(In which the writer lets her inner language nerd out of its musty cage.)
After writing five books now, I like to pretend that I’ve learned some stuff. Scratch that, I have learned some stuff, but very little of it has to do with what an amazing writer I am. Mostly, the Things That I Have Learned have a lot to do with how much more I have to learn.
Really, though, my piano teacher was right about practicing. You do get better if you just keep at it. So today, I’d like to impart (from my tiny corner of the blogosphere) what I have learned about editing. To be specific, self-editing, pre-reading, and copy editing.
Now, some of you may know that I was a technical writer for many years. I wrote really exciting things like company letters, employee memos, and written safety programs. Oooh. Aaah. Definitely not the most exciting stuff, but it did give me an appreciation I carry to this day for things like clarity, phrasing, and brevity. The one thing technical writing helped me with most was self-editing. I always knew that I was writing for an audience. Always. And that audience wasn’t going to be made up of recreational readers who enjoyed the written word. It was made up of business people, truck drivers, mechanics, and the like. So making things as clear and to-the-point as possible was essential for understanding. This taught me to clear my writing of extra words
that weren’t really necessary. (See what I did there?) It taught me to make sure that my phrases in often bureaucratic language were as clear as they could be. I often read things aloud to hear if a phrase or sentence would make sense in speech. These are all techniques I use in my own writing to this day, and they have served to make me a fairly clean writer in a technical sense.
But it wasn’t until I started writing for fun and exchanging that writing with other “writer friends” that I started to see how much these editing skills would also help me in fiction. And once I found the right pre-readers, my skills really grew. These were amazing readers who took my writing to the next level and challenged me to justify why a character would say this or take that action. These were readers who encouraged me, while at the same time they called me out on my repetitive phrasing or redundant word usage. So, for my writing friends out there, find a community of readers who will not tell you what you want to hear, but truly challenge you to write better every book. Every chapter, for that matter. You should always be striving to be a better writer. Never be satisfied. Always try to grow.
Because just like writing is an art form, I’ve discovered that editing is, as well. It’s something that we often gloss over. After all, who looks at the copyright page at the beginning of my books to see who edits them? (The answer to that is my amazing editor, Amy Eye, by the way.) Editors, sadly enough, tend to not get much credit, but don’t let that make you think their job is any less important or difficult.
One of the best things I ever did professionally was take the time to find an editor who really “fit” me as a writer. See, my editor has edited four of my books now, and she’s editing my fifth. That means, just like I’ve developed my voice and characterization over that time, she’s developed along with me by learning my particular quirks and style. In fact, she can read a passage of my work, point out a punctuation mark that I’ve used and tell me, “I think you meant to use this instead of that. You could use either, but this one ‘sounds’ more like you.” And 90% of the time, my dear readers, she will be right.
See, good editing doesn’t just challenge your adverb usage or your plot arc. It doesn’t just make you justify a piece of dialogue or eliminate extra body language in a scene. Good editing reaches down to the bones of a piece and pulls up even the punctuation you use, asking what one subtle change could mean for a sentence. Because sentences make up paragraphs, which make up chapters, which make up books. And it is only by challenging the smallest detail of our work that we create the foundation that good storytelling can rest on.
So challenge yourself to write better. Seek out good pre-readers. Take the time to research and find an editor you can work with in a constructive way, and then let that person really have the opportunity to get to know your writing. All these things take time and, often, money, but be willing to invest in yourself and your editing.
Because that’s also one of the Things That I Have Learned. Investing in yourself is worth it.