Editing is deconstruction and reduction; it’s creation by negation. It’s a completely different skill from the invention of story. Yet the modern author is expected to be their own editor. We must pick apart what we have spent months painstakingly assembling and say…no, never mind—not this, not that, this sentence is good, that one is just wrong. This character is perfect, that one…well I never should have given birth to that one at all. Cut this phrase, cut that scene, cut, cut, cut—you feel like a Nazi aborting all the undesirables.
Editing your own work is not only emotionally charged, it’s mentally exhausting. How can you possibly catch all your mistakes? How do you look at something you’ve lovingly polished and see its defects? As anyone who actually polishes things will tell you, you’ve got to get it into a different light. Take that bit of chrome outside and suddenly scratches appear, even in the shiniest gloss. For a writer, there are a few simple ways to do this.
A hard copy is a good place to start. Chances are you’ve only been looking at your little word piles on a screen. Thinking “I’ll save a tree”, you keep working this way through the second and third drafts, and maybe right up until you get your proof copy in the mail, because after all, most people are going to read it on one device or another anyway. But trust me, you’ll be amazed many typo, missing or double double words and poorly punctuated sentences will run on on and jump out at you if you just look at printed copy.
Another good self-editing tool is reading the work aloud, preferably to another person. If you don’t have the stomach for that, have someone read it to you. Suddenly it becomes apparent, because of your thought process when writing, that you put the second thing first and the first second; now it’s backwards, the sense of it, and where did I get the nerve to think, you wonder, I could write. If the person you’re reading to is honest, they will point out at least innumerable instances of confusing phraseology, at a bare maximum.
“I don’t need to do that,” you say confidently, “I hear a voice in my head when I reread what I’ve written; I’m sure that’s good enough.”
No. It’s not. Read it aloud. Try not to scream at the sound of your own voice. If you read well, you might consider narrating your own audiobook, but be sure to do it before the print version is released, because believe you me, there will be things you want to change. Then of course you’ll have to rerecord those portions and hear the sound of your voice droning out your own feckless prose all over again. Speaking from experience, at this point, you might want to look into finding a therapist.
Without doubt the best way to find the holes and scratches in your highly polished manuscript is to get another set of eyes on it, or two sets—as many sets as you can, really, but after your third or fourth book none of your friends want to help out anymore. This has everything to do with their difficulty in finding fault with your work, and nothing at all to do with the impossible task of providing an encouraging critique of something they didn’t really want to read in the first place, and probably just aren’t up to understanding. But what can you expect? After all, they’re not visionary, you are. By the time you realize, in one of your famously brilliant flashes of insight, that their hesitancy may in some small part be attributed to your limited self-editing capabilities, it’s too late. All your friends have decided it’s easier to tell you they’ve had a stroke. These things come in clusters; someday Science will ferret out the reason.
A easy remedy for this temporary dearth of beta-readers is to have a child. A spouse can occasionally be used, but in many cases their sense of obligation is inadequate. A child though, if raised correctly—i.e. plied with the simple yet potent gifts of food, clothing, and occasional heat—can be persuaded (by continual reminders of said gifts) to provide editorial assistance gratis. Which brings me ’round elegantly to my newest editing tactic:
Including a glossary
What happened was this: one of the first people to read the first draft of my latest novel—well not the first draft, no one could read that, not even I could read that; I mean the first one without ALL CAPS notations inserted in the middle of every paragraph, reminding me how much work was yet required. Well not every paragraph, only the problematic ones, so…every other paragraph. Anyway, this person (who may or may not have been my offspring, and may or may not have reached their majority through my magnanimity), suggested, after bravely enduring the first readable draft of said novel, that I provide the reader with a glossary to help navigate my tale. Naturally my first thought was “why would I do that? It doesn’t need a glossary. It’s fiction.”
Of course I have read fiction books that included glossaries, but they were invariably fantasy or sci-fi, and the glossary was needed to define all the artefacts and species of an entirely separate, heretofore unknown world or culture. This didn’t apply in my case, because I wasn’t writing about a different world. Besides, I specifically recall deciding against using the words psychopomp, holomovement, ataraxia, hypostases, illapse, theophany, and a dozen others—the most precise words available, mind you—in order to keep the work accessible. I mean, give me a little credit, this is not my first go around. I’m not so fatuous as to fill my writing with sesquipedalian magniloquence or self-aggrandizing lexiphanicism just to impress people I’ve never met who might chance upon my texts. That would be meretricious.
My second thought was “I suppose I should hear this person out, after all, I did give birth to them.” Well technically my wife gave birth, but I certainly would have if she had been unavailable, that’s just the kind of parent I am. So keeping a completely open mind, as is my wont, my side of the subsequent point by point conversation with this possibly-unknown-to-me beta-reader went something like this:
“Yes, but in this particular case it doesn’t really matter if the reader under … because I just threw that in there for effect, you know, to make the character seem like she knows what she’s talking about. Well I suppose it could mean that. I hadn’t thought about it that way actually.”
“Uh-huh, but here I’m using it as a verb … of course I can, it’s my book.”
“Well I assume that anyone reading Visionary Fiction is going to know the difference between a fetch and a pooka, don’t you? No? I could change it to eidolon, but that’s not really accurate…What do mean that won’t help?”
“I know it’s obsolete, but that character is supposed to be from Ancient …”
“Well, yes, I did make that one up, but only because it was absolutely necessary.”
“Ah, so when you came to it again on page 1315 you no longer remembered how I defined it on page 6. I guess I can see that.”
“Schrödinger? Oh, you know, he’s the one with the poison in the box with the cat, that’s only there if…if you like cats. Or something. I’m not sure, I can’t remember now. It’s a quantum thing.”
Perhaps, as an author, you have had a similar exchange with some would be critic who fails to comprehend the nuances of character development, narrative tone, and subtext. Stepping into one’s power never goes uncontested.
After calm reflection and a stiff pint of salted caramel cashew milk ice cream, I realized my helpful reader may have had a point. It seems I had, in fact, created a different world, simply by trying to show the reader what might lie ‘behind the veil’ of this one. When you think about it, every book worth reading presents a heretofore unknown world, in a way, with a self contained culture all its own.
So I set about scanning my little yarn for ponderous words to glossarize. To my great surprise, I found quite a few. To my greater surprise, I found, as I compiled their definitions, that I may have used a number of them incorrectly. I even identified some that were supervacaneous, if you can believe that. In the end, I did remove some weighty and highfalutin terms from the book, but there were many whose pertinence I could not deny, and are therefore destined to remain. Hopefully their presence in the glossary will encourage the reader to pause as necessary and not just gloss over them.
Determining the inclusion or omission of particular words from the book was only one benefit gained from this little exercise. It was invaluable to the overall editing process. By re-examining my word choices and their meanings, I was able to clear up abstruse passages and present less abstract abstractions. Well sometimes, anyway. Now I wish I had included a glossary in all of my books, or that I had at least compiled one for myself while editing, if only to help me keep straight what the heck it was I was trying to say. I highly recommend you give it a try!