Last week, I wrote about why I think self-editing is important. Judging from the comments and emails we received, it touched a nerve! Some people relish this part of the process and believe that true writing starts here, while others would rather turn it over to someone else.
I enjoy editing and helping authors find the best way to convey what’s in their minds and hearts. But I find it difficult to edit my writing. If you struggle with this, I understand where you’re coming from. You are not alone.
I like to know how things work, so I unpacked why self-editing can be challenging. You’ve probably heard much of this before. It’s not new, but sorting out the difficulties helped me understand the challenges and myself better, and it may help you too.
I see three main categories of challenges: know-how, point of view, and resistance, and these challenges apply whether we’re talking about the whole story, a scene, or sentences. When you understand the underlying problem, you are well on your way to finding a solution.
Like writing, editing requires knowledge and skills. Where do you start? What do you look for? How do you decide what to cut and keep? No surprise there. Some people possess native strengths that make the tasks easier than for others. This is true of nearly everything we do in life. The point is we’re not talking about mystical powers. What you need to know to self-edit is learnable, though in my experience it’s not taught in school. (Memories can be faulty, but it seems as if I received only vague instructions about proofreading.)
I developed a taste for the craft of editing by stumbling upon it working on my college newspaper and heading up my law journal. I followed my interest from there: asked questions, read what other people had to say about it. One of the most helpful things was an English professor’s advice to take notes on everything I read: a summary of the work on one page of a notebook and a critique on the facing page to record what I liked and didn’t and why. I used this process for books assigned in class and the ones I read in my book club years later.
This is a system that worked for me. Chances are you have a sense for what works for you. If you’re not sure how you work, try experimenting with different approaches.
If you want to learn new skills, it helps to model people who already know how to do it and experiment with what their techniques. It’s one of the reasons we perform edits on the Writership Podcast because we want to demystify the process for writers. In your exploration, you may discover conflicting opinions. Understand that different people have different styles and you need to test ideas for yourself. Don’t take anyone’s word (including mine) for anything.
Discovering problem areas gets better with practice and asking great questions. The ultimate question is, does this piece of writing do what I want it to do? Beyond that are smaller questions, like nested boxes. What is your intention? What is the point you’re trying to make? Who is your ideal reader? What do you want the reader to feel and do when they finish the book? Does the opening pull the reader into the story and make a promise that bears fruit at the end of the book? These answers help you find problems and decide how to solve them.
As you learn your new skills, remember that your work slows and it can feel awkward. It’s hard until it gets easier. Tim Grahl talked about learning to use the ergonomic Colemak keyboard layout in an episode of the Story Grid podcast. More recently writer and tribe leader Sebastian Marshall talked about the same concept in baseball the Unmistakable Creative podcast. You might imagine that are the protagonist of your own story—about writing your story—and that you’ve hit an obstacle that you can overcome.
Along those lines, remember that your technique gets rusty when you don’t use it, and it helps to think critically about the stories you read and watch. Once you start to look for story structure, for example, you’ll see it in other people’s work and can spot what works and doesn't in your own work. (People have asked me if being an editor ruins my enjoyment of stories. It doesn’t. In fact, I have a deeper appreciation for the work that goes into creating the final product.)
Point of View
The second category of difficulty with self-editing is one of the main reasons people seek professional editors and beta readers. We’re so close to our work and can’t see our own blind spots. This is a real problem, but again, we can improve our chances with exploration and effort.
You are so familiar with your work. That’s a good thing, but that familiarity makes it hard to see what’s missing and what to cut. You understand your vision for the project, and you can’t see the gap between what you see in your mind and what ended up on the page often because your mind has filled it in. Our stories can be personal if we explore difficult circumstances in our lives and the questions that haunt us. Even if you aim for less personal subjects, your manuscript represents time and effort. Lunches skipped. TV shows missed. Hours of sleep you could have had. You’ve invested a lot, and you care about your stories, your intellectual children.
It’s hard to be objective, but it’s worth the effort to make progress here. You know the story better than anyone, so you are the best person to make critical decisions. Your editor can give you advice and reveal trouble spots, but you are responsible for what goes out in the world with your name on it.
You can find lots of advice about gaining distance and perspective that comes down to time and formatting. Leave days, weeks, or months between writing and revision, enough so that the story and sentences seem less familiar to you. The period varies for different writers.
Changing the format of your manuscript is the other primary way to make a manuscript less familiar to you. Simple options include changing the font, spacing, and background. But you can also load it onto a Kindle and read it there. Some people like to read a hard copy, and I’m in this camp. You can use a tiny font to get a bird’s-eye view of the manuscript spread out on the floor (use different highlighters to identify scenes, sequences, point of view characters). I’ve also heard of hanging the pages on a clothes line. You can use the text to speech feature on a Kindle or use an app like Natural Reader to hear your words. Finally try, tools to analyze your work. Shawn Coyne’s book The Story Grid helps you analyze story components as data. For copyediting and proofreading, use editing software like ProWriting Aid, Hemingway Editor, or Grammarly. Though not a substitute for a professional editor, these programs do more than reveal your typos. You can discover the average length of your sentences, the reading level required to understand your story, and the words and phrases that are difficult to understand or that don’t add meaning.
As a writer, you’re probably familiar with resistance. Steven Pressfield tells us that we trigger resistance when we perform, “any act that derives from our higher nature instead of our lower.” Improving your manuscript (and your skills to do so) falls squarely inside the boundaries.
Resistance can show up in the beliefs about your abilities, but also as the fear of messing up your story. When you work on your skills and keep notes and the earlier versions of your work, you can ease the discomfort. But we defeat resistance by doing the work. Add editing to your schedule, and when it is time, sit down and do the work. You can’t defeat resistance forever, but you can undermine its ability to be successful when you commit to your practice and follow through.
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