Image: Matthew Loffhagen
If editing a book is hard (and it is), editing your own book is five times harder. After all, this is likely to be something you care about as if it’s a part of you, but even if the stakes weren’t raised, you’d still be in the unenviable position of second-, third-, and fourth-guessing your own decisions.
Compounding these difficulties is the fact that your relationship with a book isn’t static. As the editing process changes your work, it also changes how you see and feel about it. A constantly shifting person editing a constantly shifting document sounds like some kind of logic puzzle, but it’s a puzzle you need to solve to find the best form of your book.
I’ve talked about the dangers of shifting goalposts before (in Here’s How A Tortoise Can Help You Finally Finish Your Novel), but in this article, I’ll be taking a look at some of the most common problems that emerge from the personal relationship between a self-editing author and their work (and how to solve or avoid them, of course).
1. Voice is inescapable
The big drawback of editing your own work is that you already have an innate understanding of your own voice. Your vocabulary feels natural, your tone and pacing are immediately clear, and your brain adds in all the inflections, pauses, and stresses that aren’t actually on the page. Of course, readers don’t have this understanding, and so any initial manuscript contains a slew of weird phrasing, wonky sentence structure, and misguided linguistic assumption waiting to trip the reader.
Self-editing for voice is difficult, and will realistically involve getting outside feedback, so the idea here is to simply remain aware that these landmines are buried in your work. Often, the most satisfying phrasing is the one rooted in your own linguistic instincts, and that means that, when someone else gets ahold of your work, your favorites may be the parts they don’t fully understand.
Don’t get too attached to how you’ve written specific sentences or paragraphs. The whole (and the reader) is what matters, and if you hit on a particular turn of phrase that you adore, keep in mind that it may be a potential problem you have to excise later. This goes double for dialogue, where the slackening of rules leaves author even freer to indulge in what ‘sounds right’ to their particular sensibilities.You can’t unhear your own voice, so find beta readers who don’t know it.Click To Tweet
As an example, take the popular show Elementary. Every character in this modern-day retelling of Sherlock Holmes uses the term ‘reach out to’ when they’re going to contact someone. It’s a relatively idiomatic phrase that, in the world of the show, reaches across boundaries of class, nationality, and circumstance. Why? Either someone is trying to win a bet or it’s just the natural phrasing of the writers and, whatever character is using it, it sounds right to them. Of course, they can’t be expected to catch this phrase themselves, but they should have consciously sought out someone with a different enough voice to flag it up.
2. You can’t go home again
Perhaps the biggest problem when editing a work with which you’ve established a relationship is that you’ll never encounter it as something new. When you’ve spent months or years writing a book, you understand it deeply, and that means you can never return to it outside of that context.
So, what’s the issue here? Surely you want this understanding? Yes, but as someone who understands the plot’s journey from formative ideas to current iteration, you’re no longer well-placed to pick up on what feels jarring, what feels convenient, or what moments are surprising or outrageous.
Avoiding this problem comes down to writing for the reader – not just trying to tell a story but trying to tell a story to an imagined person, considering their understanding and reactions as you edit it into its final form. Asking ‘is this scene surprising?’ yields a misleading answer, because you’re asking someone who knew this book’s twist before the first word was written. Instead, ask ‘is this scene surprising to my ideal reader?’ The clearer your idea of that ideal reader, the more accurate your answer (another reason why ‘it’s for everyone, really’ hurts authors), and the more you ask this question, the more you can tailor your work for someone who hasn’t been through it a hundred or more times.It’s impossible to encounter your book anew, but you can create reasonable distance.Click To Tweet
Another trick is to leave your manuscript alone for significant periods between blocks of editing. By ‘significant’, I’m talking months, but that also means specifying substantial periods of editing with well-defined goals. It’s no use to edit your book for a week, drop it for a week, etcetera ad infinitum. Instead, make significant changes to your manuscript, maybe even doing two or three full drafts, then put it down long enough to forget it a little, letting phrasing and exact, moment-to-moment structure crispen in your absence.
3. Digression will tempt you
Because your work can begin to feel so familiar, authors who don’t achieve distance can be tempted to try and create it anew. It’s common for an author to change the best form of a scene in order to make it feel ‘fresh’, mistaking their own familiarity for ineffective writing.
The trouble with this approach is that it distances your work from its better incarnation and there’s no point where it stops doing so. If you’re trying to fix a comprehensible, effective story that isn’t broken, it’s easy to digress from what matters and start adding twists and shocks that don’t do anything for the narrative, but the new version will still lose its shine eventually, and the process will recommence.
Again, being aware of this is the best weapon against it. If you’re tempted to enliven a scene or add complexity to a moment, interrogate whether the new version is actually better for the reader or whether it just seems better because it’s new.
