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Self-editing is Not Editing

July 12, 2012 by Kiersi

A Treatise on Not Getting Yourself Down, and How To Be a Professional

I am hyper-critical of my work–as in, critical to the point that I actually burst into tears during a revision of Fire & Brimstone. Not even joking. First came the tears, then the heart-wrenching sobs, then the boyfriend going slack-jawed as I began to thrash and scream. Okay. Well, I’m more emotional than some.

But rewriting can be hard. Editing your own work is, by its very nature, an emotional experience. (I’m looking at you, @RebeccaTomorrow.)  Especially if you are editing a work you first wrote (a) 6 months ago, (b) one year ago, or (c) so long ago it doesn’t even matter anymore. Pretty much everything past (a), if you write regularly, will look like a third grader went at it with a crayon and some slobber. Trust me. I’m there with you. My threshold is about four months now–the beginning of The Aeronauts, which I started back in February, reads like some mutant crossbreed of a high school English essay and Tolkien.

But there are things you can do to lessen the impact: and that is to realize that self-editing is not editing.

You need someone else. Two weeks ago, after the inaugural meeting of the new Portland YA Writer’s Group, one of the other members approached me after I announced I’d love to critique full-length work for anyone in the group. I love reading other writers’ work–though I only volunteer when the one asking is a writer I already respect.

So this delightful woman, Brie, trusted me to read and critique her contemporary YA manuscript, Nice Girl. It was an excellent book with a lot of potential, very emotional and about a difficult but topical subject. She had gone over this manuscript many times after receiving rejections from editors, and she just couldn’t figure out what was wrong. She’d grown, a little bit, to hate it–the way I get about Rubix cubes after spending ten minutes with them and only being able to solve one side.

I told her I loved it. I cried… (holds out a hand, counts) four times during the course of my reading it. Granted, I read it all in one sitting, but that in itself says a lot about the manuscript. She was flabbergasted. She’d developed such a negative opinion of Nice Girl after so many rejections that she had really thrown an artificial shadow over it. Brie couldn’t see how beautiful it was under all the frustration. She was lost, knowing there was something wrong, but she couldn’t figure it out.

There were a few problems with dialogue, sure. But the gem that was inside was pretty clear to me. I told her what I’d thought was awkward or drawn-out or over the top, and she looked like I’d just laid a giant, solid gold egg on her margherita sandwich. I suggested changes that might make some things flow better, but tried to dissuade her from thinking she needed to rewrite the whole thing.

That was the fear, deep down: that this manuscript was just so far gone she’d have to totally rewrite it.

By the same token, I think it’s important for every writer to have someone else edit his or her work, regardless of whether the writer is confident or bulldozed. And I don’t mean like, sending it to your brother Joe who will only tell you how great it is, (a) because his knowledge of what sells in the publishing industry is layperson at best, or (b) he’s your brother and just doing his brotherly job of not hurting your feelings. I mean, send it to someone who will give you real feedback. Someone who understands critique–a voracious reader with discerning taste, a fellow writer–will save you endless yes-men.

I’m going to extend the cloth a little further and suggest that, if you intend to self-publish, or if you can’t seem to find that professional critique from a peer, pay someone to do it. I can already hear hundreds of voices crying, “But that’s so expensive!” Trust me. I know. The author of Nice Girl spent, well, I won’t say it aloud because the number is pretty ridiculous, but she spent enough to keep me for two months on a single phone call. And really, while a lot was said, later she told me she didn’t think she’d gotten anything out of it.

Nevertheless–do it. To be treated like a professional, an author needs to act like a professional. To hire other professionals. Not a yes-man. Not your brother.

If you plan to go through an agent, or even if you’re querying publishers directly, hiring a professional can be helpful. Absolutely. But it’s not necessary. A good agent or editor can see the gem inside an unpolished piece of work and run with it. Editors will be provided. If I were an agent, I’d snap up Nice Girl so fast you couldn’t get halfway through going to the bathroom first.

Regardless, just remember that self-editing is not editing. Sometimes, you’ve done all you can. That’s okay. Don’t worry about it. Hand it off to someone else who can be your editor. You probably don’t have to go back to the drawing board–just get someone who understands your genre to help out.*

And that stuff you wrote five months ago that now looks like something the cat threw up? It’s not. I promise. I mean, you’re better than you were then. It’s a good thing. Do your best to fix it up, but don’t let it rule you. You’ll leave it behind eventually and write better books in the future.

*Oh, yeah, editor tip? Find an editor that knows your genre. It will prevent $450 mistakes like the one made by a self-pubber I met at Write to Publish. She found that a free editor who liked werewolves and lesbians was better for her lesbian werewolf novel than the random one she found online and actually paid for. So be discerning before spending that unmentionable amount of money.


  1. Oddly enough, my mom is my toughest critic. She lets me know if something doesn’t work. She doesn’t hold back either. She’s really trying to help me make my manuscripts better. My betas and CPs are great too. They don’t sugarcoat, which I love! I’d rather a thousand red marks and comments than, “Great job” because I know my drafts aren’t perfect. I know they need work.

    • Kiersi says:

      Ha! That’s great. My boyfriend is that person, too. It’s great that you know that about your work but you don’t let it get you down.

  2. Thank you. Point taken. Still doing the edit, though. I might send you a couple of chapters – in first-person and then in third-person, and let you tell me what you think. How’s that? <3

  3. Tonya Rice says:

    With my writing group, we’re set up in little groups of 2 or 3 and review chapters as we go along. We began our first drafts together and now we’re working on the rewrites together. I guess we’re each other’s first beta readers. It’s been great because someone is there catching things I may have missed in terms of continuity, repetition of words, and other things. We don’t sugarcoat. We do question and praise. Like Kelly, I want to see red ink when needed. Besides, it thickens my skin now! LOL. We’ll still submit our work to copyeditors and proofreaders prior to publishing, but it’s been highly motivating knowing someone is actually reading it now (and wants to see the next chapter!)

  4. Brenda says:

    I’d never trust myself to do the editing. Sure, I write an edit, get the story out of my head an on the page, but I know I will see what I want to see so off I go to the outside. You’re right, have to go outside of ourselves if we want to get it right. I’m n to a YA novelists, although I do read the books, and have yet to find a writing circle I click with but I found a wonderful writer who helps me out of my head. You keep us honest, Kiersi. Remember to hug your boyfriend for being so wonderfully supportive,

    • Kiersi says:

      You’re right about “getting out of our own heads.” That’s exactly what every writer needs! I will. He’s such a great guy. :3

  5. angel011 says:

    I couldn’t agree more: self-editing is not editing. If you can get a professional to do it, a professional editor who understands both your genre and you, I believe it’s worth every penny. If not that, a critique group of competent people could also be helpful.

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