The Art of Self-Editing
Spellchecker Is Not Your Friend
What first impression do you intend to make on the publisher, whom you are asking to have faith in your writing ability and your work, to buy the rights to what you've created, and offer it in print to the world? Don't count on an editor to do your homework for you, or for a publisher to buy something because "it has potential." Professionals don't have the time to do what the writer should and could have done in the first place.
What are you talking about? I wrote my story, isn't that enough?
No. Not by a long shot.
"Self-editing" means going back and looking at your work from the perspective of a publisher. It is the part of the writing process where you need to sever all attachment to your words and your story, and search out all its technical flaws of punctuation, grammar and spelling; your failures to convey your meaning; weaknesses of characters, dialogue, logic... "Self-editing" is revising your work again and again until it truly is ready for the publisher's eye.
All right, so how do I edit my work?
First, after finishing your piece, take a break. Let what you've written leak out of your head so you can approach it with a fresh perspective. Then, read your work looking for spelling and punctuation mistakes.
Yes, word processors today have the ability to find spelling errors, but word processors are stupid: They will suggest the correct spelling of a word, but it can't tell it's the correct word. For example:
"John, can you come here for a minute?"
"John, can you come here for a minuet?"
These are different sentences, but the word processor can't tell you which sentence is the one you meant to write.
Punctuation issues can be hard to spot. You have to know a few rules, too. But bad punctuation confuses meaning, upsets the flow and shows a lack of professionalism. All those little dots and dashes make a big difference!
Cool, that's done, what's next?
Great! Now, read it again, this time looking for places where the words don't flow well. Look for confusing or incomplete or illogical bits. All loose ends tied up? Are tenses consistent and do names of characters remain the same from start to finish? "Showing" and "telling" are balanced, and you've eliminated over-use of passive voice? You sure?
The publisher's first bank of readers will look at these things and more, as they decide whether to recommend your work to the next level of consideration. If you are careless or sloppy, they will discard it, and it will never move further up the chain towards acquisition and publication.
Yes! I think it's perfect! It's time to submit, right?
Well, no. Now it's time to get someone else to read your story before you offer it to the publisher who can nix your dreams.
Try friends, family, coworkers, classmates, an English teacher, a librarian--whoever you can find who is willing to give your work a critical look.
All feedback is invaluable, whether it is true critique, or as simple as, "Yeah, I liked it!" or "Sorry, couldn't get into it." Some readers are just readers--just like the ones you hope will someday buy your book. What they think of it, whether they can give you reasons or not, is useful to know.
However, when you do ask for critical feedback, you need to ask specific questions that invite specific answers:
How did you feel about the characters?
What scenes did you enjoy? Which ones will stick in your memory?
What did you want to know, that wasn't explained enough?
The more specific the questions you ask, the more useable feedback you will get.
Do I have to change everything they don't like?
No, you don't have to. But you should give real consideration to all critique that your readers offer, especially if more than one brings up a particular issue. You might have to make some hard decisions about some of your favorite bits, if they fall flat or actually diminish the whole story. You will probably have to ask yourself some questions:
Does this scene/dialogue/narrative actually move the story along?
Do I want this bit in to show how much I know? How clever I am?
Have I held back what really needs to be told, because I don't want anyone to know that I can even think that way?
Writing reveals the writer both in what we say and what we don't. It isn't always easy, it is sometimes scary.
That took a while, but it's done. What now?
By this time, you might have gone through a few revisions. This is a good thing, and I'll bet your story has improved. So, I don't think I'll make many friends when I say, "Now, do it again." Yes, all of it: Take a break; read it through; find some of those friends who are willing to read it again and give you critique; polish.
Do it again, until you are honestly convinced this is your best work at its very shiniest. Then, and only then, should you submit to a publisher.
Argh! But if I do all that, I'll never be published!
Yes, it's a lot of work. Self-editing will probably be the longest part of the writing process. But if you submit something of mediocre quality, you'll also never be published. Don't take shortcuts; put in the effort, and you'll have the best chance to get your story published. That's writing professionally.
And it is also kind of wonderful, to see your work improve as you work through it-- surprising to discover how gratifying it is, and what a sense of accomplishment you feel when you know you have made it better. That's the feeling of writing professionally.
But here is another thing to keep in mind: You can get into a never-ending cycle of reaching for absolute perfection, but you can't get there: nothing is absolute. Some revisions improve a story, some just change it.
It's said that a work of art--and this includes the art of writing--is never finished, only abandoned. You have to decide where to draw the line, when to let go: when to pat your creative-offspring on the head, and send it out to cross the street on its own.
Publishers know the real thing when they see it, and no one is more appreciative of a writer who presents a solid manuscript with professional standards that demonstrate respect for the professional time and effort of the publisher.