Decisions and Revisions Which A Minute Will Reverse

As I was so proud to share two weeks ago -- I have a draft!  After letting it rest for two weeks, however (like a cooked turkey), I have spent the last week marking it up. It is a strange experience, reading your own book with a critical eye. At one point I found myself frozen, pen hovering over the paper, about to write a note but unable to begin because I couldn't figure out how to address myself. I wanted to write, as I would have when editing somebody else's work, "you might want to switch these two paragraphs." But it seemed silly to address myself as "you." It seemed even sillier to say "I might want switch these two paragraphs." Finally I just wrote "switch these paragraphs?" and was done with it.  

The larger point that particular dilemma underscores, of course, is that is fundamentally odd to switch from the role of writer to the role of editor of your own work. Words I labored over and chose carefully become words I slash and question with impatience (a favorite comment of mine is "do better!" with regard to a lazy word choice or ill-expressed thought); scenes I spent hours on, and were dear to me as I was writing them, become scenes over which I draw a gigantic X. I happen to love editing, and I've been blessed to edit some wonderful books, like Gretchen Rubin's The Happiness Project (which I did as a friend) and Nancy K. Miller's upcoming Breathless: An American Girl in Paris (also as a friend). And in many ways I like it no less when I am editing my own stuff. But I had to smile to myself over and over again as I barked out instructions, as it were, on nearly every page: normally when I am editing, I feel like a friend taking care of somebody else's baby for an afternoon, knowing that as soon as the baby starts crying I can hand it back to its mother to do the really heavy lifting. Because while editors point out the work that has to be done, in the end they hand the manuscript back to the author to do it. When editing one's own work, of course, every instruction to "do better" means many more hours of work for me, and nobody else but me, to carry out.

Editing can also lead to moments of humor. At some point, when two of my main characters, an older female scientist and a working mom who grow very close over the course of the book, clasped hands for something like the fifth time, I almost cried out with irritation, and wrote "There is way too much hand clasping in this book! Stop it!!" My friend Galt Niederhoffer, whose novel Love and Happiness will be published in September, told me she often simply writes "Dummy!" in the margins when she comes across a glaring mistake or a line she doesn't like. Another difference between editing your own work and somebody else's? There is no need to be anything less than blunt.

So I ask you -- how do you address yourself when you edit your own work? And what are some of the weirder moments you've had in doing it? Any humorous marginalia are welcome.  I'd love to hear.

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Comment by Linda Rosen on July 20, 2013 at 8:47am

I wish I could say I wait until a first draft is completed to self-edit. I edit as I go along. Some say that's a waste of creative time, but I just can't seem to move on until I get whatever I was working on right. Or what I think is right, for the moment. Before I move on to the next chapter, I've probably edited the present one two or three times, and then it's not even done! When the entire draft is finished, I'll edit again. Maybe I should be an editor and not a writer? But I find it interesting that as much as I read my own work, and re-work it, there's always something someone else finds. We're just too close to our own work to see all the mistakes, or better, the places to expand or "light-up". I love the whole process and hope one day I'll find an agent who will love my manuscript. As to me reading that manuscript again - it scares me! I'm done editing it, aren't I???? 

Comment by Betsy Graziani Fasbinder on July 19, 2013 at 10:10am

I serve as my own first editor, but certainly not my last.  Once I've taken my machete to the rough draft and cleared the path if its most overgrown, weedy elements, I need fresher eyes and a new perspective.  My novel went through at least a dozen other editors—my critique group first, a peer reading group of 10 next, then a professional edit—before it finally went to a proofreader just before publication.  

But I'll also say that I learned from that I can't have other eyes on the copy during the rough draft phase, otherwise I get everyone ELSE'S story written and not my own.  Doing this resulted in literally reams of extra pages, written in answer to my critiquer's questions, most of which ended up edited out completely in a later draft.  First I write MY story, then I edit and respond to critique.  

Comment by B. Lynn Goodwin on July 17, 2013 at 10:58pm

Editing is my chance to rephrase until I figure out what I really meant to say and how best to make it rememberable. Is that a word?

