This past May, I had the pleasure of team-teaching a master class on self-editing at Saints and Sinners with John Morgan Wilson. John and I wanted to give the writers in the class more than a to-do list—not that a to-do list isn’t important, because it definitely is. But we both knew from experience that a to-do list wasn’t sufficient, and our goal was to teach writers how to get past all the mental and environmental stuff that makes self-editing a challenge. So part of my job was to describe how I see a manuscript as I edit it.
I used an image from Radclyffe’s Taking Fire, her just-released First Responders romance, as a metaphor to describe my editing philosophy. When Andrew Holleran stopped me on the street the next day to compliment the metaphor, I realized I should probably blog about it.
One of the greatest bars to self-editing is the terror almost every writer feels of actually looking at their completed manuscript. You know what I’m talking about: you type the last few words, hit save, and breathe a deep sigh of relief because your masterpiece is complete. And then all you want to do is submit it to your editor or professor or publisher. Reopening the file and looking at the words on the page is like tempting fate. What if everything you’ve written is awful? What if your masterpiece falls apart and crumbles into dust? As long as the file is closed, as long as you don’t look at your words, they remain pristine, perfect, a masterpiece, at least in your mind. I say: hold that thought. It’s the key to self-editing.
Of course writers are terrified to self-edit. Some editors construct editing as an act of looking at a manuscript to find all the mistakes, as a process of showing an author why their writing sucks. Why would any writer want to be complicit in that and do it to themselves? Why would any writer want to take a second look at their manuscript to polish, revise, self-edit when it means focusing on the damage?
That is not how I look at a manuscript when I edit, and Radclyffe gave me the perfect metaphor to describe my process in Taking Fire. Here’s the blurb:
After two years and too many lost troops, Navy medic Max de Milles is ready to go home. Her last tour is up in four days and she will soon be catching a transport to the States. Life is looking good until she gets detailed to evacuate a humanitarian group in south Somalia. Rachel Winslow and her Red Cross team are caught in the crossfire during a vicious civil uprising, but she refuses to abandon her team members as the rebels close in on their camp. By the time Max and the Black Hawk arrive, it may already be too late. Hunted by extremists, Max and Rachel are forced to work together if they are to survive, and in the process, discover something far more lasting.
Because this is a Radclyffe romance featuring a medic, there is surgery. And here’s how Max looks at a wound:
“The key to finding a bleeder in the midst of a pool of blood and shredded muscle was to look—to see, to distinguish the border between the damaged and the undamaged. There, at the edge of destruction, the natural planes of the body remained, even in the worst trauma, pristine layers radiating out from the injury.” (emphasis added)
That’s my metaphor.
Editing—whether it’s self-editing or editing another writer’s work—starts with a way of looking. If you think of editing primarily as looking for the bad stuff—for the damage—it colors your entire process. Of course no writer in their right mind would voluntarily reopen that saved file to self-edit.
Instead, think of editing as looking for what’s wonderful and repairing the rest. Start with the “pristine layers,” and let them drive the revision. You can’t fix what’s broken if you can’t see what works. And you can’t see what works until you open the file and look at your words.
That’s how I edit.
My process isn’t about pretending every word is perfect or that nothing needs cutting or more development. It’s not about giving everyone a gold star for doing well. After all, the pristine layers are found at the edge of destruction. And part of being a good editor is the ability to talk about what doesn’t work.
But my process begins with an orientation. I need to assess the damage, but I can’t edit until I see the healthy structure.
If opening that file to self-edit makes you want to cry, just think of Dr. Max de Milles (trust me, read Taking Fire and you’ll absolutely want to think about Max and Rachel!). Open your document, look into the metaphorical wound, and find that border, that edge. See the healthy structure of your story, and start to repair and revise from that starting point.