Learning to Edit

I’ve been writing stories for maybe sixty years, since my early teens anyway. I’ve learned a lot about writing, and I am continuing to learn and grow.

I have come to demand more of myself during the last few years. I am no longer satisfied with my earlier published novels, though I have done better on some than on others. For one thing, my style, and my voice have evolved. I would not write those novels that way today.

One of the things I have learned is that, when I have done with what feels like the last draft, it is not really finished. The text is as good as I can make it, at that moment, so it’s time to publish. But now I know that I have to put a story aside for a while — weeks or months or maybe years — and then do at least three more drafts, sometimes four.

There is only so much that a writer can see about his or her own work. Which is why we almost always need the objective view of an editor to help us achieve our potential. The problem is finding that editor. If you haven’t sold the story yet, there is no editor. If you let friends and family read it, they don’t really know how to edit, and you’ll get bad advice, or useless advice at best. My daughter, Darcy, is an exception. If you ask another writer to edit your work, they probably won’t be willing to give up the time needed to do a good job, and would rather work their own stories, or do their day-time jobs. There are free-lance editors, but can you afford them? I used one once, someone I knew and trusted, and she did a fantastic job. But she doesn’t do that any more.

I have found that, instead of waiting three years for a rejection, without any explanation or editorial comment, I have to learn how to edit myself. Shall I say that it’s not easy?

I can improve my story a lot just by reading it aloud. When I read to myself, what I see is a text with which I am all to familiar. If I haven’t looked at it in a long time, maybe more than a year, a silent reading is essential, to re-familiarize myself with the text before reading it aloud. I find many things that can be improved at the same time.

But reading it aloud gives me a certain objectivity, especially if I read it each time in a different way, with a different objective. Text, just as text, can be technically correct, but it may not be right as a story.

Brain scans have shown that the verbal area of the brain has several different sub-areas. I saw the scans in one of my science magazines years ago, but I don’t remember where, and a brief search roughly confirmed what I read back then. Basically, there’s a speaking part, a hearing part, a writing part (or thinking part), and a reading part, more or less. So when writers read silently, they use only the reading part of their verbal brain. Reading aloud uses the speaking, and hearing parts as well. Just reading aloud gives you a lot more perspective on what you have written.

I read aloud the first time as text. My objective is to find those typos, punctuation errors, faults in tense or number, incomplete images, duplicate or missing words — everything a copy-editor would find. But to do this, I have to read it literally word for word, not read just what I know is there, but read what is really there. It takes a lot of focus, and a lot more time to read this way than to read it silently. If I can maintain that focus, which is easy to loose, I can find much more that can be improved, parts that are wrong, or too verbose, or too terse, and parts which need adjustment for style and voice.

I am no longer surprised by how many problems I find in a text, which felt done when I last read it to myself. In other words, I am learning how to objectively edit my own work. Learning, not have learned. It is an acquired skill, and takes constant practice.

But I am getting better.