I follow a lot of writers on Twitter. Many of them post loads of writing advice–#writetips–some of which is useful and some of which is less so. One thing I see on an almost daily basis is: “You need an editor. You CANNOT edit your book by yourself; you’re too close to it.” This is particularly aimed at Independent or Self-Published authors. I have no special problem with the basic thrust of the statement. It’s an unpleasant truth that, while the rise of easy-to-use publishing platforms like Kindle and CreateSpace have both helped many authors make their work available and aided in de-stigmatizing the choice to self-publish, a high proportion of self-published works could benefit from editing. (If you want to read a fascinating article about this, look here.)
However, I am a self-published author and I have never hired an editor. I have a number of reasons why I haven’t, the primary two being that I’m poor and that I have major trust issues. So when I see these posts about how an outside editor is absolutely necessary and you SIMPLY CANNOT do it yourself, I get nervous. I wonder if I’ve done the good job I think I have, or whether I’m deluding myself out of ego. Maybe my books aren’t really as good as all that, and all the positive reviews I’ve gotten are from people who don’t know any better. Never mind that two of my biggest fans are, themselves, professional editors and I’d think if my work called for criticism in that regard I’d certainly hear it. It’s easy for me to question my experience of reality and to think that what I believe to be the truth may not, in fact, be accurate.
So, last week, when this question came up, I took an informal poll of my readers. “Do I need to hire an outside editor?” I asked. Every single one who responded said NO. No, there’s the occasional typo, but every book has those. No, the editing in your books is professional quality. No, stop second-guessing yourself, you have an amazing sense of what needs to go where.
All of which reassured me, of course, and also made me wonder how it is that I do what I do. Because it is certainly true that many books I have read could have stood editing and many writers I know don’t feel up to doing it themselves. I don’t know how much of my ability to edit is learned skill and how much is inborn talent (or how much of the learned skill part comes from having to survive truly traumatizing events). But I told my friend, Jennie, I was thinking about a blog on the subject, and she told me she thought a lot of people might find it helpful. So, here it is.
In this post, I am going to assume a certain level of technical skill. I’m not going to address spelling and syntax and the difference between a verb and a noun. I get that lots of people are publishing books without seeming to have any grasp of these things. I also have a sneaking suspicion that the people who are doing this are not the ones who are going to be reading this blog with any kind of open mind. If you get consistent feedback that your writing lacks technical prowess, or that you need to revisit spelling and grammar, just go do it. Although I love language, I’m not a great teacher, and I have no interest in writing a blog devoted to remedial English.
Every writer needs to develop some editing skill. That should go without saying. Unfortunately, it doesn’t. I have been to far too many poetry readings where more than one person has graced the audience with lines their Muse granted them mere minutes before, and I’ve known far too many people who think the act of setting words down on a page means those words are golden. (My husband tells a story about a writing workshop where one woman, when the professor asked to see her work in progress, said, “I don’t show my work to anyone until it’s finished.” When the professor then asked to see some of her finished work, she said, “When it’s done, it’s done. No one can improve it.” The professor had some valid questions about why she’d signed up for the workshop in the first place.) So, step one is recognizing the value of the editing process. No matter how good your manuscript is, it can ALWAYS be better. I can pick up a book I published years ago and say, “Shit, I could have said that more clearly” or “Why did I use that word so much?” There’s always room to improve.
This is a delicate concept for most writers for a number of reasons. Many writers are in the habit of under-assessing their skills and privileging their flaws. A lot of this is probably due to the subjective nature of the publishing industry. In traditional forms of publishing, validation in the form of editor or agent attention is in great part a matter of luck: getting the “right” story in front of the “right” person at the “right” time. The writer has some control over this, but less than any of us would like. So we tend to reach for ways of controlling the outcome (because most people would rather believe they’re in control than admit any system is subjective and chaotic). One way we try to control the outcome is to blame the quality of the project, and rewrite over and over again, ad nauseam. Sometimes we get stuck writing the same introductory paragraph over and over, less because we’re trying to get it perfect than because we’re afraid to go on. And this can all too easily lead from “this project sucks” to “I suck.” It puts writers in the invidious position of needing a thing on a soul level (self expression through words) that makes them feel worse and worse about themselves the more they do it. Not unlike many addictions, as a matter of fact. A lot of writers I know dread and/or hate going back over their work because they can’t look at it without thinking how terrible it is, and how much they love this thing that they have no talent for, and “Why did I ever think I could write?” etcetera. Or they’re afraid that’s how they’re going to react, which amounts to the same thing. Incidentally, feeling insecure about the work and needing outside validation is one of the things that makes writers fall prey to shady business practices, bad contracts, and fraudulent publishing companies. I think that’s another blog.
