Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Switching to My Editor Hat

Between last night and this afternoon alone, I spent close to six hours composing barely two pages of my own work that I’d been trying to get a handle on for the preceding several days. That may sound maddening (sometimes it is) but I also consider this particular experience successful.

In general, I spend way more time editing work already written, my own included, than writing new work. In the past six months I have edited one full-length work of fiction, at last count three times, and still need to do another round before it goes to press. I also edit technical documents and government proposals, which I do love as well as rely on for income.

For me, all of this has been part of my path to publication. One thing I’ve found is that it can be extremely difficult to edit one’s own work. There are some terrific books out there that help with the self-editing process. Two of my favorites are Don’t Sabotage Your Submission and Manuscript Makeover. Why do I keep buying books about something I do professionally? Because there are three types of editors (at least) needed to make a novel shine.

The first is a copy editor. Now laugh if you will, but it will be difficult to get a publisher to consider your work if your manuscript has even minor punctuation or grammar issues. A trained professional at a major publishing house or literary agency probably won’t take the time to read the incredible content you’ve created if you’ve formatted it incorrectly, use lots of  commas where you shouldn’t, or forget where to place a period. These editors will put down your work if they think it would require too much effort on their part. Why not, when they probably have dozens of other good manuscripts sitting on their desks with as good or better content as yours that require less editing? I know this from experience. When I was hiring editors, I routinely rejected resumes if they had even a single typo.

Another type of editor is one who works on the craft of writing. This editor can tell you what is cliché, where your plot lines have holes, when your characters behave out of character, and when your dialogue sounds fake or stilted. Writing a novel-length work is essentially juggling a lot of details, so a huge task that falls to both types of editors is catching factual and timeline errors, inconsistencies from chapter to chapter, instances of “telling” more than “showing,” switching points of view in the middle of a scene, or when believability collides with credibility.

Lastly, when you get that golden ticket and a New York publisher is examining your masterpiece, you will have someone who edits your work mainly for content. (And when they are done, and after you make corrections, the entire piece will again go to a copy editor to be perfected). Now, by the time this content editor talks to you, you’ve spent so long working on the piece that you can’t clearly see the forest for the trees. So you'll rely on these editors to make your work sing off the pages. They can revise a sentence to cut out words, make it more concise, and the story will fairly leap into life for the reader. Sometimes they rearrange paragraphs or suggest you cut scenes that lag—or beef them up. But, the work needs to be in near-perfect shape for it to get to this point.

How is a writer to cope? Most of us are not trained to wear all these hats, certainly not in addition to the creative one that we wore to write the book to begin with! My advice is to find a really good writing partner. I was involved with critique groups for years, and benefited tremendously from the ones that worked. What’s worked even better for me has been finding someone who could complement my own editorial skills and swap blocks of time going over each other’s work in minute detail.

Now, I can look back on five years of writing and realize how difficult it is to be the writer who wears all four hats. If you can do it, that’s great. It took me years to figure out that I couldn’t, despite being a professional editor.

Every step I take, every change I make, brings me one step closer in the publishing process. It is a long and winding road, but I’m glad I’m on it and I’m glad that you all are here watching us as the Wicked team heads down it. It doesn’t seem as dark and scary anymore, just long.

On an unrelated note, I wanted to share this great post from one of my new favorite authors who recently took on the genre vs. literary debate, a topic close to the surface for our Wicked group:



  1. Very informative post, Supriya. It's easy to forget how long it takes to create a finished document when you just want to get published and see your book on the shelf at a bookstore. I remember figuring 6 to 8 hours to finalize a page, depending on the amount of research and fact checking also involved, but I'm still impatient when it comes to finishing The Courier.

  2. Harley D. PalmerMarch 3, 2010 at 5:01 AM

    It is rather difficult to wear all of those hats, but as far as copy editing is concerned, I am a bit OCD for grammar and punctuation so even when reading my own work that part is a bit easy for me. The hard part is finding plot holes and time line inconsistencies. This is where another pair of eyes is a great thing to have. I tried joining a workshop but I was unable to keep up with the rules of it in order to have my own work read. (And it wasn't happening fast enough for me in the first place.) I really wish I could find one person that would sit down and look at my work, but it seems that I can't find that unless I pay for it. *shrug* I guess I'll have to do that when I am done with this next revision.

    Great post Supriya!

  3. I'm impatient too but it happens when it happens, right? Back in January, remember me saying I'd be done with revisions by now? Well, I'm still only about a third of the way through. It's slow and yet I'm doing what I can. I can't rush the process even if I am impatient. 6-8 hrs on a page sounds familiar, which is why I felt so good when I was able to down 2 pps in 6 hrs. And though it's hard, I almost think it's what I've learned about writing that makes it so much slower now. My first draft fell on to the page in no time and back then, I thought, "hey, writing a novel really isn't so hard."

  4. Hey Harley, thanks for your kind words. I can sympathize with your issues finding a writing partner. I got very lucky finding that one person but it also hadn't occurred to me earlier to try something like this. I wasn't sure of my comfort level or my trust level when she first suggested it, honestly. But once we got into the groove and realized we could both take honest criticism and worked well with one another, it's made the process much more efficient. I don't know of a lot of people who do what we do but I guess whatever works, right? And yes, I know what you mean about workshop critiques not moving fast enough. Sometimes you just want to monopolize someone's time (ie shake them silly) and beg them, "tell me everything I need to know to fix this and NOW!" ;)

  5. My ears are burning... ;-) Be honest - I had to browbeat you in to it and even then I think my inexperience was what initially scared you.

    Who in the hell with a journalism degree and has been writing and editing for twenty years would EVER think about taking the advice of someone who started writing four months ago? Wasn't that about the time frame of when I started bugging you and started to crit BIB?

    You took a chance on me and I will be forever grateful. I'll tell anyone who'll listen I'd never be here without you.

    Harley - do you have emails for the people in the online crit group on WDC? Have you thought about approaching them or joining a writing guild to meet new people with whom you could exchange crits (and then become writing partners with)? Don't expect the offers to come out of the woodwork. Go down and hunt those writers down. Do your best to offer them the most insightful and thorough crits you can. Put on your READER hat and give them a view that other writers can't.

    I hunted my writing partner down like an endangered beast. I was determined to win her over and woo her into working with me. Flat out, Supriya offered me the most thorough and insightful crits of anyone I had worked with and I was determined to prove myself worthy so she'd give me a shot.

    To this day it's her, and my husband, I listen to the most when it comes to advice on my work--and sometimes she says way smarter stuff than Pete. :-D

  6. Who in the hell with a journalism degree and has been writing and editing for twenty years would EVER think about taking the advice of someone who started writing four months ago?

    Hey, I have a journalism degree and have been writing and editing for almost 30 years, not 20.

    Oh, you meant Supriya.

    Good post, Supriya. I certainly would need all three of those editors, especially with my penchant for "telling" rather than "showing" and for switching POV in the middle of scenes. But, I'm learning.

    I've been trying to wear all four hats simply because I'm the only person I listen to. Well, I listen to Harley (and C.J. under threat).

    But, I never realized how much editing goes into published books. No wonder there is such a long lead time.

    And, I guess, that's the downside to publishing via Smashwords or Lulu or doing unfiltered blogs. No editing. It's like sports talk radio "open mike" night.

  7. Great advice. I actually dread the part of editing my own work and it really shows. When I do manage to go through it after, there are often sentences or phrases that I just can't get right. I guess what I need is an editor to point out the flaws in my plot or novel.

    Thanks for your article.