To write well, you need to write, get feedback, revise, repeat.
So now your test reader told you it sucks, how do you fix it?
The process of revising your work is called ‘editing’. There are two common approaches: self-editing (which is what you'll be doing at the start), and professional editing through an editor (which is a final step to get your polished manuscript ready for publication).
Yes, everyone needs to edit their work. Even the best authors usually consider their first drafts to be bad.
But why? The reason is if you try to make the perfect first draft, you likely won't get it done. Writing and editing is a different mindset, unrestricted creative flow doesn't go well with analytical thinking required for brevity, comprehensibility, or even a meaningful plot.
That is why it is common to separate writing and editing. You can't fix what you don't have in the first place, so for most writer it's better to forget about rules and perfection when writing. Once you have something, it’s time to improve it with an edit!
When you want to edit your own work, you need at least one of these two: either concrete feedback from someone else, or distance to neutrally judge yourself what needs fixing. You ideally want both!
But how do you get distance, and what for?
With distance, you are essentially tapping into your objective self for feedback. This is achieved with time. Put down the project, work on something else, get back later. With your mind cleared of all the feelings and emotion of directly working on the project, you will have a new set of eyes!
What if I can’t put it down? If you can't make yourself do it, try writing a sequel, prequel, anything else that allows you to get at least some distance. Then, you’ll be prepared for a self-edit!
During an edit, you'll essentially be looking at two things:
1. The Language: the detailed use of your words, like readability (are the sentences simple enough, is it obvious who is speaking?), consistency (are the words consistent in tone?), reading flow (does the dialog flow, do sentences have interesting variation?), and similar.
2. The plot: the underlying story and characters, like overall plot arc, pacing, believable character motivations, making the story believable and relatable, and more.
You can get feedback on this both from test readers, as well as yourself with some objective distance.
Also, writing books and videos, courses and similar can go a long way of teaching you of the worst pitfalls, e.g. the basic ‘Show, Don't Tell’ rule, or the need for spoken dialogue to feel ‘in the scene’. (The details are beyond the scope of this article, but I might cover them another time.)
You got a list on what to fix, so now just to open the manuscript and do it, right?
Yes! But there is one caveat: it is always good to keep older versions, and also a ‘scraps’ document where you keep all removed scenes and plotlines. When editing you should be fearless! Maybe it's better if that thing is out? Scrap it and try! Maybe that other plot idea is better, but who knows? Rewrite and see! A technical way to go back will allow fearlessness in your search for perfection.
A hired external editor can do miraculous work, so why spend time self-editing at all?
Because usually, the editor only finds the problems! An editor may give ideas how to fix it, but most fixing will be up to you — it’s your book, your voice — and this requires solid self-editing practice.
Self-editing is also efficient: you don't want to waste yours and the editor’s time for super obvious mistakes. Therefore, I recommend to always self-edit first, and only afterwards, use the second set of eyes to find mistakes you couldn’t easily spot yourself.
Thanks for reading the article. Find more advice on writing here. And remember, always keep writing to get better!
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