Wednesday, June 2, 2010

The Man With Two Hats - How to Be Your Own Editor

Guest post by Brett James

You'd have to be crazy to publish a novel without an editor. And by editor, I mean someone who isn't your mother, best friend, or even your English teacher. By editor, I mean someone who knows what they're doing, who picks your work apart so easily that you feel weak-kneed in their presence.

A good editor is someone who makes you feel like they disdain you terribly, and from whom you keep your children away, out of fear that they might suffer the same recrimination. And, if you are lucky enough to find such a person, one who has achieved this state of pure evil, then you must learn to love them with all of your heart.

How exactly do you do this? By getting inside the mind of the editor, learning their tricks, and beating them to the punch.

An editor is a like a personal trainer. They mark your progress, tell you what you're doing wrong, and push you to do better. What they don't do is write your novel, just as a trainer won't lift your weights for you. And if you poke your head into any gym, you'll see that the people who get along best with their trainers are those who are in decent shape themselves.

It can feel unfair when an editor breezes through your book, marking problems, and then handing it back to you. It's not unlike hiring a boss who then in turn demands you do all of their work. The big difference is that you're still the boss. While your editor might make suggestions, you're the one who has to decide if they go into your book or not. After all, it's your name on the cover.

To keep the editing process as frustration-free as possible, it helps if you've already done as much of the editing as you can on your own book. If you're still in love with your novel by the time you hand it off to your editor, then you haven't spent nearly enough time picking it apart. And if you expect that your editor will just fix a few typos and give it the stamp of approval, you haven't even started.

The time to hand over your manuscript is after you have already labored over every word, when you are so ragged, so hopelessly burnt out, that you are ready to crawl across your editor's floor just to beg for their advice.

Being your own editor sounds a lot like being your own worst enemy, but it's not nearly so bad. All you have to do is re-read something you've written, find something you don't like about it, and then jot it into the margin with red ink. Something like, "Description too long," or, "I find myself bored here." Bam! You're an editor.
It's easy to spot a few things that are wrong, but the real trick is to remove yourself so completely from the book that you can see it through someone else's eyes. Someone who hates you.

There are plenty of tricks to help. My personal favorite is reading out loud, preferably to someone else. In fact, just knowing that I'm going to be performing my work usually sends me into an editing flurry.

You can also read your chapters or scenes in a random order, or re-order your novel according to separate individual story lines. While criticism comes naturally to us all, editing is a skill that's developed over years and there are as many different approaches as there are editors. One line editor I know works backward through the entire novel so that they won't get distracted by the story.

Salvador Dali was famous for leaving his paintings alone for long periods of time, then rushing into his studio and turning on the light, hoping to catch a glimpse of them as he'd never seen them before. The same is true when you're editing your own material: your goal is to see past what you intended to write, and see what it is that you actually wrote.

Remember, if you believe you can do no wrong, you'll probably do nothing but. However, if you work to make your writing good (instead of just defending the first stuff you happened to dribble on the page) chances are that you'll end up with something people will enjoy reading. And not just your mother, best friend, or English teacher.

Author Brett James first put pen to paper for the screenplay of his 1996 film, Cold War. He has since written and directed six films of various lengths, winning honors at a dozen festivals, including the Judge's Award at the Florida Film Festival and best short at both the Northern California Indie and the Seattle Underground.
Brett James is a member of the New York-based art collective, The Madagascar Institute, and has installed his art in New York, San Francisco, Amsterdam, and Croatia. He has most recently worked on The Big Rig Jig and Burning Man's 2009 temple, Fire of Fires. He was raised in Chapel Hill, North Carolina and now lives in the San Francisco Bay Area. The Deadfall Project is his first novel. For more information, visit:

Do you struggle with editing your own work?


  1. Great piece. I especially like the bit where you have to imagine your editor 'hates' you!Very useful.

  2. Your editor is your personal trainer! I love that part!

  3. I'm enjoying The Deadfall Project very much, and can easily tell the quality of work that was put into his book. Just amazing to read!


Who links to my website?