Friday, June 15, 2012

Critical Requirements for Successful Self-Editing

My favorite writing group only has three very dedicated, very talented members. (PCWG Represent!)

The other day we were discussing revisions, self-editing, and the internal editor. One of my very talented cohorts observed she had a penchant for detail. "If you gave me a block of wood, I'd start sculpting with sandpaper."

All three of us observed that the internal editor can get in the way of drafting... but I've recently realized there are times the internal editor can get in the way of revising.

To Whit:

Without the aid of an objective, professional editor, my revisions in the past have often been limited to reading through a hardcopy of my manuscript and deciding which scenes weren't quite delivering, or which sentences were clunky, etc.

But when I reached the end of twelve months editing, I still often found a book that was just lacking something.

After my conversation with my friends, and reading this blog post from author Jody Hedlund, I realized what it was:

Sometimes I hadn't got the story right first time. Sometimes substantial changes needed to be made to my story's plot, characters or tone. Sometimes, no matter how tight the writing, no matter how polished the prose, the story is lacking some big-ticket items. Sometimes I need to edit from a bird's eye view, before I drop from the clouds and start pruning branches.

But how? Well, I think there's three things you need in your toolbox before you can take a good stab at these kinds of edits:

1. Humility

It isn't easy to accept that you didn't get it right (or nearly right) first time. But if you can, you have a chance to take your book from good to great. If you don't believe your story is perfect, you will be more willing to admit flaws you're capable of catching on your own. And if you find a friend to help you, you'll make the most of their advice.

2. Time

When we're passionate about a story it can be hard to put it aside. But in truth, we can't gain any kind of objectivity when we're too close - or when our brains and being dragged through the story time after time.

When you finish a draft, put the book in a drawer and walk away. For months if possible. Certainly for weeks. You won't see it with fresh eyes unless you do.

3. Critique

We can't all afford professional editors - and we might have to accept that until we're published, there are some problems we'll never fix. But, an insightful critique can really help a writer get a strong gauge on where the major flaws are.

The problem with insightful critiques is that they can be hard to find. Writers tend to be precious. Even a lot of writers who have the talent to offer insightful critique sometimes temper that with a desire to not discourage their friend. The answer? See point #1.

If you still aren't convinced that maybe your story needs major change, consider this: Find an insightful critiquer who won't pull punches. Then take your manuscript and make a copy. Try writing some of the big ticket changes they suggest in the copied file. Then put it away for a couple weeks, then read it again.

The proof is in the pudding.

Your Turn: How do you feel about the idea that your story might not be 'right'? Have you had experience with substantial edits of plot / character? How did you feel during the process? How did you feel when they were done?


  1. Number #1 is a big one. You feel so proud of something, but to know it doesn't really work can be really hard to come to terms with. And your friend would never say so to upset you. But it's always worth making the biiiiig changes.

    1. Definitely. And the pay-off is, we can be even PROUDER of the end result!

  2. I'm just finishing a book that really needed help from... someone. The frustrating part is that the author actually asked for feedback, but, then, he either defends or dismisses anything that's said. His book has too much stuff in it and, often, doesn't make any sense. Why ask for feedback if you're not willing to hear it?

    1. That's tough, Andrew. I've been there. In fact, one writer's group I belong to has a "No defence, don't explain" rule. If someone critiques, you say nothing more than "thank you" -- through gritted teeth if you have to.

      I used to be the kind of writer you're describing. Let me encourage you: often those points you raise prickle a defensive heart. But sometimes the advice gets in anyway. It may be that what you're hearing is the initial reaction. Let's hope in the long-term the author realizes how grateful they are for your good advice!

      Alternatively, they may be the writer that really only wanted feedback because they expected it to be affirmation and glowing compliments. If so... well, good on you for taking the time to try and help!

  3. If it doesn't feel probably isn't. I've made both big and small changes when writing, both because of my own intuition and some {awesome} critiques. Pretty much the hardest thing I've ever done. {And I've done it a few times.} By that point, I always want to be DONE with the book, and the prospect of shredding that plot/character is just torture to think about. But it ALWAYS turns out better. Always, always, always!