Author of You Want Me to Do WHAT? Journaling for Caregivers

Comment by Kathleen Kern on July 17, 2013 at 6:03am

This is a little piece of estorica about marginalia: 

In Isaiah 40, the original read

A voice says, ‘Cry out!’
   And I said, ‘What shall I cry?’
All people are grass,
   their constancy is like the flower of the field.
7 The grass withers, the flower fades,
   when the breath of the Lord blows upon it;
8 The grass withers, the flower fades;
   but the word of our God will stand for ever.

And then some scribe wrote an editorial comment in the margins, " surely the people are grass" at the place I have noted and it became part of scripture, mucking up the poetry.

Comment by Lucille Joyner on July 17, 2013 at 2:35am

Can someone talk a little about ghostwriting? What is your procedure?

Comment by Mardith Louisell on July 16, 2013 at 6:07pm

I put a note in the margin, DB, which means "do better," something I would never write when I am editing someone else's work!  Way more politeness called for.  On the other hand, I never write in my own work, as I do in others' work, "Great job," "Excellent," "Good description," "Love this." Maybe I should but I would distrust it. Would I try to keep it  even if it weren't germane?

Comment by Laura J. W. Ryan on July 16, 2013 at 5:21pm

I love editing, especially my own work...I can’t imagine not wanting to do it, I love it almost as much as writing the first draft. I’ll admit it's a control freak thing (not that there’s anything wrong with that.) I have a very specific vision for how I want the book to be, so, I don’t want to be swayed by someone early draft will more likely get the glance of fresher eyes to point out inconsistencies, but the rest is up to me to tangle with until I’m satisfied with it before I let anyone else near it again. I've written all sorts of notes to myself in the margins and on post-it notes on hard copy, and on the computer I will use the comments field to leave "notes to self" (I never really gave it much thought about how to address myself, I just make editorial marks and elaborate as needed.) Being a visual person, I've taken scissors to hard copy drafts and pieced them together with tape—sometimes these patches end up in a notebook where more rough writing by hand take place. I like to read chapters backwards, last paragraph first, and work my way forward to catch wonky words and moments of "what the...?" Self-editing is a slow process, there’s an art to it that takes a great deal of practice—it also takes enormous amounts of patience to do it. I had to be willing to walk away from a manuscript for several weeks or months, sometimes years before I could go back to it. My current project I did a red ink “bloodbath” editing back in 2007, deleted whole chapters, typed the changes and then didn't look at again it until 2011. Being a writer is not for the faint of heart. You learn to be honest with yourself; while self-editing you’re forced to question yourself (and deal with the self-doubts too.) Sometimes I surprise myself when I return to a manuscript months after I’ve edited it and find it’s better than I remember. It’s worth spending the time to fine tune the work to “make it right” to satisfy yourself before turning it over to someone else.

I wish you the best of luck with self-editing, Kamy, and I look forward to hearing more about your progress!

Comment by E. B. Purtill on July 16, 2013 at 3:21pm

I'm self editing right now - this very afternoon in fact. I find it really hard to not over analyze each sentence. I have a tendency to go over and over the same sentence, switching around words, shuffling punctuation, and so on, only to wonder if I really have improved upon what I originally wrote.  It's a grueling process.

Comment by Wendy Roberts on July 16, 2013 at 1:59pm

Haha, I have just suffered through the self-editing process, and have finally done my round of edits and sent it off to beta readers. I find myself drawing lots of eye-rolling frowny faces next to lines and scenes that make me cringe. I also like to ask myself those rhetorical questions: "cut this out?" "Too sentimental?" "more detail?"  And occasionally I do draw in a happy face or two.  The hardest part, I think, is that the longer I work at it, the harder it is to remain objective. On days where *everything* looks terrible and I wondered why I've wasted years of my life, I put it away for a few days (or weeks). And on some days, I can totally get into it, as if I'm a reader reading it for the first time. Those (few) days are fun.

Comment by Helen O'Reilly on July 16, 2013 at 1:20pm

I no more edit my own work than I would try to give myself a tattoo, and for the same reasons; it hurts too much and the perspective is all wrong!


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