I often receive e-mails from class participants (Thank you. Keep them coming).
One of the most troubling comments is this: I can write, but I can’t edit. This type of writer usually proves she really believes this when she sends in a new piece instead of an edited version or revision of a piece she’s already sent me.
If this sounds familiar, you need to stop thinking this way because it hurts your chances of publication. This bears repeating. Stop selling yourself this line. I don’t know who made it up, but it’s got to go.
All writers need some self-editing skills. This is not to say that writers don’t need editors. They do. I do.
Still, at some point all writers must switch from writing to editing mode.
Editing mode is not the same for all literary forms. If you are editing a Flash Fiction piece, your first goal will be to eliminate needless words. True, this is an important principle in all editing, but for Flash it is the number one principle. You must get your wordcount down. How do you know if a word is essential? Simply delete it. Has anything changed in your story? If not, you didn’t need it. This goes for entire lines and entire paragraphs.
Many writers ask me if they should write a whole draft first or if they should edit as they write. I am not the last word on this (nobody is). I would say do what works for you. If you are writing a Flash piece and you can’t get to line four because you have been caught up endlessly revising lines one to three, clearly this method is not working for you. Stop editing and switch back to writing mode. The same applies to longer length pieces. If you have memorized your first 50 novel pages, you are probably stuck in an editing cycle. Move on.
The primary question for any length piece once you are in editing mode is this: is there a clear plot? You must be able to identify a comprehensible plot from the beginning to the end of your story. This is not nearly as easy to pull off as it sounds. Some writers start strong and begin to wobble in the middle and other writers wobble around—often called a warm-up—only to find their path mid-way through the story, and thereby discover where their story truly begins. A warm-up in a first draft is perfectly fine; once you spot it in the editing stage, delete it, no matter how painful that may be.
Still other writers have a strong beginning and middle, but the ending is unsatisfying. You know those novels. Those are the ones you want to throw against the wall after the last page because you feel you were cheated somehow by a lame ending. A satisfying ending largely depends on your genre, but as a generalization with regard to editing, ask yourself if the ending is too easy. Then ask yourself if your ending makes your readers think.
It’s true that editing and writing are two different skills. Nonetheless, you must master the basics of self-editing. Eliminating words, paragraphs or whole chapters that do not in anyway change your piece and identifying a clear plot all the way through are two of your best starting points to get you moving and that much closer to publication.