The Writer as Editor

Reading the document

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.

Editing pen 2

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?

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Editing 101 – My Turn

Thanks for all the great comments and conversation on what needed to be edited in the text I posted in my last blog (Editing 101 – Y0ur Turn). You all made some great observations!

Below you’ll find the edited text. I tried doing it in Track Changes, which is what I usually use to edit a manuscript, but the blog server didn’t like that much. So I’ve made the edits red (think the dreaded red pen), and highlighted my comments for the author (who happens to be me, so I don’t say in my comments what I always say to my authors: feel free to change as you wish! It’s imperative the author knows my edits are suggestions, not mandates). The comments follow the section they refer to.

Sorry if this is confusing. Ah, the joys of finding programs that play nice together.

See if you agree with what I felt were the main editing issues.


Sammy said it was a long time since he seen Rufus. Said the ol’ dog shoulda been home long time ago. Said somethin’ musta happened to the mutt and said it was my fault fer bein’ so stupid and not tyin’ him up when I shoulda.

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Today is a Great Day to (re)Write

by Steve Laube

James Michener, the bestselling novelist, once said, “I’m not a very good writer, but I’m an excellent rewriter.” And today is your day to follow suit.

No one knows your work or what you are trying to accomplish better than you. In that sense you can be your own best editor.

In a 1958 interview with The Paris Review Ernest Hemingway was asked,

“How much rewriting do you do?”

Hemingway replied, “It depends. I rewrote the ending to Farewell to Arms, the last page of it, thirty-nine times before I was satisfied.”

The stunned interviewer asked, “Was there some technical problem there? What was it that had stumped you?”

Hemingway said simply, “Getting the words right.”

Roald Dahl, the author of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, said, ““By the time I am nearing the end of a story, the first part will have been reread and altered and corrected at least one hundred and fifty times. I am suspicious of both facility and speed. Good writing is essentially rewriting. I am positive of this.”

It is the same for both fiction and non-fiction since the principles are similar.

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Editing 101 – Your Turn

I’ve had a number of writers ask me if I can show an edited page from a manuscript, so they can learn from it. So that seems a fun way to start out the New Year. But what I want to do is let YOU take a turn as an editor first. So here, for your editing pleasure, is something I wrote just for this occasion. Print this out, put on your editing hat, and go for it. I’ll post the edited text next week, so we can compare and discuss!


Sammy said it was a long time since he seen Rufus. Said the ol’ dawg shoulda been home long time ago. Said somethin’ musta happent to the mutt and said it was my fault fer bein’ sew stupid and not tyin’ him up wh’n I shoulda. “Gilly, you no good” he says to me. Like he’s so good and special.

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My Editor Made Me Look Fat!

by Steve Laube

You just received a 15 page single spaced editorial letter from your publisher. They want you to rewrite most of the book. But you disagree with the letter and are spitting mad. What do you do?

Or your agent took a look at your manuscript and told you to cut it in half to make it sellable. What do you do?

Both examples are true stories and illustrate the universal challenge of refining your manuscript to make it the best it can be.

In the first example there was great “gnashing of teeth” but eventually my client, the long time veteran author, and the long time veteran editor saw eye-to-eye and made the book great.

In the second example my client Peyton Jones said, “Okay, let’s see what I can do.” He did the necessary work and we sold it to David C. Cook. The revised manuscript is being published in April under the title of Church Zero: Raising 1st Century Churches out of the Ashes of the 21st Century Church.

Calvin Miller once told me that he appreciated a firm editorial hand. He described it as flint striking a rock. Only when they clash is a spark created. I think he was right.

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Editorial Feedback – Not Just Static

As Steve Laube pointed out the other day in his post “The Stages of Editorial Grief” receiving a tough edit can make a writer feel off-kilter, angry, unworthy, and summon other negative emotions. Of course it’s okay to experience negative emotions. You can’t control how you feel, though you can control how you manage your feelings. As he wisely points out, the key is to overcome emotions and get to work.


I’ve edited and been edited, but I can’t say I have ever gotten such a tough edit that I wanted to throw a Waterford vase across the room. One advantage may have been majoring in Journalism in college which groomed me never to become attached to my words. News articles are no place for waxing eloquent, opining, or philosophizing. And with loads of information available today from so many sources, readers rarely indulge fluff from any but their most beloved authors. This is why it’s best not to become attached to your words. Any of them. Don’t become too fond of your title, which will most likely be changed in the Titling meeting. Don’t treat finding new names for your characters as though the courts are petitioning you to change your child’s name. And speaking of characters, don’t develop your own love affair with any secondary characters. They may get the boot in editing. Be willing to let go of your fondest habits and pet phrases. They may seem distinctive to you, but if they annoy an editor, it’s best to listen.

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Count Your Many Phrases

We all have our pet phrases and they can inadvertently sneak their way into our manuscripts. Yesterday I came across a marvelous web site that can help you discover how often your repeat a particular phrase in your article or manuscript.

Using the Phrase Frequency Counter online, you can actually track what phrases you overuse. It is also a great way to pick out those clichés that can creep into your writing.

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