Tapping into Your Inner Editor

editing headaches?  girl-504315_1280If you join an online writers group, talk will eventually turn to editing: either the revisions/edits authors make to their own work or those done with the help of a word-wrangling professional. Often when I’m involved in one of those discussions, I get a sense that a lot of writers think the editing process is 1) like being forced to drink liquefied kale; 2) anathema to their creativity; and 3) completely alien to them.

We’ve had some posts about how and why to hire an editor, so I won’t go into that here. I want to talk about what makes a good editor and some ways authors can put those qualities to work to make self-editing more productive and less painful.

I began by chatting with a few of my fellow editors. Beyond facility with the language, a lust for caffeine, and a robust but possibly unhealthy attachment to the style manual of their choice, these were the most commonly mentioned qualities of a good editor:

Focus. My grandmother had a great equivalent in Yiddish: sitzfleisch. It literally translates as “sitting flesh,” and its more figurative meaning is the ability to focus on a task for a length of time. Give the revision process the attention it deserves. If it helps, schedule blocks of editing time on your calendar. Eliminate as many distractions as you can. And make sure you’re approaching your manuscript when you’re at your best. Fatigue and hunger sap your ability to focus. Some scientists have suggested that paying attention to how your personal energy flows during the day can help you plan for different tasks. For instance, I’m more creative in the morning and more analytical as the day progresses. My mental energy dips in the late afternoon, and it returns for a while in the early evening. Whenever possible, I try to plan accordingly.

Empathy. Sometimes when I’m editing, I know what the author is trying to express — I can just feel it — but it’s not coming out on the page. The more I can put myself in the shoes of the author, his or her characters, or the mind of a potential reader, the more easily I can tap into what’s going on. We all have varying degrees of empathy, and you don’t know how every reader is going to react. But often revision requires that you step away from what you meant to write and try to look at the words as a potential reader might. And I know this is hard, because we can all go a little blind to our own work. That’s one of the reasons why critique partners and beta readers are so magnificent: they give us the perspective we sometimes lack.

Compassion. I was a newbie once. We all were. I had some trepidation when I handed my baby off for its first-ever edit. Fortunately, I’d hired a compassionate professional who knew how to give constructive feedback while pointing out the positives in my work. When I edit, I try to remember that experience. When I revise my own first drafts, I really try to remember that experience, because I can be my own worst critic. One of the best ways I’ve found to combat this is to put the manuscript away for a while. It might sound a little out there, but with time and distance, I’m no longer the “first-draft me” who wrote the story and left all those errors and plot holes. I’m more able to look back with objectivity and compassion for how difficult it can be to write a first draft. I’m more likely to recognize what’s good in the work and what needs attention, instead of slashing it all to ribbons and making myself miserable.

Flexibility. Editors attempt to achieve a delicate balance, especially fiction editors. Fiction is an art form, but it’s also a method of communication. That’s why we bend the rules of grammar at times to suit the story. Something might be strictly “correct” from a grammatical standpoint, but it could have the potential to make a bump in the reading experience or violate the author’s voice. Also, there are often multiple ways of approaching the same problem. Strict adherence to whatever your favorite author is recommending doesn’t always serve your own work. Finding your voice and confidence is a process. We all do it.

This is by no means an exhaustive list of the tools in an editor’s skill set that you as an author can call on during the revision process. Patience, curiosity, and a sense of humor also help. And coffee. Did I mention the coffee?

Authors, how do you approach editing your own work? Any tricks that you’d like to share?

Author: Laurie Boris

Laurie Boris is a freelance writer, editor, proofreader, and former graphic designer. She has been writing fiction for over twenty-five years and is the award-winning author of four novels. She lives in New York’s lovely Hudson Valley. Learn more about Laurie at her website and her Amazon author page.

23 thoughts on “Tapping into Your Inner Editor”

  1. Great post, Laurie. Thank you! I find that putting the manuscript away is the hardest–and most fruitful–part of editing. It’s remarkable how much easier it is to spot problem areas once you’ve given it several full days.

    1. Thank you, Stacie! Putting the manuscript away is one of my favorite self-editing tools, but it’s tough for me sometimes, too. I want to start revising NOW! 😀

      1. Laurie, I am exactly the same way. It’s so hard to put down! The process sometimes helps me in reverse, too. I walk away often and feel like I’m missing something, but come back and realize that I was closer than I thought. Putting the manuscript aside is good for that reason, too, and that’s how I manage to put it in the drawer. Enjoyed your post–thanks again!

  2. Great post. A tool I like to use is the Adobe read out loud function. The voice might seem a bit robotic, but I’ve found it profoundly effective to hear someone else read my work back to me. Dropped words, incorrect (or overused) words, wrong names tagged on dialog, and sentence flow (or lack thereof) is more easily detected. It won’t find everything (like usage errors), but it certainly makes life a little easier for my editor.

