Self-editing for writers

I wrote another article a few years ago about the importance of editing one's copy. It was very similar to this article, but I called it: Weeping Stoned Fences because that title was a classic illustration of the problem of self-editing. Rather the lack of self-editing.

I’ve listened to a lot of presentations from other writers, editors,and agents about characterization, plotting, scene and sequel, and all the other elements of dramatic structure, but I've only heard a couple of really good ones about self-editing. The first was given at a Golden Triangle Writers Guild Conference in Beaumont, Texas, by Joe Blades, then an “ordinary” editor at Ballantine, later a “power” editor, and now retired I imagine. The other workshop was offered by the talented Barbara Dawson Smith, the well-known historical romance author of so many popular books.

These two workshops singularly helped me hone my ability to spot common errors such as misspelled words, wrongly-used words, typos, and other goofs like inconsistencies, awkward phrasing, stilted dialog, misplaced modifiers, and so on - IN MY OWN WRITING. Spotting these problems in other authors’ work is easy. Seeing them in your own, well, to illustrate my point - that’s a hoarse of a difference choler.

Why don't I see that I wrote: hoarse instead of horse, used difference instead of different, and wrote choler instead of color? Why do sentences like this appear in manuscripts: John and Mary, using there whipps, raced toward each othr;, jumping on hirdles and weeping stoned fences.

A gremlin sneaks into your office at night and edits your file then prints another copy and destroys your perfect one! Sorry. I wish I could say the gremlin theory is correct, but you know it's not.

In the white heat of creativity, all we are concerned with is putting words on paper as fast as our flying fingers allow. Because we know what the correct words are supposed to be, we are blind to anything that doesn't match the finished script in our brains. Then, we go back and revise. Then we polish. But we overlook typos and other errors because our brain knows what is supposed to be on the page and that’s all it sees - not what’s actually there.

Remember in Jurassic Park where the computer is programmed to verify that (I forget the actual number, let's say 100 animals) all the animals are in the park? Well, when the animals start reproducing, the computer does not register that there are more animals. It has been told to verify that 100 are there so that is what it does even though there are now 120.

Our brains are like that. Our mental computer knows our beautiful, moving story in all its glory - reams of conflict, unforgettable characters, scintillating dialogue. When we read our copy, our brain verifies that the printed page matches what's in our head, even when it doesn’t!

Of course, you can show what you wrote to a writing friend, and she'll immediately circle, in red, all the errors and then proceed to bleed all over your deathless prose, writing such phrases as: "You misspelled forty-seven words, including your own name; you have dangling participles, misplaced metaphors, and are totally lacking in scene logic. And you don’t even want to know what I think about your heroine who starts out blonde and ends up a redhead - without benefit Clairol, I might add!”

So what’s the answer? You can’t depend upon the kindnesses of friends all the time. You must develop the ability to see your own mistakes. You do this by putting time distance between you and your finished copy. A week after writing a scene, you can read it and easily see you wrote about drugged fences that weep rather than leaping over fences made of stone. Always allow yourself time to “rest” your manuscript after you complete it.

You’ll be amazed how the boo-boos leap off the page as you look at it with fresh eyes.

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