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?

28 Responses to The Writer as Editor

  1. Ron Estrada January 30, 2013 at 4:06 am #

    My problem is that I am just drawn to every bit of telling, every repeated word, and every garbled sentence as I write. I’m terrified I’ll forget it’s there if I wait to go back and fix it. I know I need to let it rest, but impatience drives me back to the line I just wrote a few seconds ago to fix it. Sometimes I think I’d be better off if I put a blindfold on when I write.

    Thanks for the advice, Karen. Your follow-up posts sound like must-reads.

  2. Diana Harkness January 30, 2013 at 5:20 am #

    Writing is fairly quick. Editing is prone to more error–errors that spelling and grammar checkers won’t pick up. I made two in the second sentence. I spelled prone “pone” and omitted the “to” And that’s exactly what happens when I write because my brain works faster than my fingers. I edit at the computer and then print out a section to correct it, forcing myself to observe each word carefully. That works, but it doesn’t because when I sit down at the computer to do the rewrite, more errors occur.

    Editing for me is writing. It’s rewriting. “The usual jobs” becomes a list of those “usual jobs.” “The rocky terrain” becomes a description of the land and the rocks. consists of adding description

    I wrote my novel in a year but I’ve spent 2 years editing it. It’s much better than it was, but I keep wondering if I will ever reach the end.

  3. Jackie Layton January 30, 2013 at 5:38 am #

    When editing, I get caught up in the little details and start to wonder about the big picture.
    Then I freeze. And worry. And go back and try to read through for the big picture. Then I get distracted on the little things again.
    So my biggest problem in editing is to focus on the big picture.
    Any suggestions?

    • Judith Robl January 30, 2013 at 6:21 am #

      Find a critique group and let them point things out to you. They will pick up on the inconsistencies of the big picture and keep you on track. Just my two-cents.

  4. Connie Almony January 30, 2013 at 6:13 am #

    I’m one of those weird people who likes to write long-hand and then transfer to type. I think it has to do with utilizing the different parts of my brain—like you mentioned with the editing. When I write long-hand, it’s like journaling, more intimate. When I type it, the editing process begins. It becomes administrative.
    I love what you said about letting it rest before editing. So important. I have phrasings memorized so when I look over it, or read it out loud, I automatically put things in that aren’t really on the page. You need to almost forget your story to see it with a more unbiased eye.

    • Robin Bayne January 30, 2013 at 8:21 am #

      I’m the same way Connie!

    • Jeanne T January 30, 2013 at 9:41 am #

      Hmmm, those are interesting thoughts, about different parts of the brain being used in writing long hand and transferring/editing the story on the screen. I’m pondering…..

  5. Georgianne Moisan January 30, 2013 at 6:19 am #

    Thanks Karen! That was just the advice I needed this morning. I’m totally rewriting my first chapter, and I’ve been stuck in it for over a month. There are things I like from the original chapter, but trying to add it in and make everything flow has been torturous! I need to just write, and not worry about it.

  6. Lisa January 30, 2013 at 6:53 am #

    Thanks Karen, this is great advice. I think I struggle the most with rewriting and rewriting and rewriting. I guess, knowing when to stop editing and turn it over to someone with greater skills 🙂

  7. Sally Bradley January 30, 2013 at 6:59 am #

    One of the most difficult aspects of editing my own stuff is that after half a gazillion passes through it, I begin to hate it all. I lose complete perspective and begin to think it’s all trash.

  8. Elaine Clampitt January 30, 2013 at 7:00 am #

    It really hit home with me how writing and editing are two different things when I stopped working on my NaNoWriMo story to go back and edit the first five pages to enter a contest. Whoa! It was like getting off the Tilt-A-Whirl at the fair. It took me a while to engage the editing side of my brain. The problem was, once engaged, it was hard to shut it down and get back to being creative. That is my biggest struggle with editing. I think I need to completely finish my fast draft before I start to edit or at least allow a decent amount of time when I switch from one to the other. When I edit sometimes I worry that I’m editing out the soul of my story. On the other hand, I love the chance to make my writing that much better. Get rid of any cliches, add setting and description or just go back and make the character align with what I now know about them.

  9. Robin Patchen January 30, 2013 at 7:49 am #

    Great post. I completely agree with your advice about letting the novel sit for awhile. I have friends who’ll write a chapter and then immediately submit it for critique. I can’t do that. I write the whole book and then put it aside–for months–before I go back to it. It helps to have other projects in the works to edit while it simmers. But if I go back right away, I don’t see the issues, because I remember what I was trying to say, I add inflections in the dialogue that aren’t really there. I find this system works well for me right now. When I’m working toward a deadline, this will be much harder, I know.

  10. Kimberly Rose Johnson January 30, 2013 at 8:33 am #

    For me the hardest part of editing is noticing where I should be showing rather than telling. I understand the concept that if you could see it playing out on stage then it’s showing, but recently I had someone telling me that character actions can be telling if I could have shown their feelings in a different way. I have to say this seriously confuses me.
    The only thing I love about editing is getting it finished.:)

  11. Rebecca January 30, 2013 at 8:48 am #

    One thing I recently discovered that helps my editing process substantially is to read it on a different reading device. In my case I send the manuscript to myself in an email then open it and read it on my smart phone. I ALWAYS find errors that way. Even things I didn’t see when I printed the manuscript out on paper. And I also agree that waiting a week or two allows me to see the manuscript with new eyes. I don’t even solicit critiques until I’ve waited several weeks and read and edited it several times. I can’t imagine sending out a chapter for critique immediately after writing it–yikes! Sometimes when I come back to the text after a couple weeks away I’m amazed at the things I never noticed before, especially mmisspelled words that spell check doesn’t catch (like “do” instead of “so”). Thanks for posting this, I’m looking forward to more discussion on this topic.

