On editing: 5 tips on how to look at your own writing

My first editing experience with a published piece of writing was with Lee Gowan at the University of Toronto’s School of Continuing Studies. A short story I had written won the Random House Student Creative Writing award and I wasn’t sure what to expect. Lee sent my original document back to me with tracked changes and a note that read, “There's not much except a couple of things for you to consider on the last page that might take a bit more thought. Please go through and either accept or reject the changes”.

Simple as that. I accepted most of his suggestions and replaced an image with something more appropriate to the story. We were also debating how to correct an error I’d made in reference to an opera by Tchaikovsky. (Two words of advice here: fact check.) Lee suggested a simple edit, which made sense, and fixed the problem. And a good thing too, because had he not suggested that change, the sentences would have sounded silly, and been well, false. If you like, you can read the story, Let Me Call You Lovely, here

Three years later, having completed the editing process for my first book, Moving Parts, I am grateful to have had the opportunity to work with another lovely and skilled editor, Susan Safyan (Arsenal Pulp Press). Her attention to detail, logistics, and grammar is impressive. We were back and forth on a few other issues, but the experience overall was smooth, professional, and fun. And timely. Sidebar: It's important to note how much I appreciate Arsenal's lack of dilly dally.

Here are a couple of our more entertaining exchanges:

SS: Just noticed one more thing, as I go through to spellcheck it again, and that's the repetition of repeated words, e.g. fuck fuck fuck fuck / whack whack whack whack /stupid stupid stupid stupid. Can some of these come out?

ME: Yes. Brent only needs one "fuck". Please keep all five "whacks" -- there's a rhythm thing I'm going for there. And leave three "stupids" -- again, a rhythm thing.

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SS: Fun Factoid of the Day: The Canadian Oxford Dictionary does hyphenate hard-on!

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SS: stet Dan and Marie's wedding but remove the peanut butter sandwich.

ME: Oh, it was the peanut butter sandwich I wanted to keep. Plant the seed of discomfort early on in the marriage. Do you think it sounds too much like Cody's Cheez Whiz breakfast?

SS: Ah...the peanut butter sandwich was the nugget, eh? Sorry! Hmmm...it wasn't the Cheez Whiz that bugged me; the significance of this odd gesture was lost on me. Maybe it just needs a little bit more of his internal workings? 

ME: Got it. Funny conversation.

SS: We do have some weird conversations around this office; earlier this week, we discussed whether snot could be said to "course" through a nose...

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There was a story in my collection that needed serious editing. Hacking, to be more truthful, and Susan was able to clearly see (where I could not) parts that could be removed.  Parts that did not affect the overall tone, feel, heart of the story. I agreed with everything. We were on the same page. With other stories, I killed some darlings, and salvaged others by justifying the bits I wanted to keep. And through the editing process I learned some things about myself as a writer: my habit of repeating words (as above), my lack, or improper use, of a comma, (probably in this very sentence because it has not been seen by an editor), and the fact that whiskey and the colour green kept appearing in so many stories.

A writer friend called me recently after she returned home from the print shop with her manuscript. She'd printed nearly 300 pages with annotated notes that she received from her editor, and the pages were sitting in a box on her bed. “It’s like a coiled snake, just staring at me,” she said.  

Based on my experience, I gave her this advice:

1)    There will always be more changes than you anticipate. (But they're likely not as bas as you think.)

2)    It will be too overwhelming to read everything all at once, so break it down into manageable chunks.

3)    Read the suggestions as a reader. Difficult to do as the author, but try to remove yourself from the writing and see it as a someone who has never read the story before. (This is what your editor has done for you.) Like tasting Corn Flakes again, for the first time.

4)    Try not to be too precious about your work. Approach it with an open mind. The editor is on your side, and has made suggestions because she wants to make a great story, even better.

5)    If you do feel strongly about something, explain yourself. Why are you insisting on keeping a section, scene, or sentence? If you are unable to justify perhaps it needs rethinking.

Saskatchewan born author Sue Sorenson says it well in the acknowledgements in her first book, A Large Harmonium, (Coteau Books): “I never knew until now why author make such a fuss about their editors. David Carpenter has to be the best editor alive, and I have long admired his fiction. Likely no one will believe me that working with David’s editorial advice was one of the most fun things I’ve ever done. But it was.”

Or Stephen King’s, Third Foreward from his book, On Writing (Scribner):  “One rule of the road not directly stated elsewhere in this book: “The editor is always right.” The corollary is that the writer will take all of this of her editor’s advice; for all have sinned and fallen short of editorial perfection. Put another way, to write is human, to edit is divine. Chuck Verrill edited this book, as he has so many of my novels. And as usual, Chuck, you were divine.”

And there are things you can do to help your editor. Before you get to the stage of working with someone, take responsibility for your work so you don’t waste their time, and yours. Fred Stenson writes an excellent chapter called: Self-Editing Your Fiction: Being Better Than You Are, in his book on craft, Thing Feigned or Imagined (Banff Centre Press).

Another fun read is Holy Writ, Learning to love the house style by Mary Norris from the February 2015 issue of The New Yorker. A long, but a thought-provoking article on comma usage, and other things literary. I laughed out loud a few times. 

By definition, edit means: to supervise or direct the preparation of (dictionary.com) Additional meanings: 2. to collect, prepare, and arrange (materials) for publication. 3. to revise or correct, as a manuscript. 4. to expunge; eliminate 5. to add

All these things—revise, correct, eliminate (!)—can be daunting to some writers, blissful and relieving to others. What can I say? So far so good. Cliché, I know, but true.

But if you do get to the point where you can’t see your own writing for what it is, or what it wants to be, or what it is trying to be, it’s time for a break. Step away from the vehicle, go for a walk, take a bath...or pour yourself a whiskey.