Monday, November 5, 2018

Editing - How to Learn From Your Writing

As much as us writers like to create, there comes a time when we have to review our work not as writers, but as editors. We have to look at our work with a critical eye, studying our beautiful words for the disasters living between the lines. This can be troubling and even painful, but like most tough tasks, it is a great way to polish your writing skills.

For those who are worried, this will not be about punctuation, grammar, and a vigorous debate about the Oxford comma. Rather, this will be a simple discussion about how to incorporate editing into your process, and how to establish your priorities. If you are particularly passionate about the grammar side, there is a time and a place. However, when you write any story, your first focus should be on the story itself, not whether there should be a semicolon.

There are a few schools of thought about how to edit your work, so I will start with my personal process. First and foremost, I never do my editing in the place where I do my writing. Sound weird? Maybe superstitious? It might. However, just as it helps to have a regular time and place to do your writing, there should be a pattern for when you put on your editor hat, and they should be different. The theory behind this is that when you get into a routine for your editing, your mind switches into editor mode rather than writing mode, and you can think critically rather than creatively. It becomes easier to look over your own work and fix it rather than create more of it.

My creative space is seated in front of my laptop, usually within a social environment like a Starbucks (I know it's a stereotype, but it works). This stirs up my creativity; it helps me create my world, my dialogue, my characters. However, when I become an editor, everything changes. I do not edit on my laptop, but rather on printed copy with a pen. I am usually seated in a quiet place, preferably with scotch on the rocks (time and place permitting). I developed this habit over the years, and once I get into that environment, I become an editor. When the laptop comes out, my creative side jumps up like Pavlov's dog hearing a bell.

And here's why it is important.

The biggest part of editing our own work has nothing to do with commas and grammar, or the proper spelling of "occurrence." Anyone can do the grammar part. As the author, your first edit has to be with the big-picture issues. Does your story develop properly? Are the character's actions a reasonable response to events? Do characters have independent voices and distinct personalities? Is the pacing appropriate for that stage of the story? Most importantly, are the messages you wish to convey explained effectively? These are things that you know better than anyone else, so it is your biggest responsibility to address these issues.

Many people suggest that the best way to approach this is to step away from your finished work for a while - a few weeks to a couple of months for a full manuscript - and perhaps have someone else read it, preferably someone who can be open and critical. Having a family member such as a parent read it is nice, but unless your goal is to have your manuscript pinned up on the refrigerator, you might want to find someone who you trust can be critical. Let them read it, and tell them to throw every question that comes to mind at you. And listen. Workshop the piece if possible, and take in as much feedback as possible.

Not all feedback is valuable, but all feedback should at least be considered. If someone says they didn't understand a particular relation, look at that part and see if it needs to be clarified. If some feedback says that a particular character was not likable, think about whether that character needs to be more likable or maybe they are just fine being their annoying self. Be open to every comment at least to some degree. If the first comment is, "This sucks," then at least consider whether or not it needs to suck less. In short, be open to everything but know that you don't have to accept anything.

This big-scale edit might require a lot of rewriting, moving sections around, deleting conversations and narratives, or whole sections of your beautiful words. This is fine - they served their purpose and their sacrifice is for the good of the manuscript. The larger story will benefit from this, as the broad arcs of the story will be sharpened, refined, and carry the reader along.

And once you get that done, you are ready for the next stage of editing - which is still not the grammar part.


3 comments:

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  2. You don't know my mother; she is very critical, especially when it comes to writing. She is an avid reader, so if you ever want your work critiqued by someone who won't hold back, she's your editor. (My writing wouldn't make it on her refrigerator.)

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