The Ins and Outs of Self-Editing
So, quick writing recap: I’ve been signed with a publisher for the past eight or so years. I started with Amazon’s horror imprint, 47North, and worked with their thriller imprint, Thomas & Mercer, when I published The Neighbors. After Amazon, I snagged a five-book deal with Simon & Schuster’s Gallery Books. What this translates to is that I’ve had a professional editor for the past eightish years. Beyond an editor, I also had a team of people who would check my work so many times it became annoying. Like, how many more spelling and grammar checks do you need after the bazillion edits the publisher has already run? The answer is roughly another million. At the tail end of these edits, I was getting queries like, “I know this is a three-thousand-page story, but the comma in paragraph one, line one, page 839 might be unnecessary.” (Okay, so maybe I’ve never written a three-thousand-page story. Whatever. The editing thing, however, it whole-heartedly accurate.)
Why am I bringing this up? Because I get questions about editing all the time. When I recently revealed that I was going solo again (at least for now), those editing questions came flooding in once more. And they’re good questions, so I figure, hey, this is a good topic. Let’s address some of those questions here.
Q: How many edits are enough?
A: I’m currently in the middle of editing my novel, If You See Her (coming at you this May, if all goes according to plan), and I’ve concluded that I am a serial editor. It’s a compulsion, guys. And sometimes it’s overwhelming. If You See Her is approximately 90k words in length; so, not insanely lengthy, but it’s still coming in at nearly three hundred pages. When you consider that you’ll need to edit your work at least four times before it’s anywhere near ready for other people’s eyeballs, that word count becomes quite hefty. Like, almost half a million words. (Zoinks!)
And here’s where it gets funny. What do I mean, funny? Funny like a clown? Yes and no. Funny, like hysterical unhinged giggling funny. And also terrifying, like a clown. Because after those four extensive edits (one of which was a partial rewrite), and after handing over the polished manuscript to beta readers, I begin another edit while waiting for their what-the-hell-is-this-garbage reviews. And you know what? Even after four run-throughs, I realize I hate this manuscript. The story is solid (I think), but every sentence reads wrong. The cadence, which worked before, no longer works. Something is amiss, and my knee-jerk reaction is to fix it. Fix it all.
“How is that possible?” you ask. “After four edits you suddenly have to rework every sentence?” Okay, so, not every sentence. Just every other one. But yes, it’s possible. And yes, it’s incredibly annoying. But you know what? If you can get to the point in your editing where the story works but the syntax is killing you; if you can pick up on the fact that your sentence structures aren’t their best, that the rhythm and pacing is lacking…you’re probably pretty good at editing your own work.
All that said, the short answer is four to five edits, minimum. The first draft doesn’t count. The second should be an edit strictly for content, plot, characterization, backstory, etc. The third should be a plot and grammar/syntax combo. The fourth, grammar all the way. By this edit, you’ll know whether you need another one (or two, or three). You’ll feel it in your bones. If it feels off, it’s probably off. Go back. Reread it.
Q: Can you really edit your own stuff and do it well? Aren’t you too close to the story?
A: It’s a rare day that I say I’m great at anything. Most days I feel like an amateur at everything I attempt, whether it’s writing a book synopsis (ugh, you guys, ugh. That’s a blog post for another day) or trying to get a baby to take a g’damn nap (seriously, go TF to sleep). But you know what I am great at? Editing my own garbage drafts. I have an uncanny ability to turn off the creative part of my brain and go full-on analytical on a manuscript. This results in some pretty brutal cuts, endless corrections, and me snorting at a fourth edit, like, Jesus, this person is the worst writer ever. Give it up, already.
(Fact: I may be the worst writer ever. I believe there are a handful of book reviews that say this. Also, I’m “demented.” If I were writing romance, this would be a problem. Since I’m writing horror, thanks for the compliment, asshole.)
“So, how does someone ruthlessly edit their own work,” you ask. “Inquiring minds want to know.”
