Wednesday, June 13, 2007

The self-editing question

Last weekend I was invited to participate in an online colloquy of writers and editors. These were writers of fiction–genre fiction, for the most part, in genres I know nothing about. So these were not potential clients and therefore the conversation was not tainted by any suspicion that I was selling anything.

The moderator kicked things off with a question that comes up a lot with novelists, especially first-time novelists with no cash to invest in their work: The publisher is going to hire an editor to edit my work; why should I self-edit beforehand?

I wrote:
The Why is easy. If you don’t, your manuscript is likely to be rejected. If you are self-publishing and you plan to pay an editor, the better the manuscript is going in, the less the editor is going to charge you to improve it and the better the end product will be.

The How is more interesting.

Self-editing requires a mind shift that some writers find difficult.

When you are writing—especially when you are writing fiction—you are “in the flow,” (the sports cliché is “in the zone”). This is a phenomenon that has been described for centuries by writers writing self-reflectively on the writing process. Today we tend to call this right-brain activity, thanks to the book Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain. Neuroscientists tell us that the right–left paradigm doesn’t reflect the physiological reality, but it works well enough for our purposes in an informal discussion like this.

When you start editing, you need to get into your left brain. That’s easier for some people than for others. That’s why you frequently see the advice to set the manuscript aside for a week or a month or six months and then come back to it with fresh eyes, as a reader. Some people can just stop writing and start editing after a coffee break or a night’s sleep. The people who have the hardest time making the switch need longer.

Another technique that can help the big-right-brain creative writer to start self-editing effectively is to join a writing group (you may have to look around to find one you’re comfortable with) that does a good job of peer editing. You can get a feel for the way other members read and criticize each other’s work and then learn, by watching, how to take criticism of your own work. The hard part can be switching from the writerly point of view that you’ve poured your soul onto the paper and any little comment is a dagger to your heart to the publisher’s point of view that you’re dealing with the words on the paper and your job is to polish them the best you can.

Once you’ve got your head in the right place–or the left place, I suppose—learning to edit well is just a matter of practice, reading, and conversation with other editors. Sure, you should study a style manual and maybe brush up on your basic grammar; but what you’ll find is that few rules are hard and fast. A good editor (and a good self-editor) doesn’t lest fusty old prescriptive rules stand in the way of communication between writer and reader. So you’ll learn much more by asking questions on an editing list than by memorizing a grammar textbook.

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