In practical terms, it’s a good idea to write down what a scene is ‘about’. That is, what it does for the plot and characters, as well as how it affects the reader’s journey. This can become your guiding light; the standard against which later ‘improvements’ are judged. Is the change you want to make a more effective way of pursuing this goal, or are you changing what the scene is actually meant to do? There are times when the latter is the right choice, but it’s a bigger decision and one that should be made with your eyes open. Make sure to save regularly, too; there’s no need to regret radical changes if you have the older version.If you know what a scene is meant to be about, you’re less likely to indulge in digression.Click To Tweet
4. When you’re the one holding the chisel, nothing is set in stone
One of the most dangerous misapprehensions for authors is that just because a decision has already been made, it can’t be undone. This type of thinking is so dangerous because it’s absolute; subscribe to it and you’re locking off huge portions of your work as effectively ‘finished’ when they could be far better.
I just got done suggesting that you not change your work on a whim, but good editing is a process of balance, and it’s also important not to assume that once something is down on the page, it has to continue existing in relation to that form. I’ve seen manuscripts in which, at some point after the first draft, a character or moment has proved themselves obsolete (even damaging) but remained in pride of place just because they’ve been there from the start. The same is often true of plot developments or information (especially when it took effort to research). The latter part of Irvine Welsh’s Filth is packed with needless backstory that bogs down the plot without doing anything for the characters; exactly the kind of information that’s often introduced in the first draft and then never excised once it becomes redundant.
5. Bad ideas seem better over time
In politics, the Overton window, or the window of discourse, is the range of ideas which seem reasonable within a society at a given time. Key to this idea is that the window can shift; an idea which was once outside the window of reasonable discourse can, by deliberate or accidental action, enter the furthest corner of the window (becoming radical) and even move towards its center (becoming reasonable, popular, or even ‘obvious’). Since it’s the window that moves, this shift can become a process. While vegetarianism was once seen as a radical decision, the Overton window on this topic has shifted, with vegetarianism now seen, by and large, as a reasonable action, and veganism subsequently moving from an unthinkable, even laughable, practice into an increasingly accepted decision.
As you edit your book, the process of reading and rereading established ideas has an effect on your own personal Overton window. As old ideas begin to seem boring or lacking, and character beats no longer delight you in the way they will a new reader, more radical decisions look better and better. This can even occur over the process of writing; ideas which were once novel choices become obvious as they’re expressed, and minor impulses that reoccur over a long enough period begin to seem more reasonable.
Perhaps the best example is the decision not to kill a character whose death furthers the story. Many, many authors design a character for death, invest life and relevance in them to make it work, and then start wondering if they really have to kill this character permanently. Could they instead fake their own death, or be brought back by a potion, or be recreated as an AI, clone, or ghost? In the beginning, the urge to keep that character around is minor, and the idea of cheating the reader and story in such a way feels radical – but it’s still a radical possibility. As you write and edit, you continually encounter this character whose presence you want to maintain, and you keep seeing opportunities to keep them alive. Slowly, the Overton window shifts, and what was once a clearly terrible idea that robbed the story of depth and momentum now seems at least like it might be worth considering, and then like it might work, and then like it’s obviously the right decision because of mitigating circumstances A, B, and C.
Of course, the same can happen with good ideas, but these tend to leap to ‘of course’ as soon as they’re fully formed, rocket-powered by their obvious merits. Bad decisions are more likely to beguile you over time, breaking down your defenses and slowly shifting the Overton window from ‘never’ to ‘maybe’ to ‘yes, because of this excuse’.You can change anything about your work, but know why you’re doing it.Click To Tweet
Remain vigilant against the things we all instinctively want (usually more of a good thing than is actually good for us) and formalize what a story and character are about. Justify new decisions against these goals and, if you find yourself changing the goals to accommodate the decisions, be sure you’re doing so for the right reasons.
An evolving relationship
The journey to publishing a book is long and fraught, taking you from the point of creating something you love, through the process of ‘fixing’ its flaws, and right up to the moment where you put it out of reach, now owned by its readers as much as by you. It’s no surprise that this process changes those who go through it, both in themselves and in relation to how they understand the final product. Nevertheless, let your reader be your guiding light. There are a hundred ways to finish a book, and many of them are terrible, but writing the best version for the reader is a good way to avoid the pitfalls listed above. Trust your past self as much as your present, don’t place novelty on a pedestal, but do keep in mind that seemingly radical change is always possible, for better or worse.
Have you encountered these or other problems due to your evolving relationship with your work? Let me know in the comments, or check out The Three Lies Writers Tell Themselves Every Day (And How To Stop) and Four Secrets That Will Turn You Into An Objective Editor.