The self-editing monster is a fearsome, gruesome beast that inspires gut-churning apprehension in all who stand in its way. Hours become years as you wither away with only a dusty dictionary as a companion.
Cue the candelabra, drafty room, and haunting piano.
My attempts to uncover a phobia name for self-editing found one term, but I couldn’t confirm it with a second source. Too, any posts mentioning fear were about hiring an editor and were written by — wait for it — editors. It makes sense, of course. Don’t fear editing, hire me.
Well, I’m not an editor. I’m a writer who edits her own work and has found a way to, not just make peace, but enjoy self-editing.
My Fearful Past
I won’t dwell on the bloodbath papers returned to me in (pre-computer) high school with the admonishment to proofread my work. I finally heeded that advice in college. In fact, until 2014 my fiction sounded suspiciously like a college paper.
*Okay, I’m laughing here, but I was excellent at writing papers, I’ll have you know. In groups, the drafting and proofreading always fell to me.
Thing is, despite becoming a diligent proofer, it was still an arduous task, a necessary evil. It also didn’t prepare me for revising fiction.
A Few Theories
So, where does all this revulsion come from? Online are writers who literally declare, I’d rather die than edit, leading to people drafting and drafting and drafting with no end in sight. Another outcome is employing a quick spellcheck, then publishing. I’ve read a few of those books and they elicit annoyance and heartbreak (for the writer).
One theory is schooling initiates the problem. We’re taught mechanics (my weakness) and proofreading, turning us into junior technical writers. Later, the experience can differ depending on your major, but most aren’t pursuing an MFA. Instead, the hold various jobs, writing being something they do on the side.
That was me until later in life.
Another theory is the instant-gratification times we live in. I’m a fast drafter and wrote each novel I’ve completed since 2014 in a month or less. Editing, though, is a long-term commitment requiring multiple edits of different kinds. A short attention span combined with countless digital distractions is a bad combination.
Perhaps the most tragic reason is writers who’re overwhelmed staring at 120K words with no idea where to start. According to what you learned in school you’re supposed to start with proofreading.
The problem is, that’s the last place you should begin.
Three Critical Tools
This isn’t a how-to blog post. Instead, I’ll share the big picture. For me, the three critical revision tools are:
In simple terms, it really is that easy — and that hard. When I discovered my writing was subpar in 2014 I was crushed and vowed to rebuild my skills from the ground up. Editing was part of that vow, but to that point I hadn’t written a novel worthy of revising. That happened in 2016, but I was also plagued with serious health issues until mid 2017.
Meanwhile, I was trying to educate myself about self-editing. There wasn’t, though, a lot out there. Most advice is about how to draft. I was searching for the right mindset, but making little headway.
The breakthrough occurred when making my first pass through A River in Each Hand. Drafted when I was extremely ill, it was underdeveloped ideas and poor writing, and it terrified me. So much so that I’d let it sit for well over a year.
*That turned out to be a blessing.
I returned to River as a reader and saw past the awful to the potential. That was the moment my mindset switch was thrown from Fixing to Improving. The novel became an opportunity and that called for a plan, that called for having a process. Yes, like when I draft.
Not just any revision plan, but one to call my own, one that suited ME!
Just as I’d adopted fast drafting and narrative outlines for writing, so too did I embrace revision maps, working macro-to-micro, and targeted editing.
*My favorite authority on all this remains Tiffany Yates Martin, including her book, Intuitive Editing. Self-editing advice, in general, has increased the last couple of years, I’ve noticed.
Oh how I wish I’d known a lot of this long ago, but maybe I wasn’t ready. After all, you can’t learn to edit what you haven’t learned to draft.
So, yes, here I am yet again stressing the importance of developing your own process, to borrow, mix & match, and evolve your own methods.
Experiment with ideas and suggestions. Practice, practice, practice. There’s no substitute for hard work, after all. Believe me, I’ve put a lot of time in developing my processes and I’m always looking for new ideas to try, though I already consider many tried and true.
Like with drafting, there’s also the realization that each novel is different, demanding that I adapt to its needs, not the other way around.