Self-editing masterclass snapshots: the words are only the skin

guardThis week I’m running a series of the sharpest questions from my Guardian self-editing masterclass. In previous posts I’ve discussed three/four-act structure, endings, characters who are either bland or too disturbing to write  and making a character distinct through dialogue. Today I’m tackling a fundamental misconception about self-editing.

Editing is not just tweaking the language

One lady in the masterclass shared a story that illustrates a common misapprehension of novice writers. She said she had come close to a publishing deal, but the imprint folded. Before that, they mentioned the book had some problems and were talking about editing. On her own again, and unable to ask them any more details, she assumed they must be talking about the language, and so she worked to write it in a more suitable way. Still, though, she was unhappy with it and she knew she hadn’t solved the problems.

Editing veterans will be nodding sagely here, knowing that language is only one of our considerations. I’ve leaped into this trap myself. In the early days when I was querying agents, I’d get feedback that mentioned a few rough areas. I made the only possible assumption – that I needed to make the ‘writing’ somehow better. And so I fiddled, line by line, adding and pruning here and there. I probably ended up with an over-bloated muddle and didn’t touch the underlying problems. I had no idea about the mechanisms that work under the words, and that language is really the skin on top of the structure, pacing and character arcs.

Tomorrow: Putting the book away to get distance

How about you? Have you made the same rookie mistake about editing? Or a different one? Let’s discuss!

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  1. #1 by DRMarvello on August 1, 2014 - 4:21 pm

    The situation you describe where authors accept the vague criticism of an agent or publisher and then run off to “fix the manuscript” has always mystified me. It’s like replacing the tires on your car because someone told you it runs funny. Were the tires the problem? Who knows! But you replaced them so the car must run better now.

    What’s worse is that you are making changes based on one person’s feedback, which is just one opinion no matter how experienced/educated that person may be. The next agent/publisher could have issues with completely different things and have no problem with the things that irked the first one. Writing is art. Art is subjective.

    I understood the three basic levels of editing (substantive, line/copy, and proof) before I started writing fiction, so I knew that anything I wrote could have problems at any or all of those levels. But I don’t fix things willy-nilly. Beta readers give me the *specific* feedback I need to make substantive edits. I have an editor who gives me *specific* feedback regarding line edits. I usually perform the proof myself by reading the entire book out loud.

    • #2 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on August 1, 2014 - 8:18 pm

      Hi Daniel! Yet again you add worthwhile points to the discussion. We run off and fix, of course, because we can’t stand the idea that something is wrong. But as you say, we don’t know the many possible things that may need to be fixed or what to do.
      Your remark about reading the book out loud made me smile. I do that too. I’m imagining you declaiming yours in your hood, of course, as that’s how I’m used to seeing you 🙂

    • #3 by DRMarvello on August 1, 2014 - 11:59 pm

      Actually, I don’t wear the hood while proofing. Maybe I should. I do keep the crystal ball nearby though. It flashes when something sounds wrong, which is quite handy.

  2. #5 by acflory on August 1, 2014 - 10:42 pm

    My stories always undergo at least 3 fairly major rewrites, and that’s usually before I’m happy with the first draft. Once the editing begins, structure is what I look at first. Again, this requires some fairly heavy lifting, but as a pantster, I’m now used to the process. My aim is to end up with a story that flows effortlessly from scene to scene without ever feeling predictable. Sometimes I even manage to get close to that ideal. 😀

    • #6 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on August 2, 2014 - 7:23 am

      Hi Andrea! I’m well acquainted with the drastic rewrite and restructuring. I’ve never counted how many revisions I do or what I do on them, but I’ve decided with Ever Rest that I’ll keep a tally out of curiosity.

      • #7 by acflory on August 2, 2014 - 12:39 pm

        lol – make sure you’re sitting down with a nice glass of something before you tally the final total. 🙂 The nice thing though is that none of that painstaking work ‘shows’. All readers see is the flow, which is how it should be. 🙂

  3. #8 by raizscanlon on August 1, 2014 - 11:55 pm

    Honest Beta readers, and your Beat Sheet method, as well as a raft of reading about what ‘editing’ really is (I prefer revision for the early stages of ‘editing’) saved me from publishing rubbish!

    I’m enjoying this series, Roz and have read & lurked, but not had much to say, except thanks for continuing to reinforce the good stuff 🙂

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