Chip MacGregor

September 23, 2015

Editing for Authors, Part 7: Rewriting vs. Editing


brick green no smile b:wWelcome back to the series on editing for authors that will continue until I run out of things to say on the subject! If you missed last week’s post (which appeared on Friday instead of Tuesday), we discussed the second part of “big picture” editing: editing for consistent writing quality, and how, as a self-editor, one of the most important tools you can have is a knowledge of your own strengths and style.

Often, when editing a manuscript, whether one you wrote in a hurry or one you wrote in stop-and-start mode over a long period of time, you’ll encounter some of the aforementioned “big picture” problems– missing information has led to a plot hole, or hurried storytelling have resulted in an absence of your voice in part of the manuscript, or long interruptions/breaks in the writing process have led to an inconsistent tone, etc. Editor-you finds these flaws and makes note of them, but now you have a tricky job in front of you: if editor-you tries to fix these problems, you run the risk of the edited portion of the manuscript reading as less authentic or more bland/sterile than the rest of the manuscript, but if you let writer-you off her leash and tell her to fix things, there’s no telling what new mess she might get herself into. (After all, most of this is her fault in the first place.) How, then, do you reconcile your editing goals with your creative voice in fixing “big picture,” writing-or-story-related problems?

A good place to start is to treat your editing as if it were a job you were doing for someone else. If you’ve ever paid for (or received with a publishing deal) a professional edit, you know that the editor generally doesn’t just go through and make big alterations on his own. Sure, he’ll make a lot of little changes, usually having to do with usage/consistency/grammar, etc., depending on the type of edit being performed, but when he runs into problems of confusion or consistency or quality, he doesn’t just dive in and start re-writing your book. If there’s a plot-hole, the editor doesn’t immediately invent the missing piece of the story, he makes a note for you, the author, about why the confusion exists, what’s missing, and where he suggests changes be made or additional material be added. If he identifies a bland passage (or chapter, or couple of chapters), he doesn’t sit down and try to replicate your voice and re-write them, he makes a note for you about what he feels the section in question is missing, maybe comparing it to earlier passages, maybe noting a contradiction in tone, etc. The point is, the editing is done, the editing notes are made, and THEN the re-writing happens.

As an author who is self-editing, it’s important that you separate these two tasks when necessary. Sure, you’re going to be able to fix some things on the fly– you’ll see right away how you could adjust the tone of a scene, or a new sentence where your voice comes through more clearly pops into your head– but trying to do significant re-writes in the same moment you’ve identified the need for them is a recipe for frustration. Like I said at the beginning of this series, the ability to edit yourself usually involves a change of perspective– a shift from looking at your manuscript like a writer to looking at it like a reader, and if you’re trying to both edit and write in the same breath, you’re not going to be doing either one as effectively as you could be. If editor-you tries to do the rewrites, it’s likely that the rewritten passages won’t quite match up in style with the rest of the manuscript, whereas if writer-you tries to grab the reins back from editor-you and rewrite in the moment, you’re going to waste valuable time transitioning between personas/perspectives and your editing will suffer as a result of the split energy.

Instead, write those editing notes to yourself as if a different person was going to be reading them. Make comparisons or suggestions, give yourself reminders to use as a jumping-off point when you go back and rewrite, but stay focused on the editing from beginning to end. A big part of being a good editor is being able to look at the work as a whole rather than getting tunnel-vision at one part or fixated on one passage; make your notes and keep going so you get a feel for the work as a whole and better understand, as an editor, what changes are needed or what pieces are missing. (This is another argument against rewriting as you go; a rewrite made in the moment might create a new problem later in the manuscript– waiting for editor-you to edit the whole manuscript and make suggestions/notes based on the big picture ensures that your rewriting supports the book as a whole rather than weakening a different part of it.) Then, as a writer, you can take the notes you made for yourself during editing as a roadmap and dive back into the writing process to your heart’s content, getting as immersed as you need to to capture your original voice or get back into the momentum of the story, but with the voice of editor-you in your ear steering you toward where you need to end up or what needs to happen. The more distinct your editor and writer personas, the better each will be at her job.


Thanks for following this series! If I haven’t covered an aspect of editing you’d like to talk more about, or if you have any questions I can address as the series continues, please leave a comment and let me know. 

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1 Comment

  • A.E Sawan says:

    Thanks, I usually read and re-read, edit and re-edit my ms so many times. After few revision, I put it away for a while and read it again. Than it’s off to a pro.

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