So, after you give validity to the editing process, the second step is: “Let go of I Suck.” Whatever it takes to get those thoughts out of your head, do it. Call it thinking and return to the breath, if you happen to subscribe to some form of mindfulness meditation. Go outside and scream and jump up and down and call yourself names. Step back and do something else. Whatever you have to do, keep those thoughts out of your workspace, because if you let them in, they’ll contaminate everything. The more you think you suck, the more mistakes you’ll make and the more it will reinforce I Suck. So just don’t go there. If you don’t have a particular writing space, make a rule that when you pick up your laptop or notebook, “I Suck” doesn’t get to play. If you find yourself dwelling on it, put your laptop or notebook down and GO SOMEWHERE ELSE.
Once you’ve given “I Suck” the time of day, you’re ready to get down to the work. Different people have lots of different processes for editing a manuscript. Some say “never edit as you go along; just get the first draft down.” That doesn’t work as well for me, so I do it differently. You’ll find your own way. However you decide to do it–if you keep everything to yourself until the whole MS is complete or if you like to share chapters with a critique partner as you go along–this is a place where getting outside feedback is vital. Lots of other people have written about how to find a critique partner, so I’m not going to go into it here except to say it’s vital you enlist someone you can trust, and preferably someone who understands the genre you write in. Otherwise you run the risk of hearing that the monarchy in your Epic Fantasy can’t function the way it does because of the Medici AND I AM NOT MAKING THIS UP. Getting critique from someone who doesn’t have a clue does more harm than good.
On the other hand, a good critique partner who knows your genre can be invaluable, especially if he or she has some pertinent esoteric knowledge about particular story items and props (e.g., handguns, sword fighting, herbalism, livestock). If your CP does have this kind of information, USE THE FUCK OUT OF IT. This is where the “Kill Your Darlings” thing I hate so much comes in. You cannot afford to be so attached to some cool scene that you ignore someone knowledgeable who tells you it can’t work that way. If a longbow hunter tells you your heroine would bleed out from an arrow to the lung long before she could drag herself to the trailhead, believe him. Use the information you have been given to bring the scene in line with reality. If you absolutely need your heroine to suffer lung damage, find another way to do it.
The person who reads your MS first is your ALPHA READER. I have a specific list of questions I want my Alpha Reader to keep in mind (I want my Betas to keep them in mind, too. In fact, I want everyone to keep them in mind). Here’s a handy little mnemonic for you. Think of the four “Cs”: Concept, Character, Clarity, Continuity. These are the questions I ask:
Does the CONCEPT make sense?
Can you tell the CHARACTERS apart and are they consistent?
Are you CLEAR on what is happening?
Is the sequence of events CONTINUOUS and logical?
All of these questions fall under the heading of “Content Editing,” and answering them should be your first step. Because a writer is the god of his or her book, Concept can be pretty fluid: if you say something happened, it happened unless it defies the laws of physics, and even those can bend in fantastic realities. The most important thing to bear in mind is You MUST Support Your Concept. If your story hinges on a reality where objects fall up, you need to explain the places where this doesn’t happen. If everything else falls up, you can’t take for granted that your characters are excused from this law because they need to walk around on a planet’s surface. Explain it. Likewise, Characters need to be real and consistent. If your villain does something not villainous, give him a reason. If you have a large cast, try to give each character an individual voice and something that makes him or her stand out from the pack. Clarity becomes particularly important in action scenes and magical realms; your amazing system won’t serve your story if no one can understand it, and your heroine’s battle skills can become cumbersome if you don’t know how to get them across. And Continuity keeps your plot focused and allows the reader to suspend his or her disbelief enough to get lost in your world. For me, continuity errors are the thing most likely to throw me out of the experience. If you have stated your heroine is a virgin and she turns up pregnant without either having had sex or you providing a damn good reason how that could happen, your continuity is flawed. Likewise, a character you killed in chapter three should not appear in chapter twenty-three unless you explain how that happened.
