Editing — Facing the Red Pen

How to respond to an editor’s work

I am a strong believer in the notion that it is simply not possible to edit your own work. After all, the first picture is an image of just a few paragraphs from my new short story Stench of Death after I let someone edit the hell out of it.

One of the problems with trying to edit your own work is that it is very difficult to spot your own bad habits. It’s also near impossible to judge how your writing “sounds” or “reads reader unless you get someone else to look at it objectively. A lot of writers fear that an editor will squash and smash the life out of their work, but in reality all they do is sharpen it.

Don’t take it personally

Whenever you see a correction it is easy to feel as though the editor is judging you as a person, or in some way commenting you on your ability to write. In reality, most of the time they are merely brush a loose bit of fluff or lint off your expensive tailored suit. They aren’t saying you suit is cheap or rubbish, they just want you to look your best.

You have a choice: either take the edit as a personal, condescending attack, or accept the suggested change as a piece of advice. For example: I tend to write “they had” when “they’d” would be fine. Someone editing my work will point that out. I don’t have to follow their advice, and in fact there are times when I want to keep “they had” — so I do. I’m under no obligation to accept the changes. Another one is “it is” when “it’s” would be fine. Equally, I use the word “just” far too often: “I just don’t understand what you’re saying.” Sure, it sounds fine in my head, but it really isn’t necessary, and an editor pick these things up.

Show, don’t tell

Another common error is to describe situations by spoon-feeding the details to the reader, when what would work better is to demonstrate the details in the way the characters respond to them or speak about them. Sometimes I describe an action and then also have the character show it: an editor will point that out.

What editors don’t do is take over your text and tell you how you should have written something. As a crime fiction writer, one of my main priorities is to have a pacey, tense reads. After I have written, edited, re-written — and so on, do forth — there is no real way to tell if the pace has dropped because I know the story too well. A good editor can flag the parts that are tripping the pace up; suggest even whole phrases or sentences that can be removed; or alert me to when I have slipped into flowery description of the dark alley when what the reader wants is to do is chase the suspect.

A good editor wants the story to be its best

Some writers who try to “go it alone” claim they are concerned that an editor is ripping them off, not really adding anything, or at their very worst, might even steal a good story. It is true their are some bad eggs out there. I would copy edit a website, a short story, or an article. If someone asked me to edit their novel I simply wouldn’t take the work. I don’t have the skills to edit a whole novel — it is a highly skilled job. Quite honestly, if you find a copy editor offering to edit your novel for £100 you should be as suspicious as you would be if your mechanic quoted just £25 for a full service.

Just as writers take please in their work, editors take pride in theirs. When they do their work well, your novel becomes that serviced car running a lot better, and having a nice fresh rumble of the engine. Editors don’t want to be known for the writing, they want to be able to say: “you know that novel you love and found really enjoyable to read? I edited that. I contributed to your enjoyment.”

So I implore you, even when working on a low budget, save up and pay for at least one round of professional editing. Personally, I would recommend a pro does a copy edit, and I give a rough guide on where this fits in the process of writing in my blog Writing the F Word. Other writers might differ in their advice, but I know for myself it is that phase which I benefit the most from professional input.

If you think you are confident enough to edit your own writing, then by all means go for it. But as the saying goes: pride comes before a fall.