Leticia Supple writes about one take on editing your own work: gaining distance and making big-picture changes. She presents here five basic steps that will help you go back over your work more effectively and efficiently.
There are many stages of editing your own work, and many ways of attacking it. This post takes just one element of self-editing: big-picture changes. It will take you step by step through gaining distance and perspective, how to get a sense of what part of your work needs to change, and a method for getting them under way.
You know that old saying, ‘everybody’s got at least one book in them’? While that is probably true, what I do not think is true is the saying ‘everybody’s got a publishable book in them’. I say that because while nearly anybody can write a good story, especially if they have a clear sense of their audience, it’s my experience that few people can effectively edit their own work.
Good self-editing requires the ability to kill
The process of editing your own work requires you, in the first instance, to be willing to kill your darlings. It doesn’t matter how long it takes you to create your work: short stories and novel-length works all require an enormous input of yourself. Any creative task does. You might find that writing a novel-length work ties you more tightly to your work, but with shorter works you are still tied to them nevertheless.
Editing is a vital skill, but it is not something that many people enjoy. Often, the first thing somebody thinks about when he or she thinks ‘editing’ is the long, drawn-out, bastardised process of ‘revision’ that secondary school English teachers are fond of. As a working editor, I know that the process we’re taught in school is most often completely ineffective.
What follows are five steps that take you, very quickly, through the basics of effectively editing your own work.
1. Get some distance
To work effectively, you have to distance yourself from your work, or any editing you do is not going to be truly effective. Well, actually, I’m being nice: any editing you do is going to have very little effect. Why? Because you will not be strong enough to make significant changes to it.
The answer is to put the piece away and not look at it until you don’t find yourself thinking about it all the time. Give yourself time to get it out of your system. This could be one week; it could be six months.
If you’re a writer who doesn’t have the luxury of time, then any distance you can get is better than none – but a day is still preferable to an hour.
2. Read your work as a reader would
To get a real sense of what your work is like, you need to read it as though you bought it. Try not to make changes on the piece itself – just read it. As you go, jot down things that occur to you in a separate file, or sheet of paper, instead. Then, when you’ve finished it, write down as many things about the work as occur to you: the good and the bad.
This step is that it will show you, very clearly, several things:
• problems with structure
• material that sounds incredible or implausible
• where you need to do more research
• prose that is stilted (or worse, stultifying)
• characters that aren’t well-developed
• and so on.
It will also demonstrate to you what your strong points are. This alone is a good exercise because once you know your strengths, you can play to them.
3. Map your changes clearly
Sit down and, still separate to your writing, work out what changes you need to make, where they need to be made and, if you can, how you’re going to do it. This will give you a structured plan for implementing those changes, but it will also give you a plan for any additional research, or usage rules you have to track down, and other things of which you aren’t sure.
Mapping your changes also enables you to get a stronger grasp on elements that could be shifted around to enhance your writing. Your last chapter might be excellent, but it might work far better as the first chapter, or the beginning of the second part. Never be afraid to play around with your structure: some of our best ideas happen when we’re just having fun.
4. What if you decide you need to rewrite?
You may well work out that you have to substantially rewrite what you’ve already done. Don’t be afraid to do this – nearly any writer worth his or her salt has been down this road. The key to rewriting is to go with the flow and not try to stick too closely to your first go. If you do that, then you may as well just copy your file to a new one and save it with a different name.
Rewriting can be one of the most beneficial ways of moving your work forwards, because it gives you the license to engage with your work in a more sophisticated way: the basic story’s down, the characters are at least partially formed, you know where you’re going. You’ve got the foundations; now you can build.
By all means keep what you did the first time around, and don’t be afraid to refer back to it, but be wary of rewriting with your first attempt staring at you: it’s too easy to copy what you’ve already done. It can be bloody hard work to rewrite, but the sense of achievement can be huge, and the benefits can be even bigger.
5. Be dispassionate
By engaging in steps one to three (or, possibly, four) you will have gained a certain dispassionate edge to your approach. While some artists feel that they lose their edge when they gain this sense of distanced subjectivity (let’s face it, none of us are objective about our work), the benefits of it are enormous.
Your ability to be dispassionate enables you to cut what needs to be cut, and stops you from keeping this scene, or that character, or that turn of events, out of sentimentality or the soul-sadness that stops you from hitting ‘delete’.
This process might seem hard-headed, but if you want to be successful you need to be hard on yourself and your work. If you’re not, once a publishing house accepts your writing and you get an editor on board, any changes she makes are going to cut you to the quick. Worst case scenario is that it can damage your relationship with your editor – and, to take your work from just well-written to polished, you’re going to need that relationship in good working order!
Leticia Supple is an independent publisher and managing editor at Brascoe Publishing in Adelaide, South Australia. She is also a published fiction writer, and her works have appeared in print and online. You can read more about editing, writing and publishing process over at the Brascoe Blog.