Developing Your Internal Editor

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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.

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14 comments to Developing Your Internal Editor

  • Deb S

    Good advice!
    Now if only I can figure out how to shrug the internal editor off my shoulder when I’m trying to write.

  • Great advice! I have a small group of people who read my work before I call it officially finished. I have also found that stepping away from my work for a couple of weeks before attempting an edit is a very wise thing to do. Fresh eyes are always best to spot errors and you can’t do that if you go straight from writing to editing. Plus, if you’re anything like me, you get tired of your characters and need a bit of a break from them!

  • Hi David. I’m in hell-week-rewrites now and it is awful how *bloated* it was. I am shaking my head in horror at myself.

  • Emily Leverett

    David, thank you! The whole “put it aside” is exactly what I tell my students about their papers! Put it aside for 24 hours… and then reread and edit it. Of course, let’s face it, most college students don’t have a chance in hell of getting an assignment done a week before the deadline, let alone a month (and, also, often they don’t have the info and tools to get something done farther than a week in advance). Of course, for some, the idea of “editing” and “revision” is totally new, too.

    The other suggestions are ones I’ll try for me, too.

  • Thanks for the tips, David! This is one thing that I need to develop since it would save time in the formal revision part of publishing.

  • I like the idea of reading an old piece and then going back to the new one with notes in hand. I’ll have to try that out.

    It has been suggested to me for line edits to read the book backward starting with the last line or paragraph. This way your brain can’t get into the flow of the prose. I’ve never tried this, but its popular idea thrown around at the OWW yahoo group.

    Reading to myself aloud works to a degree, but I still find I skip over a few missing words. Recently, I’ve started using a text to speech software to read the story to me. It takes some getting used to Mr. Roboto’s voice, but it’s very helpful. Not only is it easy to hear missing and misspelled words, but I also notice how often unique places and names are used since they aren’t recognized by the software and they’re spelled out.

    How do you shut the editor off? That’s what I need to know.

  • Ah yes, Deb (and NG Dave, too) turning the internal editor off is a whole other concern. Sometimes we just need to write and deal with the rough patches later. Maybe that’s a topic for a future post!

    Jennifer, yes I need space from my characters, and often from my worlds, too. But mostly it’s just giving myself a chance to forget what I’ve written, or to fall out of love with certain turns of phrase. Time can do that, and so can putting on another reader’s hat, as it were. Glad you found the advice helpful.

    Hugs, Faith. And for the rest of you, this is an amazingly accomplished, talented writer saying that she finds her first draft “awful” and “bloated” — we all know that her “awful” prose is probably something the rest of us aspire to. The point is, though, that ALL of us need to edit ourselves and to be edited by others. No author (in my opinion) is so good that he/she doesn’t need a fresh set of eyes to look at his/her work.

    You’re welcome, Emily! My wife teaches at the college level and I used to — many students don’t even have 24 hours to put something aside!! But any time away from a piece can be helpful. Not trying to be cute, but really it’s the quality of the separation that matters more than the quantity. If in 24 hours or a few days a person can really distance him/herself from a piece, then that’s what matters. Thanks for the comments.

    Thanks for the comment, Mark. Yes, my ability to self-edit has without a doubt saved me headaches and time in the formal revision process with my editor. Being able to anticipate his criticisms really helps.

    Dave, I’ve tried the reading backwards thing, and it just doesn’t work for me. Or maybe it’s just so dreadfully boring that I can’t get myself to do it with a 100,000 word manuscript. I do find that reading a piece aloud helps a lot. And I like to print my work rather than editing on the screen. Seeing the work in a new physical format helps me with that distancing process.

  • I had to quick questions regarding your post. First, are you suggesting that we allow our work to get out before it is complete? I have heard many a writer say that you need to keep it to yourself until you get through the whole draft at least because otherwise the other person’s opinions, likes/dislikes may influence your writing or your attitude toward the project as a whole which can have the opposite effect of what you intended.

    The second question is what if you are writing a series of books and you finish book one, is it reasonable to throw that first draft in the drawer and bang away on book two, so that you keep the overall project going but then say six weeks down the line pull out that first draft of book one?

    Thanks a bunch –

  • “two” quick questions. Obviously my internal editor needs to have a cup of coffee or something.

  • Thanks for the questions, Kody (and don’t sweat the typos — you should see how many times my external (Tor) editor has to change my “hear”s to “here”s. Embarrassing….)

    First, what I was getting at with this post was helping writers work through their own issues with their work before they send the work out to other readers, so that they wouldn’t have to necessarily show a book or story to other people before they were ready to. For some writers, showing work before it’s done isn’t a problem; for others it is. But by putting some distance between yourself and your work, be it through taking a few weeks away from it, or putting yourself in another reader’s mindset, or reading through older work to look for patterns, you can give yourself the benefit of a “fresh pair of eyes” without having to show the work to anyone else. That’s what developing the internal editor is about. Now again, for many people showing works in progress to outside readers works tremendously well. But if that’s not something you want to do, these exercises may help.

    As for your other question, yes, by all means, work on the next book in the series while you let the first one stew. Just understand that you might go back to read the first one and see things that need changing that might have ramifications for that second book — a character or plot line that might need changing that might then change something about the next volume. But as long as you’re all right with that, then there’s nothing wrong with moving on to the next volume in the story arc.

    Hope this is helpful. Thanks again for the questions and for visiting the site.

  • Putting a manuscript away for a time works best for me. But then again, I’m not published yet and so don’t have a contracual deadline looming.

    This year should see more editing and redrafting than I’ve ever done before. Newer territory for me, but essential skill-building work.

  • As with so much else in this profession, CE, practice is essential to honing the skill set. That work you do editing and redrafting should make the same kind of work easier next time around. Best of luck with it.

  • This was an insanely good post, David. I gotta remember to link to it from my blog.