On The Vital Importance Of Not Editing Your Own Work

The importance of not editing your own work - by which I mean, of course, not being the only one to edit your own work - can't really be overstated. If there were set rules of writing, and there was a Number One Rule, it would be, to my mind, Edit, Edit, Edit. You have to and you need to.

Whether you're trying to build a profession out of your writing - therefore asking someone to pay you for it - or you write only for fun and friends, you aren't taking it seriously if you don't redraft and rewrite pieces after they're done. Finish a story, leave it - for a week, a month, five months - and only then go back and reassess your brilliance. That line you thought was sheer Nobel-inducing genius? There's a typo. That witty barb you just knew would have readers laughing out loud and sobbing into their neckerchiefs? It doesn't make any sense. The final scene you love so much you want it on a t-shirt? You'd forgotten you changed the character's job earlier on in the novel and now it's mediocre at best.

My point is that no writer in history has been great enough to sit down, write, and publish. It's not a sign of lack of skill to edit your work - it's a sign that you're getting much better, and being more sensible.

This post is largely inspired (but not entirely, to be fair) by the fact that my book's been going through a lot of edits and rewrites this last month. Friends and family have read the ms. and got back to me with things that I know I couldn't have caught. Lots of typos, yes, but those are the ones that anyone paying attention could catch. No, the things my beta-readers highlighted are the authorial blind spots - the twists and turns of plot and narrative that I, as the writer, was too close to see. You lose sight of certain problems when you're in too deep and you know the story backwards and forwards. Already in my head are all the previous drafts of EREN, including those phantom scenes that no longer exist, or the big reveals that never actually got written, but that I remember. There's been some good catches, too. For example:

  • Thanks to a scene cut out long ago, a character walked into the protagonist's bedroom, put a tray down on a chair and proceeded to ignore it and walk out again. The tray once carried breakfast - in the current ms. it remained a random and perplexing gift. It's now gone. Bye bye, phantom tray.
  • In a retelling of the Three Little Pigs, the first pig ran from his house of straw into his brother's entirely different and much safer house of... well, straw. Woops. Good catch there. House of wood. I know my stuff.
  • In a previous draft, Oli falls and hurts his wrist, and it bothers him throughout the following chapters. That scene was cut months ago, leaving several inexplicable references to his painful wrist entirely missed by me.
And endless other small things - grammar, strange phrasing, confusing pronouns...

My point is, editing has to be done by you and by people who aren't going to offend you by pointing out that your work isn't completely flawless and award-worthy. Yet. And you have to choose not to be offended by criticisms. They'll make your work better and stronger, and why would that bother you?

Patience is probably key. Write, but then use all the will power in the world not to put it up on the net that same day, or send it off to agents and start spending your royalty cheques. Get better at writing by, just sometimes, not writing.


  1. I've had people waking in out of sunshine and be looking at rain pouring down outside the window a second later. Two people have met up on a Monday, arranged to meet again the next day, and the next day has turned out to be a Friday...

    Any fool can write words in a vaguely logical order. It takes talent to edit.

    The real skill though, is working out from all the suggestions given to you by your readers which ones are personal opinion and can be ignored, and which are things you need to change. I got 6 friends to read my MS and then got it professionally appraised. The difference was startling...

  2. Funny examples, guy. I'm resuming work on a novel, and I foresee those issues as well. Sometimes I wanted to keep to short stories because it's easier to keep track of those things (i.e. changing one thing and forgetting to remove the traces of it throughout the book!). But I guess it helps keep us on our toes, too, knowing that it's so easy to make those mistakes. You're definitely right that everyone needs another pair of eyes on their work, but I also think we should be improving as editors ourselves.

    I agree with the previous commentator in that it's also key to be able to parse through the comments from others because they're not the best eyes on our work, simply because they're not our own eyes. We need to develop trust in ourselves as writers, too. I think having other readers helps us become better writers ourselves, since we start to see patterns in what others are looking for or expecting in writing, and that helps us write. Though, of course, that doesn't me we don't turn to other readers--but you know what I mean.

  3. Good to see you Starky! Shame you can't make it tomorrow. I agree that there is a real balance to be found between comments that are insightful, and comments that we accept but chose to ignore. I'm going through this bat the moment. Objective problems (typos, continuity errors) aren't really something I can argue with - nor would I want to. But style / character points (Why does he do that? That's a strange reaction. I think this phrase is a bit badly worded...) can be taken with a pinch of salt. As the author, it's up to me at the end of the day whether I make changes or not. If I really do like a certain line, I have the power to keep it and believe in its artistic integrity - but the consequences will always be mine, too. I think some criticism should be ignored, since individual readers come with their pre-conceptions and preferences, which are not my own.