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To Edit or Not to Edit?

by Nann Dunne


Most writers work hard at self-editing, and thatís the first step on the road to publication. The cold fact of writing is that in order to get a publishing contract or get a story accepted for inclusion on an online site, the work must be the best it can be. Wise publishers arenít willing to pay the extra expense to have their editors spend precious time on stories that need a lot of help. Therefore, the more work the writer does in the earlier stages, the better his or her chances at publication and the more likely that people will enjoy reading the story.

But even if you are strong at self-editing, no matter how unique your story, how captivating your characters, or how grandiose your theme, you need to have at least one other knowledgeable person look at your work with an editorís unbiased eye. Let me put this in red capital letters: A WRITER IS TOO CLOSE TO HIS OR HER OWN WORK TO SEE EVERY FLAW.

But most beginning writers canít afford the services of a trained, experienced editor. Thorough editing takes an unbelievable amount of time and intense effort, so most professional editors canít lower their charges and still gain fair recompense for their services. So what are you, the writer, to do? One answer is to find some good, solid readers who are willing to act as your "editors." And just what do editors do?

Content, or substantive editors have a knack for story analysis such as story structure, plot and character development, pace, continuity, credibility, and tension. Line, or copy editors show strength in analyzing each line for word usage, grammar, spelling, sentence structure, paragraph structure, scene structure, transitions, and consistency. There are overlaps between the two responsibilities; for example, the structure of sentences, paragraphs, and scenes can affect a storyís pace, and word usage affects overall readability. Some editors do both types of editing, but often they are stronger in one than in the other. Proofreaders are not editors, though they may notice and point out editorial issues. A proofreader checks punctuation, spacing, spelling, and manuscript layout.

A few lucky writers have found good, solid readers sometimes called first readers, initial readers, or "beta" readersóand perhaps at least one other writerówho are willing to peruse a work in progress or in early draft form and make suggestions. Some readers are stronger than others and deserve the title of "editor," but all readers can be beneficial in bringing their unique perspectives to the authorís attention. If you are strong enough, and wise enough, to handle sincere criticism, this is a great way to improve your story writing.

Remember that each person who edits your work needs to be tough on you. You WANT them to be tough. Anyone can tell you the story is good. The helpful ones are those discerning souls courageous enough to tell you what doesnít work. That information alone is a big help, but if you find someone knowledgeable enough to suggest alternatives that would work in its place, youíve found an extremely valuable resource. Count your lucky stars and hold onto her.

Even if you donít agree with every suggestion, you can use each one as tinder to ignite other ideas in your mind. And DO use them. An editor or first reader makes a suggestion when something strikes her as needing fixed. Itís up to you to be cooperative enough to understand that and find a way to fix it. Donít be so intent on keeping your own beloved words or nicely turned phrases that you canít acknowledge their unsuitability.

In an ideal situation, a writer finds readers who have the skills to examine and analyze a manuscript in the areas needed and who are willing to donate, or trade, their time. In return for her help, the reader/editor gets the satisfaction of knowing she has contributed to the storyís success, plus she gets to see a story in transition and read the finished manuscript before it goes to a publisher. If she herself is a writer, you can probably work out a tradeó"You read for me, and I'll read for you." And I speak from first-hand experience in saying that initial reading in itself is a great way to become more conscious of the lapses in your own writing.

Donít be afraid to have an entire cadre of readers. Some may be good at pacing and flow; others may pick up on continuity or awkward sentences or places where character is not adequately developed. Very few editors, much less initial readers, are adept at all aspects of editing, so a combination of skilled people is helpful in ways you would never expect.

Does your work need editing? Yes! How you manage to get it edited is up to you, but donít be so self-satisfied that you wonít admit you can use help. You run the danger that your writing will remain at the same level forever. Even big name writers have editors. And if you sincerely want to move forward, good editors/readers can help make that possible.

(For a more detailed coverage of what initial readers can do to help a writer, and vice versa, see the related article in JAWís Article Archives in the Editing section: "You Can Help Your Beta Readers.")
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© 2004 Nann Dunne


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