Self-Editing—it’s a trust issue.

Self-editing is the approval or disapproval of every word you have written. As the writer, you determine whether each word is correct in description, depth of importance, value, placement, and nuance.

Unfortunately, writers are often torn between two extremes. Their secret egotist believes they have talent, but that pesky insecurity angster keeps looking at her feet, heartsick sure that there isn’t a square inch of talent in her whole body. The self-editor with the ego says, “Break all rules, this is my book and I’m writing my story and everyone will love it. I’ll be published in no time.” The angster self-editor says, “You don’t know what you’re doing and the last ten people you spoke to about it pretty much said the same. Hang up your pen and sneak wordlessly out of the room if there is another writer in it. Don’t touch the chocolate on the way out.”

Obviously, we have to learn to trust ourselves to learn the sacred tricks of editing our own writing. Why must we do it ourselves? Because, we are the only ones who know what we are trying to say and mean with our stories. We must believe in ourselves enough to know that when we are offered the fantastic opinions and wonderful images of others, whether they will merge seamlessly with our story. The quickest way to ruin a story is to re-write it using every reader’s suggestions. Instead of creating something as beautiful as a forest, we have nothing left but the beaten earth of a fairground where many have trod. A writer must have the courage to winnow out undesirable suggestions and the trust in their own judgment to be able to determine which idea, notion, or detail to keep or reject. We must guard against reduncy (or saying the same thing three times over as I just did).

One the other hand, a writer must be experienced enough in the world to realize that they do not know everything. That some of the best ideas have come from someone else; that the writer does not have a corner on the market for good ideas, colorful words and phrases, or the correct use of some words. Writers can be so at one with their story that they leave out significant words, never realizing that their brains are filling in the blank spot where a particular word should be. Readers tend to notice things like that. Writers can live their world so close to their imaginary world, that they know details without having to explain them to a reader. Publishing editors and readers tend to notice things like that. Thus, the reader never gets a chance to know the characters because the writer does not think more information is necessary. Writer's minds are filling in the crucial portents and details, but not communicating them.

Many writers edit as they write and end up with an almost finished product that needs little polishing. The amount of editing often depends upon the writing experience of the writer. Other writers lay in the bones of a story and their editing process adds words and excitement to the story. Editing is like cooking eggs. Too little and the integrity of the experience falls far short of expectation. Too much and the texture is too rubbery and nasty to have a joyful experience.

One editing process we don’t often think about in the self-editing process is our own SELF. Writers are better off when they can distance themselves or take the SELF out of the editing equation. Take the ego out of the experience and park her on the shelf for a while and let the integrity of communicating with all of the unknown people who will want to know the story be thought of as the most important thing. For my own experience, that means time has to pass so that my enthusiasm for the characters isn’t so immediate (kind of like dating), that I can see the story for all it is—faults and all, clean it up, clarify it, and still love it (kind of like marriage).

It is worth the time and much less wearing on the spirit to learn to trust your self-editing. Like writing or learning to ride a bicycle. Self-editing takes time and practice to get any good and or fast at it (and hopefully very little bloodshed).


Becky A said...


(The rest of my comment is still in my brain, I just think I typed it!)

Thanks Nina, that explains a lot but as a newbie, insecurity seems to come with the territory. There's just too many things I don't know or understand yet! That's why I appreciate these blogs, I have learned so much.


Roxann Delaney said...

Excellent, Nina!

A writer's self-editing technique is like a writer's plotting technique. Yeah, I know. The P word. :) But with both, a writer has to find what's right for her or him, what works best. Unfortunately that takes time and a lot of, well, editing and changing. Make that constant editing and change of the "system".

I would much rather have the extra time to set a manuscript aside for more than a couple of days before going back to edit and then polish. It doesn't always happen. I'm blessed with an editor who will point out confusing elements, because I'm fully aware that I'm often vague about things and have to go back and UNvague them. (Yes, clarify is my middle name.)

It's a battle, fighting and sorting through all this coming at us from many directions. It takes a strong writer to be able to say, "Hush, all of you. Let me do this MY way." When I grow up, I hope I can do that.

Nina Sipes said...

Becky--you are too funny!
Rox--I chose the subject and started the article because I wanted to say something of sense about the pitfalls and necessities of self-editing. But, the more I thought the more incoherent the article became because there are such opposite problems with the self-editing process. Trying to follow other's advice I have written pages and pages--only to have to redo them as they sucked the life out of the story. Then there is my most recent mess. I changed the beginning of the story and KNEW I had it nailed--finally it was perfect. But. My test readers ALL said the beginning was confusing and made no sense. So, I had to remove all traces of that perfect new beginning. Why? Because I want to write for readers--that's my personal reason for writing. I'm currently polishing a novel that I finished four years ago and cleaning it up is so much easier than previous workings because the brain 'fill in' isn't there any more.

Reese Mobley said...

Great job, Nina!! I actually love editing and usually edit as I go. It's funny how our brain fills in the missing words for us. I read and reread a contest entry one time and thought it was polished to a high shine. When I got my scores back they all had questioned the same sentence. It seems I had left out part of a word. So, when the heroine fell back and "landed within inches of his legs", my submitted sentence said she fell back and landed with inches of his legs. I'd left off the later part of the word within. It's easy to laugh about it now, but boy was I upset with myself at the time.

Joan Vincent said...

You did a great job of self-editing this post, Nina. Coherent, concise, and hits every nail. Balance and trust are the keys. I seem to have multiple personalities. One kind of person in general, a very different one when I write, and a completely different one when I edit. When I'm writing I just let it go and write. This means I always end up loooong. Then I put on my editor's hat. Suddenly I see rambling sentences, dialogue that needs sharpened etc. etc. I've always been able to cut without a problem. It still does torq me after close editing to have that #$%# error I somehow couldn't see while editing pop into view as soon as I send the work off.

Roxann Delaney said...

If you'd seen my last AAs/galleys, you would have wondered as I did if I'd gone through and done any editing or clean-up. What's funny about it was all those word and typing errors that I missed were also missed by editors. I was embarrassed, but at least caught them before it was too late.

Nina Sipes said...

I read where a famous author said, "Never look back." in response to embarrassment over beginning books (that I know had the same issues--even ones with names that mysteriously changed halfway through the story!). The writer's process is one with plenty of pitfalls without worrying over what's out the door. We just do the best we can while that is under our control. Then let it go. There is a whole chain of people missing errors by the time a book gets in print.

Roxann Delaney said...

I've been known to type the wrong hero's name. Or heroine's. Luckily, I catch them on the first read-through. The mind plays some dirty tricks sometimes. :) Or is it the fingers?

Penny Rader said...

I'm one of those sick people that loves, loves, loves to revise. Revising comes more easily to me than writing the new stuff.

Reading stuff aloud is sooo helpful in finding missing and/or wrong words. Like you say, your brain knows what's supposed to be there. Reading it out loud helps find the goofs.

I found an error in my recently released book. I can't believe it got by me, my editor, my publisher's proofreader, and a friend I asked to proofread. Aargh!

Oh, and I also learned the hard way that following everyone's advice can really destroy your story. And you can also self-edit your story to death and suck the life right out of it.

Thank goodness for the preview screen here on blogger. I can't tell you how many mistakes I've found before posting. Then once it's posted and I still see errors, I cringe.