Editing your own work is a tricky business, especially if you have a hard time disassociating. That sounds like a psychological serial killer kind of a problem, doesn’t it? Maybe it is. Perhaps I shouldn’t be able to emotionally remove myself from my work as easily as I do. If, however, you have any hope of becoming a proficient self-editor, you must learn how to kill your darlings (advice attributed to Faulkner, but said by a thousand writers both before and after his time). And while I can’t teach you how to do something I have no idea how I taught myself, I can give you a tip. But you aren't going to like it...
Tell yourself your writing sucks.
I know, right? How dare I? After all, this is the total opposite of all the writing advice you’ve ever taken to heart. But you know what? When it comes to good writing, believing you’re fantastic straight out of the gate will only lead to a shitty result. Make peace with the fact that you might be a great storyteller, but your first draft is trash. If you’re recoiling from this advice, like, “screw you, lady, my writing is fantastic,” think of it another way: it’s not just you. Everyone’s writing deserves to go in the circular file…at first.
“But,” you wonder, “if I adopt this nihilistic, pessimistic, fatalistic, and downright misanthropic mindset, won’t I become horribly depressed?” Um, you might. (Legal disclaimer: this blog is nothing but lies thought up by a demented mind. I take zero responsibility for your emotional state.) But if you take all this discouraging nonsense with a spoonful of optimism, you’ll very likely come out the other side with a weird sense of freedom. Because if everyone’s writing sucks at first, everyone starts on an equal playing field. That means, with editing, you can be as brilliant as your favorite author.
So, take a step back. Take in your manuscript from a reader’s perspective, not with an author’s mindset. It takes practice, but as soon as you master removing yourself from, well, yourself, your cuts will become more vicious, you’ll hardly bat an eye at deleting entire passages—hell, deleting whole chapters. You'll begin to find a weird sense of zen from restructuring sentences and paragraphs. It sounds crazy, but it's true.
Q: How do you know if you’re done?
A: You don’t. That’s where the editing Catch-22 comes in. Some writers don’t know how to edit their work, the end. Some think they know how but do it poorly, shrug their shoulders after a dodgy second draft, and publish that nonsense as if it were ready for mass consumption. And then some writers edit, and edit, and edit, and edit… They don’t know when to stop, and their stories never see the light of day.
I’m going to make the argument that this is not an editing problem, however. It's a confidence problem, a form of procrastination. Because if you’re still editing, it means that when someone asks you how your novel is coming along and whether or not they can read it, the answer is a resounding no. It will always be no.
This is precisely why I let my beta readers have my fourth edit. I know it’s not done, and the remaining issues are kind of embarrassing. But it’s complete enough for them to get a good idea of what it’ll be like when it’s nice and shiny. It allows me to loosen my grip on a story that, sooner rather than later, will no longer be exclusively mine. Because once you unleash a story onto the world, you’re just the author. The story belongs to the reader, and we writers fade into the shadows, which is where we belong.
So, when do you know you’re done? Sorry, I don’t have an answer. But for me it’s part gut instinct and part oh my god, if I have to read this manuscript one more time… Part of you will think, “hey, this is pretty damn good.” Another part will threaten to cut off your editing-self's head with a dulled kitchen knife.
Q: Should I spend the money on a professional editor if I’m self-publishing?
A: Eh, maybe. This is shaky territory for me for a variety of reasons.
The first reason is, if you’re good at self-editing, you’re probably going to do just as thorough a job, if not a better job, than an editor you hire. Why? Because you aren’t on the clock. A professional editor (or someone that passes for a professional online) has multiple clients. They aren’t going to pour over your manuscript as though it’s some unique and masterful piece of literature. On the flipside, however, is the indisputable fact that a fresh set of eyes is invaluable. While you might be great at disassociating, you’re still the author.
