How do we edit our own work?
I often tell aspiring writers to share their work with friends or family members so that they can get honest helpful feedback on their writing. Ideally, we want Beta readers who we trust will tell us the truth about our books or stories, someone who will be brutally honest without being cruel. As professionals, we have editors who work through our manuscripts with us, and I’ve often said that you can tell when a writer gets so successful that he or she stops accepting editorial direction. His/her books become bloated, long-winded, and far less compelling. When it comes right down to it, we all need external editors, people who can look at our writing from a fresh perspective and tell us what works and what doesn’t.
I would argue, though, that we writers also need to develop an internal editor. We need to learn to correct our own mistakes, to recognize when our stories are breaking down and why. Self-editing isn’t an easy skill to develop. It can take years; for some writers it never fully happens. But if you can teach yourself to edit your own books and stories — if you can learn to read them with a critical eye and anticipate the problems that a professional editor might find — you give yourself a better chance of impressing an editor or agent with your work.
So how do we identify the weaknesses in our own writing? How do we overcome that proximity to our work that makes it hard to spot typos, much less significant flaws in character development or plot or voice? One easy trick is to put work away for a time. Finish a story or book and put it away for four or six or eight weeks. When you go back to read it again, you’ll find that you see the story with fresh eyes, and that weaknesses you hadn’t spotted before appear with discomforting clarity. The problem with this approach is that we often don’t have the luxury of so much time. Either we have deadlines that have to be met (submission deadlines, assignment deadlines if you’re a student) or we simply don’t want to take the time out from our current writing project. This is what we’re working on now, and we don’t want to put a six week hold on our work. (I understand these concerns quite well; but I should say here that I ALWAYS put my work away for a time after finishing it, because this simple approach to self-editing works enormously well for me.)
If putting work away for a time isn’t an option, I would suggest a couple of other approaches, both of which I use with some success. One is to choose a specific reader — someone whose tastes I know quite well — and try to put myself in that person’s mind as I read through my work. In other words, I imagine that I am my editor at Tor or my agent or my wife or my high school writing teacher, and I read the story as I expect they would. Sounds hokey, I know. But it works. I can hear my wife or my agent in my head reacting to passages, both ones they would like and ones they wouldn’t. More to the point, this exercise imposes that much needed distance on my reading of the story. I’m no longer looking at it as the writer; I’m actually searching for flaws, for phrases and plot points that these people I know and trust would tell me don’t work. It’s a role-playing game of sorts. And that, ultimately, is what self-editing has to be.
If that approach doesn’t work, try this one, which involves a bit more work on your part, but will probably offer the greatest chance of success. Go back and read an older piece — a story or a novel, or even part of a novel — that you haven’t looked at in some time. The distance that we are seeking with all these approaches to self-editing should be there with this work. The flaws should be fairly obvious. Keep notes as you read through it. Jot down all the mistakes you can identify: character problems, plotting issues, mannerisms in your prose that are distracting. All of it. Every ugly quirk of your writing. Then go back to the new piece that you need to edit, and read it through with the flaws of the older work fresh in your mind. Chances are you’ll be pleased to see progress in your work. You’ll probably notice that you’ve corrected many of the mistakes you made in the older piece. You’re a more experienced writer now; your work is better. Chances are you’ll also see many of the old problems popping up again. But armed with the insight you’ve gained from reading the older work, you’ll find them easier to correct in the new piece.
With time and practice you can teach yourself to be your own first editor. It took me several years and several completed novels to get there. And it wasn’t just the act of writing the novels that taught me. It was also going through the editorial process with my editor at Tor. Revising my work gradually taught me to recognize the flaws in my writing, and to anticipate problems so that now I can actually do some self-editing as I write. Over time you can teach yourself to do this as well. And until then, perhaps these exercises will help you develop your internal editor.