Editing as Medicine for Writers

Recently, food experts told us that eating our five vegetables a day – a struggle for many of us – was simply not enough. At least seven portions of the stuff is essential for our basic health.

spinachFor me, editing is the writerly equivalent of forcing down my spinach. It is the writer’s most dreaded task. How typical, then, that rather like one’s least favourite food, it is the very part of the writing process that does us the most good.
I’m sure very few writers enjoy the process of revising. For me, the exciting part is that first draft, when anything could happen (particularly as I am not much of a planner). Even the second draft is a pleasurable experience, spotting those clichés and typos in private, without anyone to witness my shame.

The process gets tougher, however, when someone else gets involved. Editors are much maligned. They are portrayed as the pernickety schoolteacher who simply doesn’t ‘get’ your work. That image, in my experience, is a false one. They are on your side, wanting the work to be the best it can be. If there is a plot hole or discrepancy, they will spot it and they will do so, thankfully, before a reader or reviewer.

There are also those typos that your own eye, however well trained, has failed to spot. After a while we read what we expect to read, rather than what is on the page. Before that work goes public, writers need a professional outside eye, however reluctant they are to admit it.

One of my concerns about self-published authors is that some of them put work out without running it past a trained editor. It’s what gets the plethora of poor works available from indie authors such a bad name (although of course, there are some good indie writers out there too). Because of this reputation, many do hire an editor, but the indie writer is not obliged to take their advice. It is a very different relationship to that with an editor in a traditional publishing house.

The other issue is that for most self-published authors, that paid editor only gets to look at the work once. This is simply not enough. Most writers are acutely aware that editing is a long, painstaking task, involving read-through after read-through (after read-through!) – and that’s even for those of us who pride ourselves on our good grammar and punctuation.

As a student, getting used to the editing process is the writer’s equivalent of eating your greens. I’m surprised by how few new writers appear to proof-read their work before submitting, an approach that will not work if it is to rise above a publisher or agent’s slush pile.

In my next post I will look at dealing with editing suggestions and other feedback from your tutor. But for now let’s think about self-editing. My self-editing tips? Leave work overnight before re-reading. Read it aloud. View it in a different typeface.

What are your tips for editing your own work? At what stage should a fresh eye be brought in?

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2 comments for “Editing as Medicine for Writers

  1. 17 April 2014 at 8:08 pm

    Put it on your Kindle! It highlights a multitude of sins!

  2. Julia
    18 April 2014 at 11:06 am

    Thanks for this article Barbara; it is always hard to get rid of something you have spent time on – whether it is a part of a painting, a drawing – even a cake! We don’t like to think we have wasted our efforts. And sometimes even though one sentence, or part of an image may in itself be good, it may not help the overall picture or story. Hence we are told to “kill (y)our darlings”.

    When I was an English teacher I used to sometimes give my pupils a sentence to which they had to add another. They would then be asked to change the first sentence slightly. Then we would all write a third sentence, make a change to one of the other two sentences, and so on. This is not the way to write a book, but it does teach something about how the craft of writing is all about editing. The whole thing is a massive edit.

    My worst habit is to edit too much and I find it hard to move forward as I forever go back over old words, dissatisfied with them.

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