Thursday, August 02, 2012

How One Editor Learned to Edit Herself

By Emily Wenstrom, @emilywenstrom

Part of the How They Do It Series   

JH: Join me in welcoming Emily Wenstrom to the blog today. Emily wears a lot of different writing hats, and she's here to share a few tips on how to edit yourself.
Lit addict, movie junkie, writer. Emily is a creative writer fascinated with science fiction, fantasy and monsters of all kinds. When she's not writing about these, she's a professional writer working in marketing and public relations. She blogs about creativity in art and career at Creative Juicer. She also recently launched wordhaus, a short story zine built for the digital age, now seeking submissions.

Take it away Emily...

I write fiction on the side, but by day I'm a professional writer and editor. I've also been managing editor of a city magazine, proofed for a political newsletter, worked a brief stint at a daily newspaper copy desk, and served as the last line of defense against typos and grammatical gaffes at a marketing agency. I've even created my share of in-house style guides for publications, agencies and even client companies.

So while I chugged away on the manuscript for my first novel, I never worried about the often-feared review process to follow.

Not until it was actually time to do it, at least.

All of a sudden, here I was, a professional editor, staring blankly at my WIP, unable to begin. I was scared of what I would find.

I know what kind of editor I am. I try to be as kind as possible when taking my feedback to a writer ... but I'm merciless when wielding my red pen across the page. This time, there was no sparing the writer this part of the process. My sensitive inner writer was going to get dragged along for the whole rough, bumpy ride. It wasn't a ride I wanted to take.

But there's only so long a girl can hide. If I ever wanted my WIP to get out into the world, this was a step I'd have to take. And actually, once I got started, I found myself excited and creatively charged--I've not only survived edits, but I've learned to thrive on it. Here's some tips I learned along the way that might help you do the same:

Remember, this is a rough draft. Emphasis on rough.

This was the first step to moving forward for me. The answer to my fear, What if my writing sucks? It's okay. This draft is supposed to suck. This draft was laying the groundwork, just getting the bones in place. Now, get out heaps of elbow grease and polish and polish until it shines. Having permission from myself to have written something sucky freed me to build it into something better.

Think in terms of creation, not tearing down.

So often, editing is thought of as a destructive activity. All that awful red ink. The crossing out, the markups. But this is far from the truth. Editing is a process of positive development--we learn from it, and our work improves. Once I started approaching my pages with an attitude of how can this be better rather than what have I done wrong, I started having fun with my revisions, and my manuscript has grown monumentally because of it.

Focus on one piece at a time.

Editing becomes overwhelming when we look at all the errors at once. When you're just as concerned about every misplaced comma as you are about whether you have appropriate character development, it's no wonder we end up feeling overwhelmed and defeated. Start with your novel's structure. Address one issue at a time. Move the big pieces first, then go back and pick up the crumbs.

Stop the self-criticism.

We put a lot of ourselves into our creative work. It can become hard to separate the self from the work and be objective. But when we edit with such personal attachment, it's no longer about making the best story possible. It becomes about protecting our feelings--and our egos. I know it's hard, but practice makes it easier. When revising your work, separate your personal value from your work.

Have faith in yourself.

The creative genius in you that created that first draft still has a lot left in her (or him)! Trust it. Let it get back in there and work its magic. After all, if you didn't believe you could continue to build this work, we wouldn't be having this conversation, would we?


  1. Rough draft. I never remember that. I may need to print out this article and staple it to my laptop.

    I learned the self-criticism advice the hard way: getting a story opening trashed, and taking weeks to properly get over it. Since that incident, I've learned that a) my last name is not Shakespeare, and b) I can still write.

  2. Yes, sometimes I beat myself up because my ROUGH draft is so... well, rough. But, over time, it cleans up to where I'm happy with it.

  3. I am exactly the same way-- I often put a lot of pressure on that first draft rather than just let my ideas flow.

  4. Thanks for this. I'm just about to take my first pass through my rough draft and was dreading it. Everything you say is true - the first draft is supposed to be awful. But it's so depressing the first time through it! Fortunately, the second time isn't so bad.

  5. You can do it, Kristen! I'm halfway through a second draft right now. It's a darn big load of work, but every day I'm excited at how much stronger my WIP gets, too. I am positive you'll have a similar experience once you get into it.

  6. Thank you so much, Emily. I can't tell you how much I really needed the reminders, ALL of them. I tend to be my own worse critic, and boy am I good at it.

  7. Thank you for this post. I really don't mind revision either. It is a chance to make my work better, but it is sometimes hard to keep the faith and stop the self-criticism. Good reminders - now if I can just apply it.

  8. Love this line..."how can this be better rather than what have I done wrong." That so helpful! Thank you

  9. So glad you found it helpful!

  10. I relate. When I was editing professionally, my own work suffered so much, I finally stopped taking editing jobs when I was working on a rough draft. I was editing every sentence I put on the page and got completely blocked. Great suggestions.

  11. Thanks for this. I am just planning to take my first pass through my rough write and had been dreading it. Everything you say holds true - the very first write is expected to be awful. But it's so depressing the first time through it! Luckily, the 2nd time isn't so bad.

    tongkat ali

  12. Thanks for this - sometimes it is easy to get bogged down. The hardest edit is when I work on a scene, making it better, then realize I have to put it in my deleted scene folder because it doesn't move the plot forward. Thanks for letting me know that even editors have problems editing their own WIP. Have a blessed day.