because the story was dull. I also championed many authors who had no idea how to use an em-dash or a serial comma, because their fresh stories captured my imagination.

 

If you have tried to be both writer and editor in equal parts, take some pressure off yourself and focus your efforts here:

 

  • Make completion, not perfection, your first goal.
  • Revise your work in a community of readers and editors who can read your work objectively.
  • Major on the majors. In light of community feedback, focus your editorial efforts on the story elements that no one but you can address.
  • Hire a copy editor or proofreader to major on the minors.

 

What techniques do you use to keep yourself in writer mode when you’re distracted by all the editing you think you need to do?

 

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6 thoughts on “The Problem with Self Editing

  1. Erin thank you, I really needed to read this today as I edit far too much and it does stop me from the flow of writing. I will concentrate on the story more now thank you Devin great informative post.

    1. So glad the post could be of help, Kath. I think we all get caught up in that snare now and then–at least, I know I do.

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