The importance of editing to good writing is clear, but how to become a good self-editor is not. Few colleges offer ‘editing’ courses. Writer’s groups are everywhere, but I’ve never encountered a self-editor’s group. There are a number of helpful books on self-editing, but they typically break down the editing process into task-oriented strategies that guide you in word selection, plot structure, character development, and literary themes. In my experience, however, good editing is not just a product of piecemeal strategies, but of a particular mindset. Editors think differently about writing than do writers.
Here are a few critical features of the “mental space” necessary to thinking like an editor.
Check Your Ego at the Office Door
Writing is inherently an act born of hubris; editing is an act born of humility. In order to write a book, you have to throw caution to the winds and believe that you can somehow capture the perfect magic of the story that is in your head. In order to self-edit a book, you have to acknowledge that what is written is imperfect and needs fixing—large scale and small scale fixing—and that it will take work, lots and lots of work. Training yourself to see your work’s flaws rather than its beauty is a constant challenge. I can’t tell anyone how to be humble, but I can provide a few guidelines for how to train yourself to think like an editor.
Trust Your Reader’s Instincts and Train Yourself to Act on Them.
Most writers are sophisticated readers who can feel and sense ‘wrongness’ in someone else’s writing. It’s a gut feeling, almost an instinct, that something is just not right. Most writers can also sense that ‘wrongness’ in their own work, but then don’t manage to make themselves do something about it. It’s too easy to get caught in the flow of words and far too hard to stop and figure out what needs fixing and then fix it.
Self-editing requires you, as a writer, to train yourself to pay attention to your reader’s instincts, and to act on them. For example: