Recently, I was talking to my creative writing students about the challenges of the editing process (both on my own and with my editors’ help). I told the students that, for me, editing requires a strong, conscious shift in perspective. When I edit, I have to change how I view my book, my characters, my storylines. I have to try and stand back, away from the heart of the story, to be as objective as possible. In many ways, I have to treat myself as an outsider of the writing process, not an intimate, creative part of it.
There are three specific methods/reminders that always help me, when I feel myself getting “too close” or too protective of my own work during edits:
1) I listen to my gut, to my “inner” editor. Most of us, if we’re honest with ourselves, know exactly when our work is authentic and when it isn’t. We know when our writing has reached a higher standard or when it hasn’t. We need to pay attention to our writer’s gut, telling us when we’ve hit the mark or when we’ve missed it by a mile. And sometimes, that means some gut-wrenching choices. Cutting, revamping, trimming, removing. Sometimes, precious paragraphs, even chapters or minor characters, get put on the editing chopping block. Recently, I wrote a scene that I knew wasn’t working. It was flat, and the plot didn’t make any progress within the scene. The minute I finished writing it, I knew for sure. And so, I scrapped it. I removed it entirely and wrote a different scene—one with heart and soul, one that propelled the story forward, one I knew I could be proud of. And my gut told me the truth once again. The new scene had worked. And although I’d lost a couple of hours writing that other scene, I’m glad I listened to my inner editor and made the change. Because it made all the difference.
2) Always remember the bottom line. “Do what’s best for the overall book.” The editing process can be incredibly tedious, especially line edits. But they’re necessary. They make the book tighter and better. And that’s really the whole point of editing—to make your book the very best it can be. Edits help the book, as a whole, feel polished and completed and finished. When I feel discouraged or weary during an editing process, I always try and step back to remind myself, “This is making the book better. These edits benefit the book as a whole.”
3) Love your own work a little less. We writers are usually guilty of putting our hearts and souls into our writing, through our characters and through the stories we tell. And even if we’re not “in love” with our writing (writers are notoriously hard on themselves), we at least feel protective of it. That book’s concept is our own creation. We’ve birthed it, nurtured it, watched it grow into a full novel. So, changing words, never mind entire paragraphs or chapters, can be excruciating. But forcing ourselves to be more objective, to love our characters, our plots, a little bit less, can help during the editing process. We have to look at our own work from a distance. If we look at our work through a reader’s eye, fresh, we can see the flaws and know what needs to be fixed. And, what doesn’t. But if we’re too in love with our own prose, too attached to our plotlines or characters, we can lose our objectivity. We have to learn to let go a little, in order for the editing process to succeed.
Author Anne Lamott has a fabulous quote about the challenges of being objective during the editing process. I think she says it best: “Writing is about hypnotizing yourself into believing in yourself, getting some work done, then un-hypnotizing yourself and going over the material coldly.”
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