self-editing part 1: developmental editing self editing self-publishing

Self-Publishing Lessons Part 5: Self-Editing, #1

Self-Editing for Development

Most modern self-publishers are writers, not editors, and self-editing is not really part of most writers’ toolboxes. If you edit like a writer, you’re going to have a bad time.

Developmental Self-Editing

My original plan for this self-publishing column was to schedule it for very early Sunday morning, when most readers-cum-writers should be waking up to enjoy the last of their weekend, sipping coffee, and happily, groggily, unwittingly receptive to the ideas within. Then after looking at my traffic, I thought maybe it would get more mileage if I posted it Saturday morning.

So naturally here I am, Saturday morning, behind the eight ball without a completed column. There are lessons aplenty in that, but I won’t dissect them all or I won’t get this posted for a week while I write a 100,000-word opus. But it does provide a solid jumping-off point.

What is that? you may ask.

Self-Editing Deadlines

Most writers think of deadlines as being a bad thing. I would go so far as to say that every writer who has ever written seriously has dreaded the deadline at some point or another. It’s easy to think of the deadline, when writing, as a looming beast waiting to devour you and illustrate your failure and display your incompetence to the world.

Editors love deadlines.

How can someone love a deadline?

Well, it’s easy if you look at every deadline as a milestone, because they are. It’s true that deadlines loom, but when they’ve passed, you can look back on them and track your progress very clearly. And while the deadline for your manuscript is a lurking monster to you, the writer, to your editor it indicates the day when they can really get to work turning your manuscript into a book.

The only deadlines I’ve ever missed were ones I set for myself in self-publishing. That’s a curious fact, to me. That’s a “writer thing,” not an “editor thing.”

As self-publishers, always give yourself a deadline. Deadlines are your friend.

As self-publishers, you will not always make your deadlines. You should still take them seriously. Finish your draft as close to your deadline as possible.

When your manuscript is done, put it aside and work on something else. Do this with fervent and intentional sincerity. Save and close the file. If you write by hand or typewriter, put your manuscript in a drawer and start another. You have another deadline coming up, right?

Of course you do, because you read this and listened to me and you knew that I know best.

Do not give your manuscript one final read before you put it away.

Do not go back and fix that one thing that’s been bugging you.

Do not check it for typos.

Put. It. Away.

Editing Versus Self-Editing

Think for a moment about what an editor brings to the table that you, as a writer, can’t.

The first and most obvious, aside from superior grammar skills, is that “fresh set of eyes,” which is impossible for the creator of the work.

This is where we start to simulate the professional process. Bigly.

This is the reason you let your work sit, and go work on something else. You’re doing yourself a favor, because you have the unenviable task of doing the truly impossible: trying to forget everything about the work that has just consumed your entire being for God knows how long.

If you keep fiddling with the damn thing, you’ll never have anything remotely like fresh eyes. And if you’re like most writers, you’ll never be done fiddling with the damn thing anyway. We can fiddle and fix and ‘edit’ our manuscripts so long that they never see publication.

You need deadlines. Everybody needs deadlines.

You should let it sit and forget about it for a week or more.

Schedule this into your deadlines! Don’t even plan to start the first round of editing until it has been untouched and you’ve had other things on your mind.

When setting up your deadlines, you will want to give this “idle time” to each stage of editing. A month is better than a week, but I know most of you will not let a finished manuscript sit for a month, much less three months, through the process.

Plan for a week between finished (beta-read) rough and developmental editing, a week between development and copyedit, and a week between copyedit and proofread.

The entire reason for this downtime is so that when you return to the manuscript for editing, you’ll have a chance to let the work surprise you, and for your blind spots to have faded. You develop blind spots as you work. You made the mistake in the first place, so why would the same process that created it, facilitate correcting it?

It won’t. You can miss a mistake as many times as you can try to catch it. Time gives distance, so errors can leap off the page at you, or at least not be hidden in the blind spot that created it.

It’s not wasted time, it’s invested time.

Developmental Editing: Self-Editing Or Rewriting?

The first few manuscripts you try to self-edit developmentally, you’re going to find yourself in what I call a headspace crunch. You won’t have the skills and you’ll know it, but you’ll start seeing what you’re trying to do.

Don’t beat yourself up. Remember the first edit is going to lead to an actual rewrite.

What you don’t want to do, is turn the edit into a rewrite!

Let me stress this: do not rewrite while editing.

Do not rewrite while editing.

Do not rewrite while editing!

Put your fucking editor hat on.

Buy a fistful of red pens, and a fresh printer cartridge.

Self-Editing Your Manuscript: Round One

Editors don’t write, they read. Take your manuscript to your favorite reading place. Bring your red pen and your coffee, and read it like a reader as much as possible. Even editors who are chained to their desks read this way. They just can’t be as comfortable, or let the kitties climb on them, or whatever. The headspace is important.

Print your manuscript double-spaced, and make sure you have at least 1” margins. When I developmentally edit on paper, I set the right margin to 3” or 4”. This leaves a lot of room for notes, and is a good idea.

Being old-school, everything I edit on paper is Courier 12 point, double-spaced. Monospaced fonts are particularly important for proofreading. Developmental editing doesn’t require that level of attention to detail, so if you’re not comfortable reading Courier, use a bookish font on this draft.

If you notice grammar errors or typos, that’s fine. Mark them and move on. But that’s not what you’re looking for.

Pretend it’s someone else’s writing.

What would you really think of it? What would you change?

What works? What doesn’t work?

What ideas or themes do you find? Are they developed as well as they could be?

Is everyone’s name spelled the same way? Do titles or pronouns confuse you as to whom the author is referring?

Cut, cut, cut. Any editor worth a damn can cut any manuscript’s word count by 10%. Any manuscript is made better for those cuts.

Think big picture. How would you sell this book? What scenes are titillating enough to go on a splash page, or the back cover? What part of the book would appeal to readers so much that it ought to be incorporated into the cover art?

What makes this book special? How is it different from all the others out there? How could it be different from all the others out there?

You should have red ink on every page.

When—and ONLY WHEN—you have read and re-read the book with your Developmental Editor hat on from start to finish, and you have considered how well you succeeded and where you failed, can you go back to your manuscript. Rewrite it in accordance with your red ink.

Trust yourself. Trust your editor. You may need to go through the whole writing process again at some points, but do it. You’ll be glad you did.

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