Beta readers aren’t professionals. You shouldn’t rely on them to catch every grammatical error or correct your wonky comma placement. They can, however, give you general thoughts on the story, tell you which sections don’t work, and ask fun questions like WTF does this sentence mean, anyway? If you can find yourself an excellent team of betas (three is a good number), they’ll catch things you won’t and bring up problems you might not realize are issues at all.
A fantastic real-life example of this: I reference 'cool ranch Doritos' in the first few pages of If You See Her. One of my betas is, like, um, you mean Cooler Ranch Doritos? (Thank you, Ashley!) Yes, that’s what I mean, but I would never have thought that this was a mistake. Because I don’t spend a lot of time eating or thinking about Doritos. (Ashley, on the other hand…)
The second reason I’m not sold on paying for an editing pro is, how good are they? I mean, really? Guys, if you want someone with serious street cred, you’re going to pay out the you-know-what. Editing is a long and involved process. Often it’s slow-going. That means it doesn’t come cheap. Can you find editors online that aren’t charging highway robbery prices? Yes. Will they do a good job? Possibly. Would I risk it? No. Because literally, anyone can call themselves an editor, just like anyone can write and self-publish a book. Just because they can doesn’t mean they should.
Q: Do you use any editing programs or software?
A: Yes. Beyond taking advice from Word’s generic grammar checker, I’m currently using two programs to boost my writerly self-awareness.
The first is a program called Hemingway. I have a love/hate relationship with this program because it strikes me as pretty archaic. (Though, to be fair, I run version 2.0. Visiting their site now, I see they've released an update, which may be better.)
Hemingway is called Hemingway because of ol’ Ernie’s ability to keep his writing clean and staccato. The Hemingway program weighs your sentences in terms of readability, boiling each sentence down to either easy, advanced, and super-hard to read. It highlights these sentences accordingly, with yellow for mid-level and red for nobody is going to understand this. This gives you a visual representation of what your writing looks like, which I find quite useful. Do I always follow the suggestions given in Hemingway? Of course not. Good writing is a careful balance between clipped, simple sentences and the occasionally lengthy run-on. But it’s a great tool if you want to learn how to look at your writing from a highly analytical perspective.
The second app I use is called Grammarly, which is like Word’s poky grammar checker on steroids. Do you know what an ‘unclear antecedent’ is? (Nope.) Can you find all of your repetitive words and weak adjectives? (Me neither.) Grammarly can run on both your home computer, your phone, and your web browser. This means you can have it check anything and everything you write, be it your crummy first draft or an important email. And yes, there’s even a Grammarly keyboard for texting. It takes a bit of getting used to, and it’s not as quick and easy as Swiftkey, but you cut down those annoying and sometimes embarrassing autocorrects by a good 90%. The bad thing about Grammarly? It’s a subscription if you want to run the full program with advanced corrections.
Personally, after doing some hardcore self-editing and running my manuscript through these two programs, I find that I see nearly every mistake and awkward sentence.
How does this technique compare with working to a living, breathing, professional Big 6 editor? My editor at Gallery was a g’damn pop culture encyclopedia. He breathed weird trivia. In Brother, I reference a Cure album with very specific cover art. During one of the drafts, my editor went off on a lengthy diatribe about the Cure’s discography and what art showed up when and in which country. It was, quite frankly, simultaneously impressive and insane. You aren’t going to get that sort of in-depth knowledge with these programs. You may, however, get them if you find yourself an audiophiliac beta reader.
So, there are my thoughts on editing, my thinking behind the process, and how I do it when I have to do it myself. This system works for me, but your results may vary. All that said, it’s helpful to remember that, as Stephen King once said, “Sometimes you have to go on when you don't feel like it, and sometimes you're doing good work when it feels like all you're managing is to shovel shit from a sitting position.”
Speaking of, if you’re looking for a book on craft, King’s On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft is indispensable. I cannot recommend it enough, especially to those who are doing this crazy writing thing on their own.