Susanne Dunlap

Self-editing vs. writing groups vs. professional editing

In The writing industry, Writing Craft on July 21, 2010 at 9:29 am

Spend enough time on social networks on the Web and you’ll learn a lot about what people think about the process of writing. I recently engaged in a long discussion on Linked In where two opposing camps kept flinging their points of view at each other with no real resolution or tempering of either side. The discussion had started out with a simple question: What is the best way to get your book published? Through an agent? By getting it professionally edited? Going direct to publishers?

Naturally, those of us who had had success in the traditional publishing system advocated finding an agent and getting him or her to help figure out the best strategy for selling your book. But that’s already a tough hill to climb.

Others who had not had success were understandably bitter, and the conversation devolved into a bit of a slug-fest. Agents were portrayed as narrow-minded exploiters of high art. And then we got into the subject of editing.

One participant actually said he didn’t need an editor, that he was a good enough writer to perfect his own work. B**S**t, came the chorus from the published group and the editors, who had either had good experiences being edited, or who knew the difference a well-edited manuscript could have.

We solved nothing, of course. But here are my views on the overall subject of editing. In the interest of full disclosure, I do some professional editing for private clients, and have only the greatest respect for my editors at the publishing houses I’ve been fortunate to have contracts with. I’ve never paid a professional editor, but not because I thought it wouldn’t be worth the money, only because I didn’t have any.

Self-editing

Every writer must, must, must do this. Self-editing is the instinct we all have to have that tells us, “I can make this better,” or “I know what I’m trying to say/convey, but these words aren’t doing it.” There’s actually a really useful book out there that has helped me a lot. It’s called (of course) Self Editing for Fiction Writers, by Renni Brown and Dave King. I love the way it’s organized, with things to look for and read for. It’s a great starting point. Lots of people have their own techniques for this, but sometimes a little guidance helps.

Writing Groups and Critique Partners

Once your manuscript is ready for a friendly read, trusted critique partners or a writing group are worth their weight in gold. For me, sometimes just imagining someone else reading what I’ve written points out weaknesses I overlooked through the haze of my own creativity. Breaking a novel down into chunks to submit to readers also focuses your thinking. The trick is finding the right group that will be honest but not trash you, and won’t bring their own agendas to your work. And then, the next trick is to sort out for yourself the criticism that feels right and the criticism that you can ignore. I’ve had some wonderful input from fellow writers, and will always value it.

The other side of a critique group is that you read what other people have written, often very different from your own genre or style. You can learn a lot from that, and especially from the exercise of having to make constructive comments about what isn’t quite working for you as a reader. Take that sensibility and focus it on your own work.

Professional Editing

I know a wonderful, multi-published author who persists in working with a professional editor before she submits her manuscript to her agent or her publisher. I’ve been a trusted reader for her, and watched her craft a novel through drafts that get progressively tighter and more wonderful. She has made it to bestseller lists, and is critically acclaimed. She is the person who did more to adjust my perception of professional editors not associated with publishing houses than any other.

On the flip side, as an editor, the most gratifying work is that where a writer has taken her work as far as she can using the first two methods, and for whatever reason (inability to get interest from an agent, for instance) decides to take the next step. The roughest edges have been smoothed off, but there’s still room for improvement and tightening. Someone who is serious both about writing and about learning is an editor’s dream client.

What I’ve also discovered, as an editor, is that it’s really hard, time-consuming work when you do it conscientiously. Good editing is worth the money. Even a trusted reader you know personally might not have either the skill or the objectivity to make you cut that whole chapter you really loved, or tell you that you have to decide on a single point-of-view for a scene when it means sacrificing something else.

Not all writers can edit well, just as not all editors can write well. Editors are not frustrated novelists trying to put their stamp on a manuscript (although I suppose there are some out there). In fact, I really enjoy the challenge of helping a writer maintain a unique voice while ironing out plot, structure, and other technical elements in the writing.

Honing a novel to its best shape, its best chance of success, is a labor of love for all concerned. I can’t attribute this quote, but I think I heard it at the New York SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators) conference: If you want to be a writer, first believe in yourself, then get over yourself.

That, to me, means you should have the strength of purpose to keep going and work at your novel, but accept criticism from qualified others, whether they’re paid or not.

I have had four (soon to be five) novels published without paying a professional editor. But I also have an agent who is an excellent reader and has excellent readers working for him, and welcomed the feedback of my editors at the publishing houses. I’ve been very fortunate.

The idea of countless aspiring novelists publishing possibly unedited manuscripts as eBooks fills me with sadness. To them I would say, at least take the first two steps. Be unmerciful in your own self-criticism, and seek out readers who will be honest. At best, some overlooked masterpieces will see the light of day.

That’s what I hope for.

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