Chip MacGregor

July 29, 2015

Editing for Authors: Part 3, Turning on the Editing Eye


brick green no smile b:wWelcome back to my series on editing for authors. This week, I’m talking more about ways to develop the right perspective for editing.

I wrote last week about the difference between the up-close-and-personal nature of the writing perspective and the more objective, big-picture mindset needed to be an effective editor. Obviously, it can be difficult to approach your own work objectively, especially if you have strong emotional ties to the material, and as I said last week, time is the best way to gain that emotional and intellectual distance from your work– you’re much more likely to see the weaknesses in your work after letting the initial writer-high die down.

But what if you still struggle with objective, big-picture thinking even after letting your manuscript sit for days/weeks/months?  How much time should you let pass, realistically, in the hope that you’ll wake up one day with a completely different perspective on your work? Truth be told, some authors will always struggle with finding the right perspective from which to edit their work, no matter how much time passes, but the good news is that there are other ways to help train yourself to approach your work like an editor rather than a writer.

Cleanse Your Palate.

If you have any experience on the fine dining scene, you’ve probably had meals at which a palate-cleanser was served between courses– a beverage or a sorbet intended to rid your mouth of any lingering flavors from one course before another was served so that the next course wasn’t “tainted” by leftover, clashing flavors. Obviously, if you waited a day between courses, all traces of one course would disappear from your mouth before you tasted the next one, but a palate-cleanser lets you enjoy the flavors of two dissimilar courses to the fullest without having to spread your meal out over three days. In the same way, you can cleanse your editorial “palate” by applying your attention to a completely dissimilar or neutral project in between writing and editing, and perhaps even gain a better editorial perspective than you would have by merely letting time pass.

For some, this can be as simple as reading a book, either something totally different from what you wrote so as to really get your head out of your story world, or something similar in genre/tone so as to help you start to develop an eye for pacing/story development in your own story. Others prefer to palate-cleanse by writing something “neutral,” such as a couple of blog posts or a journal entry or a long email to a friend– something with an entirely different voice and goal from your work-in-progress. Some find it extremely helpful to edit someone else’s work in the interim between writing and editing– this allows you to start thinking critically and globally right away because you don’t have any personal connections or bias to overcome. The hope behind using one of these strategies is that it will help to kick-start your editing mindset rather than just letting time pass and hoping for the best.

Learn From Your Past.

We all know the saying about how if you don’t learn from the past, you are doomed to repeat it. Even if you don’t have a natural knack for editing, you have learned from reader feedback, critique partners, and manuscript clinics (if you’ve been writing for awhile) what areas tend to give you trouble, what weaknesses show up repeatedly, what you’ve had to work on the most, etc. Your previous problems can provide an excellent starting point for your editing process. Where your own “editorial eye” might not have looked at your work-in-progress and seen a pacing problem or cliche word choices, your past work is a map telling you exactly where to start looking for similar problems, and once you know what you’re looking for, you presumably have some experience fixing it (from applying all those earlier critiques to your earlier work). So, consider starting every editing process by looking back over your last three or four manuscripts and reminding yourself of their weaknesses/oft-critiqued elements (or even by re-reading them yourself and seeing what annoys you now that you are an older and wiser writer) and making a style sheet (more about this tool next week) to use as a jumping-off point for your edit. If you start by looking for problems you’ve had in the past and that you already have experience fixing, it can prime the pump for recognizing other issues and get you thinking critically about your manuscript.

Once you’ve figured out the best way for you to get into the editing state of mind, you can make a writing/editing schedule that fits your editing style and helps you to make the best use of your time. If time is the best way for you to gain perspective on your work, you could stagger your writing and editing so that the clock is always ticking on pages to be edited– if you need to let pages sit for three weeks before you can look at them as an editor, write for six weeks, then stop and edit the first three weeks’ worth of material. When you’ve done that, write for another three weeks while the second three weeks’ pages “ripen,” and so on. If your perspective is better aided by reading or writing other material, schedule breaks for that reading or writing into your writing/editing schedule.

You may prefer to finish your manuscripts and edit them all at once rather than alternating between writing and editing. If that’s the case, consider that even though you wrote the first chapters three months ago, you wrote the last chapters much more recently, and you may need to let the whole manuscript sit for awhile before you have enough perspective on the book as a whole to edit effectively. If you’re the kind of author who goes crazy if they’re not working on a manuscript at all times, you may want to consider always having two manuscripts in play– writing a second book while waiting to edit the first– so that you don’t feel like you’re wasting time while waiting for perspective to show up on the first one.

Keep in mind that these are just a few examples of dozens of ways you can balance your writing, editing, and space-making activities. Be sure to check the comments for several helpful posts from authors about what kind of schedule works for them (or leave yours if you have one). Next week we’ll be talking about the role of a style sheet in the editing process and how to build and use one. Thanks for reading!

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  • I really like the idea of palate cleansing by reading something different. I also have a mental list of my weaknesses that I know from experience I need to watch out for. I’m not sure a scheduled rhythm of writing and editing would work for me, though. It would depend on the project.

  • Sandy Quandt says:

    Erin, thank you for this excellent post on editing. I love the way you broke down the process of moving from writer to editor in easy to understand steps. Looking forward to reading next week’s post on style sheets.

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