On Editing; or, You too can survive this

A gift from a fellow writer. Artwork attribution unknown.

A gift from a fellow writer. Artwork attribution unknown.

Let’s talk about something writers often hate: editing. Actually, let me rephrase that. Many writers are so absolutely mortified by the prospect of editing, the hard and often tedious work of tearing down a story, of replacing the enthusiasm of the writing phase with the dreary analytical process of finding what’s wrong with a story and fixing it, that they put it off, suffer through it mightily, or even refuse to do it at all. Some writers either operate under the delusion that their work is so shiny and perfect that it doesn’t need editing (which explains the poor quality of some self-published books) or they have a drawer/hard drive full of languishing stories hidden away because their creators are too timid to complete that intermediate step between writing and sending their work out into the world.

I’m weird. I tend to suffer mightily through the writing process, ludicrously fearing that I’ll never be able to get all those words down, then take refuge in the analytical step of editing. Not that editing is easy – ever – but I can survive it and you can, too. I recently sent a short story to a freelance editor, and here’s a little bit about that experience.

First, you need to find an editor. Loads of professional writers have set up shop as freelance editors (something about publishing houses not paying the average writer enough money to live on anymore, and writers needing other streams of income). As with any service provider, some know what they’re doing, some may or may not be a good fit for you, and some are scammers. Buyer beware. I’d go with a personal recommendation, or a writer/editor whose work you’ve read and enjoy, or someone who’s blogged about their approach to writing and with whom you agree on the matter. I went with all three: my friend [full disclosure] and fellow writer Jamie Wyman.

Take a look at that link; it’s a great overview of the services offered by the editor, her approach to editing, and what kind of costs you can expect. I would definitely look for this kind of information when researching an editor, and I’d be reluctant to go with an editor who doesn’t provide it, unless I had a personal recommendation from someone who could provide that information.

Next, follow your editor’s instructions regarding contracts, payment, and submitting your work. Submit your best stuff. Polish it up. Catch as many as those typos as you can. Unless you’ve specifically hired your editor to do the red-pencil work (which is a different level of editing that comes with its own fees), you don’t want to waste too much of her time on these mechanics or anything that’s going to distract her from her work: making your story the best it can be. Your editor is sort of a proxy for the reader, the end user and finish line for your story. She’s going to give it an objective look and tell you what a reader is likely to get out of the story, so you can see whether it lines up with what you intended. Not that you can control everyone’s reaction to your writing, of course, but you need a general reaction from the outside.

Here’s typical problem I run into: I write something that’s confusing and yields a very different interpretation on the part of the reader. Now, I understood what I meant because I was already in my head when I wrote it, but the reader wasn’t. For example, I wrote the following:

[The orders] didn’t say she had any history of violence.

To which my editor responded:

This line could be interpreted that she DOES have a history of violence and it is a surprise in the making.

Huh, I never thought of that. But that’s the point of getting an editor. I know this character isn’t violent, but the reader doesn’t, and the editor is pointing out what I can’t see because I’m not outside myself.

Here’s another typical writerly reaction. My editor summarized her critique by saying, “You’ve got the basis of a great piece here,” and elsewhere repeated that it was the start of a good story. To which my brain frantically replied: Start? Whaddya mean start?! Do you know how many years I’ve been working on this story?

Okay, brain, calm down. The reader isn’t going to know how many years I’ve been working on this story and isn’t going to care. This version of the story has to stand on its own, independent of any background that exists in my head. Again, that’s the editor’s job: making sure the story can stand on its own.

So take a deep breath, and let go of that reluctance to edit. Your story might feel like your precious baby, but your baby has to go out into the world and stand on its own two feet at some point. It can take the criticism and so can you. Good luck.