I count fixing all of the four Cs as part of my first draft. In fact, I have the kind of mind that can’t make progress in later portions of the book unless all the earlier parts make sense, so there are times when I may write three or four versions of chapter four until I get one that works, and then bring the succeeding chapters in line before going on. Not everyone works this way. Some people have to keep going from beginning to end, and some people have to skip around. The important part is answering the questions.
After you have a complete first draft, it’s time to look at your actual language use. Doing this requires a certain level of self-awareness and often a thesaurus. Go over your work, check for specific words you overuse, and highlight them. Common offenders are “was” and “that.” I also mark “just,” “could,” “back,” and the suffix “-ly.” Sometimes I mark other things as well. My protagonist likes to use a lot of qualifiers: “That was really gross” or “John is pretty awesome.” More often then not, you can drop the qualifier. If you overuse the verb “to be” (i.e., was, were), your manuscript gets a static feeling, so it’s good to examine how you might rewrite to include action-oriented verbs.
The reason I say this part takes a certain level of self-awareness is that you need to be able to distance yourself from the fact that you’re looking at SOMETHING YOU WROTE OMG enough to recognize repetitive word use. If you put yourself aside, you’ll be more able to see where you might improve, and this, in turn, will enable you to learn what to look for next time. But it’s always important to remember that repeating words or using static verbs says nothing about you and nothing about your skill. In other words, you STILL DO NOT SUCK. Everyone repeats words in early drafts. Everyone uses static verbs. Everyone uses qualifiers. We do it because that’s how we talk, and it pops into our heads, and IT’S EASY. Nothing wrong with that. The error would be in not learning, in not improving what can be improved. There is a vast difference between conversation between friends hanging out and literature. Learn what it is. (This can actually help you improve your use of voice, too.)
Once I reach this stage, I start sending chapters out to Beta readers, and the whole process repeats itself. If possible, I like to recruit several Betas of different backgrounds and areas of expertise, because each one of them will have different concerns. A paragraph that is clear to one person may not be to another. Of course, you can’t please everyone. Do your best to weigh the advice you get, take what you find valuable, and let the rest go.
And then, put your MS away. Go have a life. Okay, if you have another story beating at the gates of your brain, you can start something new. I like to get away from writing altogether for a while. Some people will let a MS rest for six months; I generally make it one or two. But letting your MS rest is an important part of the editing process, because it helps you get perspective. And you need the perspective because the last part of the editing process is forgetting you’re a writer and re-visiting the story as a reader.
I think most of us write what we’d like to read. And I think most of us have opinions on what we read: what works and what doesn’t, how a sentence should have gone, what words we would have used instead of the ones the author chose. Whether that 200-page underworld sequence was absolutely necessary, or whether she REALLY would have married him after all that. If you can learn to view your work through a reader’s eyes, editing becomes much, much easier. This is the part that proponents of the “It’s impossible to edit your own work” school of thought believe a writer can’t do, and I’m not going to kid you: It’s not a simple shift to make. You have to give up any ego investment in the story. Stop thinking it’s going to make you anything or get you anything. Whatever it is you think will change in your life because you’re a published writer–fame, money, escape, recognition, freedom–forget about it. This is the place where the story is an independent entity that works or doesn’t, that has to stand or fall on its own. It isn’t yours anymore. The fact that you wrote it no longer matters. It sweeps you up, or it doesn’t. Either way, it’s a moment in your life. If you like it, if you don’t, it doesn’t mean anything about you.
The secret to self-editing is being able to move at will between being a creator and a voyeur and having no attachment to either role. If you can develop that mindset, I guarantee you your work will improve. And keep improving. It will make your work better, it will make your process more pleasant, and it will make things like querying and marketing easier. Which is a good thing, because a writer’s life is hard enough. Anything that can relieve the stress and help you remember why you started writing in the first place is a thing to be cherished.