The Importance of Self-Editing

No writer–especially, no fiction writer–can be completely objective about his or her own work. We all need an outside eye–not just an editor for the finished book, but input from readers (friends, colleagues, a writers’ group) as the project progresses.

But those outside sources of advice and criticism are only part of the editing picture. Just as important is the ability to self-edit–to be able to evaluate pace and structure, to recognize when plot, character, theme, etc. are working and when they aren’t, to spot when you’re showing too little and telling too much (and vice versa), to make your dialog flow, to polish your prose. The more skilled a self-editor you are, the more command you will have over your own writing–which surely should be one of a career writer’s major goals.

Self-editing, in other words, is an essential aspect of the craft, and any writer who is serious about getting published needs to work hard to learn it–even if they hate it or find it boring, which many writers do. (For me, editing is the best part.) This really ought to be a no-brainer. Even so, I encounter a surprising number of (usually aspiring) writers who don’t feel it’s all that important (you can always hire an editor to clean things up, right?), or who believe that readers will accept not-so-great execution if the story’s good enough (because isn’t the story the most important thing?). But how much of a writer are you if you’re unwilling or unable to polish your work, or if you have to rely on others to fix all your mistakes–or, worse, if you feel that mastering the basic mechanics of writing, such as grammar and spelling, is just a bagatelle? Getting the words onto the page is only the beginning. As E.B. White is supposed to have said, “All good writing is rewriting.”

So how do you learn to self-edit? The same way you learn to write: by practice, by reading critically, and by paying attention to that all-important outside criticism, which can not only help you improve your work, but teach you how to criticize yourself. (Two caveats: you need to seek out people who will give you intelligent, reasonably objective criticism–which probably means not your relatives, your spouse, or your friends–and to remember that not all advice is useful. One of the most important aspects of dealing with criticism is learning to recognize what to take on board and what to reject.)

Much of what I know about self-editing was taught to me by my first editor. I was a complete novice when she bought my first novel–other than a few short stories, it was the only thing I’d ever written–and from her sensitive, incisive, and exacting criticism I came to understand a tremendous amount about structure, character, and my own weaknesses, such as my tendency to dwell too much on description. She taught me how to pare down my prose and sharpen my dialog. It’s because of her that I learned to recognize–and respect–that nagging uneasy feeling that’s usually the first sign that I’ve fallen into a plot hole, or picked the wrong focus for a scene, or temporarily lost sight of the character. She and I worked together on three books–the best and most fruitful editorial relationship I’ve ever had.

These days, I share my work with a couple of excellent beta readers, who are not only willing to read my manuscripts-in-progress but to talk about plot or other problems as they come up. My current agent also gives me editorial input, and then I go through the whole process again with a publishing house editor. I’d never want to put my fiction out in public without the scrutiny of all those extra eyes–but after so many years of writing, I’m a confident enough self-editor that my manuscripts generally just need tweaking, rather than the kind of major overhaul my first novel required.

First published in Writer Beware Blogs!, 2010


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