  4. Yes! That's the hard part, isn't it? Actually slogging through the fix. But it's definitely worth it!

  5. I had someone help me edit my manuscript and was amazed how much I grew as a writer through the experience. I always encourage people to be cool with feedback because of this. Either you want to be a successful writer or you don't, and learning to accept feedback is a big part of that.

    But that doesn't mean it's easy... Great post, I think we all need reminders that we can't grow stronger without a little resistance.

  6. Hi, Aimee,

    I went through all of that with my first novel. What a mess. It took me three years to sort things out with the help of MANY CP's who were wonderful and TOUGH!

    I left it now for over a year. I had two publishers who had sent feedback that it was quite good, but the first three chapters needed to be "fixed." Of course nothing else ... they hadn't said anything specific. Just clean it up and you will have a best seller.

    After months of trying to figure it out, I put it aside again. I haven't looked at it in about six months. I still haven't a clue on what "They" are looking for. So that's where I stand with that novel.

    My second novel has had more success with requests for fulls from publishers and agents. Nothing as of yet... One declined, the other hasn't answered me back in over five months even after I had sent several emails to her. FRUSTRATION.... So again I left that novel for several months to work on my "other" work to pay the bills.

    As you stated time is our friend. Fresh eyes are a plus, but CP'S and editors are a must in times of confusion.

  7. You're absolutely right. We have to fix the big things first and it's hard to get the right kind of insightful critiques, but unless we can afford to pay for a structural editor, it's vital that we do find someone.

    I'm lucky. My husband, a non writer, is my best critic because he doesn't consider my ego at all and has the ability to see what isn't there and should be, what is extraneous and what just plain doesn't work. He's always my first & last port of call, but he doesn't pick up subtlety, so I can't rely on him alone.

    Out of the 6 beta readers (4 published writers, 1 professional editor & a creative writing graduate) that I had for my soon to be published YA novella, only two gave feedback on structural problems. They were all helpful and picked up different things, but mostly they worked with what was there, not what wasn't & should be. When you find someone who can do that, be very very nice to them, because you need them.

    When I beta read, I don't beat around the bush. You'll get it all, then it's up to you whether you want to work with it or not. That what I want from my beta readers. I figure that the tougher they are, the better my work will become. I get nervous when they just think it's great, because I want to make it better. It can always be better.
    You might enjoy this related post

  8. Very insightful post. I am guilty of self-editing errors - it's so hard to see the problems in your own work! - and, as someone who does critiques, I have to try hard to find ways to get the truth across without being too discouraging. I know it does no one any good to be given a misleading critique - if the work is sub-par they need to know it in order to improve, otherwise they think they're doing everything right - but you have to be constructive and helpful and try to get the message across without making them want to give up. It's not easy!

  9. Sometimes it feels like the more I learn about the craft of writing, the more areas there seem to be that need attention. I would be discouraged, except everyone who has gone through the process seems to say the pain is worth it!

    It took me a while to be able to ask for a no-holds critique, but once I picked my crushed creative heart up off the floor and gave it some time to recover, the feedback was great and I was definitely able to improve.

    The best part of being part of a writing group (yours sounds great) or connected to the on-line community, is that you realise you aren't the only one going through it. Best of luck with the rewrite - I hope you find the something your story needs.

  10. When I sent my first polished version of my current manuscript off to be professionally appraised, I honestly thought I'd get a pat on the head and maybe a few minor points to consider. Wow was I wrong!

    It took me a while to come to terms with the fact that the appraiser was right, but I got there eventually and then completely re-wrote the whole book. I've ended up with much stronger characterization as a result, and my writing skills have improved a lot by tackling the major issues they brought to my attention.

    In short, I'm so glad I listened! :-)

  11. It's a funny thing isnt it? Even if you think you've taken a sledgehammer to it, you still miss the thing that really makes the difference. I rewrote the start of my first book and my critique group said it was hugely improved. I tried to apply that knowledge to my second book, but maybe this time I'm giving too much setting and detail - why do I think that? Because the sample is being sampled, but not being bought! I think my readers are telling me something...