by Karen Ball
As we saw in my post last week, there are any number of ways a manuscript can go wrong. Hard enough to write a novel, but then to have to dig in and edit it yourself? That’s especially tough. So here are some tips to help you be the best editor you can be.
Don’t let the editor out to play too soon
Writing and editing are very different functions for the brain. Writing is a creative process; editing, logical and detail-oriented. When writing, we need to let ourselves forget the rules and coax the story to life. When editing, we must embrace the rules as a solid foundation to help us strengthen what’s landed on the page. I’ve seen so many writers almost drive themselves crazy by trying to edit as they write, which ends up making them second-guess everything. And freezes the story in its tracks.
Puts me in mind of one of my favorite pens (pictured below). It’s a two-tip pen—black ink at one end, red at the other. The body of the pen is made of two colors of wood, one with black tones, one with red. One end for writing, the other for editing. The pen works great—so long as I only use one end at a time! Trying to edit and write at the same time would be like grabbing the pen at both ends: totally ineffectual.
If you’re the kind of writer who can edit as you write, kudos. But for the rest of us, let’s give ourselves a break. Don’t do that. Rather, just WRITE. Keep the editor safely closed away until the writing is done.
Now, that can mean until a scene is done, or until a chapter is done, or even until the whole book is done. Whatever works best for you.
One best-selling author told me, “I just get the words on the page. I know they’re stinky words, and I don’t worry about making them shine until the story is finished. Then I go back and edit, edit, edit.”
So consider keeping the editor within caged until the creative work is done. Then, let her (or him) fly.
Give the editor space
This is probably the hardest, and yet most important, step in editing your own work: Give yourself time away from the manuscript before you edit. Too often writers try to edit a book too soon. But when you read something you’ve just written, it’s far too easy to read what you expect to read on the page and completely overlook issues, be they spelling, structure, or even plot.
When you come to a scene or manuscript cold, after not having read it for days or even—gasp!—weeks, the eye comes as a reader, not a creator. One writer friend told me that he realized this when he picked up one of his own novels after it was published to look for a specific line to use in a workshop he was teaching. He ended up getting caught by the power of the writing. My phone call pulled him from the story, and when he told me, somewhat stunned, what had happened, I laughed. I’d been telling him for years what a great writer he is. But it wasn’t until he’d had time away from his work that he saw it for himself.
We need that time away—that distance—to see our own writing more clearly, be it as a reader or as an editor. To look at it with a dispassionate eye, so that we’re not caught in up criticizing ourselves or putting ourselves down—something all writers have to fight. (That’s not being an editor, that’s being a critic. And all writers know how harsh—and how little help–critics can be.) So give yourself the time away to shift gears in your mind from writer, past critic, to editor.
Give the editor tools
There are some simple things you can do to equip your inner editor in his/her job. And next week, we’ll take a look at them, and at the most common editing issues for fiction writers (many of which you can see in those last two weeks of blogs).
But for now, I’m curious. What is your greatest struggle as you edit your own work? And what do you love about editing your own work?