    You can also download other voices and/or similar read out loud applications. In fact I had to stop using a voice with a British accent because I got too caught up listening to the voice and missed errors. 😉

    1. Thanks, Bruce! I read aloud while I’m editing, my own and other authors’ manuscripts, but I’ve never tried letting the robot voice do it. Hearing it is such a great way to find missing words and clunky sentences.

    2. I use the Adobe read out loud too. Also, I find taking a break from editing the book for about a month helps me to read it with fresh eyes and I get a better idea of what the reader will see.

  3. Typos, missing words, lapses in logic, plot holes, ah yes, I know them well.
    An editor, you say? Now why didn’t I think of that?

    Great post, Laurie. Thanks millions.

  4. Wonderful tips, especially about the energy flows of the day. Sometimes it’s just not a good time to be trying to edit something.

    1. Thanks! After banging my head against the wall for so long, I decided it’s easier to work with my energy instead of fighting it.

  5. A good reminder of editing tips as well as the importance of using beta readers. It’s that latter part that I resist, only because I don’t like searching for them. Thanks, Laurie. You’re a wonderful editor. Without your eyes on my manuscript, my debut novel would not have passed the test.

  6. I think the two greatest tools for editing are (1) beta readers and (2) cooling off time. As soon as I’m done with a manuscript and have given it my own first read-through to catch blatant errors, I ship it off to a dozen or so beta readers and do not touch it while it’s out being read. Don’t even look at it. I call that my “fallow” period, when I’m doing absolutely nothing about the book. It can be tough, especially if I’ve finished the book with a lot of momentum and I feel like I “should” get cracking on something new, but I rein myself in and just wait. Wait for the feedback. By the time I start getting notes and comments from the betas, then I’m ready to go back in and start editing. It’s amazing how just a few weeks away can change the perspective. Great article, Laurie!

    1. Thanks, Melissa! The “shoulds” are evil, sometimes. That pulsing first-draft is just…SITTING there! But…I wanna dive back in and rewrite this, fix that, tear it up! Once I put the file on a thumb drive (symbolically, of course), handed it to my husband, and said, “Here. Take this away from me.”

  7. I do pretty much what Melissa does – except that I write so slowly I don’t need much of a cool-off period. By the time I’m ready for my first rewrite/major edit it’s no longer fresh. I use that first pass to rework awkward sentences, correct obvious errors and get a feel for issues with flow. Once that’s done I go thruogh it three or four more times but by thge fourth pass I’m blind to what it needs. That’s when it goes to my beta readers. Then another couple of passes taking into accounrt what they have told me before sending it to my editor.

    1. So fascinating to hear that while we’re basically going through the same process, we have such different approaches. And funny that our brains think they’re being so smart and efficient, skimming by those familiar words, when they’re actually making us blind to our work. Hence another reason for that cooling-off period.

  8. Like Yvonne, I’m a slow writer. Even so, I distance myself from the story for several weeks. In my methodology, I look for different “problems” in each subsequent revision. When I’ve addressed all of the issues, the manuscript goes to a few trusted beta readers. After weighing their suggestions and making necessary changes, I do a final proofread in my Kindle Previewer.

    If I’m having trouble with the structure of a sentence or the sequence of a paragraph, I will read the words aloud. Otherwise, I trust the silent voice in my head–the one that all readers use.

    Great post, Laurie, with useful tips for self-editing. Pinned & shared.

  9. One of the most difficult parts of editing is when you have a narrator with a distinctive voice, because editing is a process of bringing work closer to the norm, and individuality is the opposite of the norm. So, while a specific character can have oral habits with grammar errors in them, it’s more difficult when the narrator of the story has that sort of habit.
    If you know what I mean 🙂
    That’s why editing is an art, as opposed to proofreading, which is more of a science.

  10. I edit as I go because my subconscious literally won’t let me continue if I ‘know’ something isn’t right. Not talking about typos or grammar, but plot and structure. After the first draft, I do what everyone else does with one exception – I load the MS onto my Kindle and read it as a naive reader would. The change of pattern, size and location really does help to distance you from the work. Another trick is to turn the music off [I always write with music on during the drafting stage]. Without music to provide an emotional soundtrack, the words have to do the job all by themselves. That’s when I find out if the prose works. Often it doesn’t, but it’s better to find out before other readers tell you. And then, eventually, it’s time for the real editor to take a hand. Painstaking but necessary.

  11. Hi Laurie,

    Thank you for the entertaining article on editing. To answer your questions: For me, before I turn my work over to my wife to edit and to beta readers, I look for readability. Does it make sense? Is what I wrote, understandable? I try to keep my writing at a casual conversational level without complex punctuation, grammar or story line structure. Does the timeline work? We need to remember, ninety nine percent of our reading population are casual readers. Does this story flow smoothly enough? They are looking for an entertaining escape from their complex world.

    I hope this helps,

  12. I’m with Melissa in that Beta readers pick up so much I think is quite clear and understandable. And yes, a down time away from the manuscript is useful. But I think best of all for me to know is that this writer is too close to her own work to edit to the highest standards she wants. 3 cheers for Betas and my writer colleagues who can see the holes where I can’t.

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