Continuing my series on being your own editor, I’m talking today about the importance of the right perspective when editing your own work, specifically the role that time plays in your editorial success.
Writing is an up-close-and-personal business. You live and breath your story while you’re writing it, spending hours with your characters while thinking about and planning your story, talking about it with friends and family or your writing group, and then when it’s time to write, your creation appears on the page literally seconds after you conceive it– writing is, in essence, a largely improvised art form. Even if you know the general direction your story is going to take, even if you plan out all the names and scenes in advance, the truth is that when the time comes to put words on paper, you’re making it up as you go along. The words that come into your head are the ones you put down on paper; that’s the only way anything ever gets written. If I sat here and waited to write my blog post until I knew every word I was going to say in exactly the order I was going to say it from beginning to end, I would die before I started a single sentence– that’s not how writing works, and many writers’ favorite thing about writing is the instantly measurable nature of it– “I wrote 1000 words today!” But while that stream-of-consciousness creation is great for getting words on the page, it’s not so good for editing.
Editing is a process in which the majority of your decisions are made on a comparative basis— this line isn’t as clear as the rest of the paragraph; this scene’s pacing is slow compared to the rest of the chapter; this character/plotline is less developed than this other one, etc. To be an effective editor, you have to train yourself to take one or two (or ten) steps back from your manuscript and see it in pieces bigger than the individual words or lines so that you can make these comparisons. Because this is so different from the process by which we write, many authors have trouble shifting their perspective to one from which they can edit effectively. Mentally, it can be hard to switch gears from that one-word-at-a-time mindset to a more global approach to your work, and emotionally, it can be even harder to look critically and objectively at shoddy writing, confusing storytelling, or plot holes when you’ve been as invested in your characters and as present in your story as you’ve been when writing. Fortunately, there are several ways to create some healthy mental and emotional “distance” between you and your manuscript. This week, we’re looking at one of the simplest and most effective strategies for gaining perspective– time.
Time is the Best Editor.
Like happens at some point in most long-term relationships, you and your manuscript are going to need (and benefit greatly from) a short (or perhaps extended) break from each other. Taking some time away after spending all day, every day in each other’s company can provide a radical shift in how you view your story. Elements that felt hugely significant when you wrote them can seem unimportant and cluttery upon revisiting the manuscript a few weeks later. A sentence you thought was particularly brilliant when it first popped into your head might, you sheepishly admit the next day, have been a bit cheesy.
Time away also helps you to recognize what you truly do like about your manuscript/what your priorities are. If you come back to your story and still grin when reading a scene you loved writing or still pat yourself on the back for a particularly great character, that’s probably something that should stay in, and something that should shape your editing process. Recognizing what is good and what is distinctive about your writing is as much a part of being a good editor as being able to sniff out the rotten parts, and just like time away from a significant other can make you appreciate their good qualities anew, so time away from your manuscript can bolster your confidence in its strong points and help you make decisions for what direction you want to take when editing.
The amount of time needed to attain an objective perspective for editing differs for everyone. Some authors have great success editing just a day after writing, following a routine of editing the previous day’s pages before writing new ones. Others prefer to allow more time to pass between edits, editing in bigger chunks at the end of every chapter or the end of every week. And many don’t want to edit their manuscript at all until they’ve finished a full draft, sometimes letting it sit for a few weeks after completing it so as to really be able to take a break from thinking about the charters and plot full-time.
The strategy that’s best for you depends on how emotionally involved you’ve been with your work-in-progress, how easy you find it to switch from your “author hat” to your “editor hat,” and how experienced an editor you are. If you have no problem snapping into editorial mode, you might not need more than a day between writing a scene and editing it to be able to make objective decisions about content and structure, and if you’ve edited your own work before, you may be able to recognize pacing problems or plot holes early on, before the manuscript has been finished. If, however, you’ve been very emotionally involved in your writing process– if the subject matter is highly personal for you, or the situations in the book are intense/difficult to write– you probably need a little longer to recover/recharge emotionally before you’re ready to step back and look objectively at the writing or storytelling rather than getting caught up in the associated emotions.
You also probably need more time if you haven’t had a lot of experience with editing (not to be confused with proofreading) your own stories. Recognizing major flaws in your plot, inconsistencies in your pacing, underdeveloped characters– these are all big-picture problems that are easiest to see when you have the whole manuscript to look at, so if you don’t have a lot of experience spotting them or fixing them, you’re setting yourself up for greater success if you give yourself the entire manuscript to work with and a nice two-or-three-week cushion to give the post-writing, self-congratulatory, “I wrote a whole book, I am a dang genius!” excitement a chance to die down and your more objective, “I wrote a rough draft of a book that needs a lot more work” side a chance to rise to the surface.
Success as an editor is largely dependent on being able to hold your work at mental-and-emotional arm’s length. Experiment a little and find out what your sweet spot is for time elapsed between writing and editing, and then let that shape your writing-and-editing routine. Editor-you will thank you for waiting, even if author-you rolls her eyes and tries to rush you. Next week, I’ll be talking about a couple more ways to develop perspective as an editor as well as some sample writing/editing routines to try. As always, thanks for reading!