Thursday, January 12, 2012

Why Good Self-Editing Is (Not?) "Impossible"

Hearkening back to my post that kicked off this series, "Is Self-Editing Unprofessional?", I pointed out that while there's a common belief in self-publishing (and even among fiction authors) that it's impossible for an author to adequately edit their own work, freelance writers (and some traditionally published writers) are expected to be able to adequately edit their own work.

But a lot of writers think that adequately self-editing their own work is impossible, and that's due to what it involves.

"Editing" involves several tasks that not everyone can do well, and that it's normal to be able to analyze better for someone else before you can analyze them in your own writing. Definitions also change a bit depending on the situation and who you ask, so I'll define what I mean:

  • Content Editing – Making sure the "big picture" plot, characters, setting, theme, etc. all work.
  • Line Editing – Making sure each sentence flows in the best way possible.
  • Copyediting – Making sure the text says what you wanted it to say, that the details line up, and that your references to existent companies and the like are proper.
  • Proofreading – Making sure what's on the page is what you meant to write, a final check for misused words, misplaced punctuation, improper formatting, etc.

So when you self-edit, you have to make sure your "big picture" structure all works, and you have to make sure you didn't use the noun affect where you needed the noun effect, or that you didn't use the female fiancée where you needed the male fiancé. (Two examples of common problems. And yes, affect can be a noun, though it's usually used in the verb form.)

When you self-edit, you have to do all those things by yourself.

…Or do you?

There's something that a lot of folks forget or scoff at when they insist nobody can self-edit: beta readers.

Beta readers usually aren't pros. Beta readers probably don't know when a semicolon should go before a conjunction. (Yes, it sometimes should.) Beta readers might not be particularly familiar with your genre but want to read it because you wrote it.

But beta readers are readers. I have friends who work or have worked as English teachers, as staff proofreaders for an extremely picky local press, etc. And some of my best feedback, the input that nailed the problem in a story's content, does not come from them.

I repeat, my most useful content feedback does not always come from my friends who work in the field.

Detail input? Analysis of story theme? Debate over whether a technique I tried was appropriate to the context or not? My professional friends are fantastic at that. (You should've been there when one of them critiqued an early version of A Fistful of Fire. Her "Mash doesn't boil!" sounded like my complaint about Robin McKinley's Sunshine: Knitting needles don't have hooks on the end! That was an afghan hook, also known as a Tunisian crochet hook or needle! (I even suspect the author wrote that on purpose due to the narrator, but it still irritates me.)


My non-professional friends are the ones who told me my paranoid narrator was too whiny and self-absorbed, that I was getting extremely rude and snappish when I tried writing a novel full of psychopaths for NaNoWriMo. (It put me on edge, and they later told me that just hearing about the story sorta scared them. I've learned that I can't bury myself in that kind of story again; it isn't healthy.)

Beta readers can fill in your weak points, but even then, you have to be strong enough a self-editor to know where your weak points are and to recognize when a beta reader's suggestion is legitimate. I've had friends try copyediting/proofreading my work, where afterwards I discovered that they didn't know grammar quite as thoroughly as they thought they did, or that they used a different grammar handbook and dictionary than I did.

That can make the difference between putting spaces around an em dash (—) or not, and between the spelling of words like e-mail/email. (For the record, I prefer no spaces and e-mail.)

So you already need some skill at editing before you can self-edit or pick good support beta readers.

At all types of editing.

That's a lot of work. It's scary.

Some folks don't want to spend the time learning it, time that could be spent writing. That's fine.

Some folks have learning disabilities or issues that mean they honestly can't adequately edit their own work. That's fine, too. (Though they can probably learn more than they think they can; speaking from my experience as a grammar tutor.)

But self-editing isn't impossible for everyone. Just ask any freelancer who's worked under an NDA with no more than an acquisitions editor.

Do you seek to improve your self-editing skills, or do you focus on your writing? If you're more of a reader than a writer, what errors particularly bother you in a story?


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