Look Into the Wound

By Ruth Sternglantz

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, Taking Fire 300 DPIher 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.







12 Responses to “Look Into the Wound”

  1. 1 VK July 15, 2014 at 8:56 AM

    Ruth, I love your metaphor and your enlightened way of looking at the editing process. BUT, what if you can’t find the pristine layers? What if it all looks like crap…or the polar opposite to some folks, it all looks pristine? I’m afraid I need new glasses for the process, not just a mental shift.


    • 2 Ruth July 15, 2014 at 9:17 AM

      That’s where experience comes in. I think you need to start with the premise that there’s something good there–you need to find the something good, and if you can’t find it, ask for help. I think that’s a key discipline. As Andrew Holleran noted, teachers and writers and editors are always talking about “vomiting out” a first draft. Well, then you’ve got a pile of vomit. It’s a pretty rotten way to characterize your work and a pretty awful position from which to start an edit.


      • 3 jeffreyricker July 15, 2014 at 6:37 PM

        Great metaphor, and great post. Yeah, I’d choose a different word than “vomit,” definitely. Either way, you can’t edit what’s not there. I must be a bit of an odd one because I love the editing process. I tend to think of the first draft as centering the clay on the wheel, and revision is where the shape of the vessel begins to appear. But the clay has to get on the wheel first.


  2. 4 Carol July 15, 2014 at 9:37 AM

    I humbly thank you. Many times.


  3. 5 I Beacham July 16, 2014 at 3:12 AM

    This is excellent reading. The trouble is that the author can be very hard on themselves and not trust in their work and then become overly critical. I can see some cutting of good flesh here. I always use a blunt razor and leave the rest to the experts!

    Liked by 1 person

    • 6 Ruth July 16, 2014 at 8:44 AM

      Hi, Beach. That’s why learning to recognize what’s good is so important. What I’m suggesting here is a full-scale readjustment of how one regards the editing process. Obviously, if what you’re doing works for you, keep going with it. Editing isn’t one-size-fits-all.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. 7 Franci McMahon July 16, 2014 at 9:11 AM

    Thank you, Ruth. This is an excellent Blog. I think of the first draft as the gist of the story, perhaps the first layer of skin. Going deeper (ie the editing process) can get to the heart. I value my good readers for telling me clearly where I have dandruff.


  5. 8 S.A. July 16, 2014 at 9:19 AM

    You’re right, that is a good metaphor! Thanks for sharing. So much in life is about perspective, and yours re: editing seems to be a very constructive one. And I suspect that authors who are able to self-edit find that later 3rd-party edits are less painful, as well.


  6. 9 Kate July 16, 2014 at 10:30 AM

    That is a beautiful way of looking at the process. I have the opposite problem in that I have trouble writing because I edit as I go. I love editing my work. But that means I never finish my books. Sigh… I’m going to remember this. I think it will help me too. After all, how can you find the healthy layers if there aren’t enough to find. Just keep writing!


  1. 1 Ruth Sternglantz on editing your own work « Jeffrey Ricker Trackback on July 16, 2014 at 10:52 AM
  2. 2 Some Haps! | Women and Words Trackback on July 19, 2014 at 10:35 AM
  3. 3 Did you catch this? | Women and Words Trackback on August 9, 2014 at 12:34 PM

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