  12. Anna Labno January 30, 2013 at 9:43 am #

    I love writing and editing. 🙂 What I do struggle with is writing too many notes on everything to be included in the novel. Then to put everything in the timeline takes me months. I end up close to 20,000 words outlining before even writing the third chapter of my novel. I do love to research, play things out. What scares me are files and pages of notes! I include almost everything: plot twists, characterizations, plots, settings, history facts, emotinal threads. I won’t just throw things away. I have to organize everything. So yes, sometimes it will eat my energy and take away all the fun because I love writing.
    Eventually I do get back to my work. I know the structure is sound. And I know that I’ll never get stuck.
    I stopped reading books about the craft of writing just for a couple of months. I read many. Everytime I read one, more notes are added to the timeline. I need to know where to stop because I’ll never move to the third chapter.

  13. Jeanne T January 30, 2013 at 9:45 am #

    I love the idea of letting a story mull for awhile before going back to edit. I am quick with writing that first draft. Going back to revise and edit after a period of time makes sense. As I’m working through scenes I wrote months ago, I can really see the glaring errors and things I need to tweak to make the story flow better.

    My mind tends to catch most punctuation and spelling as I type, so those aren’t the big things I need to focus on (not overly much, anyway). It’s the craft issues, do my characters come across likeable in a scene, is the story flowing, leaving readers with a hook, etc. I can see these things more clearly after it’s sat for awhile.

  14. Julie Sunne January 30, 2013 at 10:00 am #

    Great post! I am a professional editor/proofreader. It has been a process to tuck away the editor while I write. Honestly, the reverse has been difficult as well. However, I am ever grateful that I’m sending somewhat “polished” work to fresh eyes for a review. Most difficult: Putting the editor to sleep and letting the words come.

  15. Jason Joyner January 30, 2013 at 10:27 am #

    I’m still aspiring to publication but I finished my first book last year after several years of struggling with getting the words on the page. I finally learned this advice and shut my internal editor off. It was the best thing I ever did for my writing. Instead of agonizing over the perfect word choice and structure, I was able to make progress. I probably wrote 60% of the book in the last year.

    If I could give only one piece of advice to a new writer, this would be it. I’m glad you’re sharing it, because we often need reminding.

    Now I’ve got to get back to editing.

  16. J.D January 30, 2013 at 11:54 am #

    What I LOVE about editing:
    1) Reading only the dialogue in a scene to see how it flows. When read like a conversation I see areas that could be tighter.
    2) Reading the scenes that have a specific character so I can see their arch to make sure it’s curving properly.
    3) Reading out loud! Whoa baby, sometimes I’m like, I wrote what??
    Those are my absolute favs!

    Struggles in editing: Finding that perfect word to describe how a character feels, a description, a thought, etc…I’m no wordsmith and while a thesaurus can help, I get all hung up on finding the “right one” that nails it, tying the sentence together. And I need to let it go! I have found that snapping and talking out loud asking, “what’s that word, Jesus? You know what I’m trying to say” can be the best thesaurus. Ever.

    • Jenni Brummett January 30, 2013 at 12:17 pm #

      Your first two suggestions are great ones. Need to try them soon.

      • J.D January 30, 2013 at 12:45 pm #

        Hello Jenni! One tip I offer is setting aside a chunk of time when reading through your protagonist or any major secondary character. Keeping their arch fresh allows for a more in depth view of the pace of their arch…is it happening to fast, slow, to obvious, needs more tense and so on. Good luck and have fun!

  17. Judy Gann January 30, 2013 at 1:25 pm #

    Karen, thanks so much for this post! I love the pen analogy. I have a difficult time turing off that internal editor. You’re correct, it stifles my creative process.

    I have this quote above my computer: “Write your first draft with your heart. Rewrite with your head.” from the movie “Finding Forrester.”

    Obviously, I need to read this quote more often. 🙂

  18. Barb January 30, 2013 at 1:58 pm #

    As I write I worrty about what people will think and what errors they will find so I keep editing as I go. It makes the writing process so slow and then I get bogged down. This post was permission for me to stop worrying and keep writing. Thanks!

  19. Pat Jaeger January 30, 2013 at 3:38 pm #

    Karen, thank you for this terrific advice. I have left a manuscript as long as a year (most usually it’s about a month), or I turn it over to someone in my writer’s group. When I wait awhile to re-read the story, I get a better idea of whether it “hooks” me or leaves me wandering in the desert, and editing it becomes a wee bit easier because it isn’t as familiar to me. Robin and J.D. you are right on with your comments.

  20. Jan Thompson January 31, 2013 at 4:08 pm #

    Karen, thank you for the two-tipped pen word picture. I see my need to space out editing from the writing, rather than do them back-to-back. It’s like making that pen do somersault all day long on my MS.

    • J.D January 31, 2013 at 11:14 pm #

      Jan, A pen doing somersaults… hee hee. The visual got me on that one. Look out for the flying pen!


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