3 Curses of Self-Editing and How to Break Them
Self-editing is a skill every writer needs to develop, even if they have a book coach, an agent, or an editor.
But it is also very tricky!
There are three surprising curses when it comes to self-editing, and in this article you’ll learn what they are, why they are so troubling, and how to break them.
One: The Curse of Knowledge
Re-Vising. Literally, seeing again. Seeing anew.
But can you believe your own eyes?
THAT is the curse of knowledge.
When I was 18, I needed to get an A in History to secure the place I'd been offered at University to study English; at the time it was everything I wanted.
Three years just reading and talking and writing about literature. And the libraries! Twenty years later they still make me swoon.
In this exam, the last question was an essay, and worth the majority of the marks, so timing was crucial.
I read the instructions scrawled on the whiteboard and noted the exam finished at 12:30.
As I began answering the last question, for which I'd allowed 30 minutes…the invigilator announced there were just 5 minutes remaining.
I had slipped into a parallel universe. I felt faint.
I was sure they were mistaken. I looked at the whiteboard again. The exam ended at 12:00. Not 12:30.
Even though I had looked, I had seen what I knew I would see, what I expected to see. The brain has a very strong preconscious filter.
And it is a problem when we are self-editing.
How to break the curse of Knowledge
We have to be cunning to get around this particular obstacle on our way to becoming the writers we want to be and getting our stories on the page.
This is the kind of cunning we need to emulate. When I was learning to draw, I was told to view my drawings in a mirror.
Whenever I looked at my finished drawings in the mirror, they would magically get worse.
I could NOW see I'd drawn a too-angular line. I could NOW see the asymmetry of a face I'd drawn or a missing piece of negative space.
When I looked at my drawing directly, my clever brain corrected the errors.
It knew what I was trying to do and helped me overlook and assume so that the drawing seemed to match the intention.
Thankfully, the mirror fooled my 'clever' brain and gave me a fresh perspective, reversing the image so that it looked totally different and I was no longer blind to its flaws. And then, I could fix it.
And over time, I became less reliant on the mirror.
I learned my habitual flaws and was able to catch them. I changed the way my brain looked at things and how my hand captured them on the page. I guess I learned how to really look.
And you will do the same with your writing.
When you're editing your writing you need to find a way to get a fresh perspective.
A mirror of your own, so that you can see its flaws or where your intention is not fully on the page.
Often, all we need is a break. Many writers recommend taking a month away from your manuscript before you start editing.
This is also one of my roles as a book coach. I am the mirror.
Unfortunately, because the 'fresh perspective' you're trying to acquire is like trying to see your writing as a reader will, that can make you vulnerable to the second curse…
Two: The Curse of Giving Away Your Power
What first impression does my book make?
You’re trying to step into someone else’s shoes and see your writing afresh.
In doing so, it can begin to feel like you’re giving away all your power to an imaginary reader or agent. Often, your nightmare book review or rejection letter becomes internalized as your inner critic.
And that is one reason why so many people cannot stand editing.
Trust me, I do not underestimate the dangers.
This curse is one of the main reasons I wanted to become a book coach, in fact! Because I fell victim to this curse myself, big time, when I was close to getting a contract to publish my book, back in 2012.
I had received two anonymous reader reports from my potential publisher, asking me to change and extend the book in very specific, slightly contradictory ways.
When I got those reader's reports, I fell victim to the Curse of Giving Away Your Power.
I thought, 'I have to do what they say if I want a career, a book contract, success, to be worthy, to be accepted...'
And I was totally blocked for about 6 months.
Hiding from my mentor, pretending everything was fine. But totally stuck and getting desperate as I saw my career slipping through my hands like the sands of time.
How to Break the Curse of Giving Away Your Power
Finally, I met with a life coach (I didn't know about book coaches then or I would have happily signed up for one!). She said:
"What I'm hearing is that you don't really want to do what the publisher's readers suggested?"
At first, I thought she was stating the obvious.
"Well no, but I don't have a choice, do I."
Not a question. A petulant statement.
She pushed back and a world of possibility opened.
From that day on I focused on communicating more clearly MY vision and argument for the book. What I thought it needed in order to reach my audience.
And, all modesty aside, I nailed it.
The book was resubmitted and the readers didn't even notice I had not done what they suggested, they were just falling over themselves to celebrate what the book had become.
I'm not telling you this to boast.
I am telling you it to convince you that the best, and maybe ONLY way to do your story justice when editing and revising is to clarify and LEAN IN to what the story wants to be (which is some combination of your vision for it and the channels your writing seemed to flow into in the practice of writing it) and focus on COMMUNICATING that and polishing away and rewriting anything that gets in its way, whether that’s convention, abstraction, imprecision, or excess.
I want to remind you that the writer you are becoming is brave, unapologetic, and leans IN to their vision for the book, rather than compromising to suit others. They edit with their creativity still switched on.
And speaking of leaning into what your book wants to be…
Three: The Curse of Not Letting Go
One of my very first book coaching clients had many friends and mentors in the women's fiction community.
She described her book as women's fiction, and the book ended with the main character (a mother of two in a difficult marriage) realizing that they DID deserve to be happy, even if they weren't perfect.
Sounds a lot like Women's fiction, right?
Except the story OPENED with a murder-suicide and at its climax, there was another murder.
(It was a great story, with huge commercial potential, but it was begging to belong in a different genre.)
When I spoke to the author, I talked to her about the possibility that their book was actually domestic suspense (which is kind of a hybrid of women's fiction and a psychological thriller).
Her eyes sparkled and a wicked grin spread across her face as she said "I love domestic suspense" as if it was a guilty secret.
I asked how it would feel to lean into the idea that her book was domestic suspense. She felt torn. She had such a sense of belonging in the community of women's fiction writers. But the deeper reason for her reticence was she was not entirely comfortable with the idea that she could write something so dark.
The truth is, she already had. Everything but the ending was an exploration of our shadow-side.
While her conscious vision for the book was that it was women's fiction, when she wrote, her story drew into channels of its own; it WANTED to be domestic suspense. And so did the writer, deep down.
Breaking the Curse of Not Letting Go
Seeing your book with a fresh perspective is sometimes about LETTING GO of what you thought it was and LEANING IN to what it wants to be. And sometimes what it wants to be is clearer to someone else than to you. You are too close to it. The curse of knowledge, again.
So how do you know if you might need to LET GO of some definition of your book?
If you have any sense of contraction, confinement, or lack of choice; if you're thinking 'I can't do that because...' 'I have to do that or...', then it may be worth pausing to think about if that is true.
If you're saying "I don't have a choice" because:
I am not the sort of person who writes... (commercial / literary fiction / crime / fantasy / romance etc)
I've already got so many words I have to make them work. I don't want to start from scratch even if it is easier to.
That genre is unfashionable...
That genre is more marketable...
What will my friends and family think...(if I write commercial fiction, if I write genre fiction, if I write about an unhappy marriage, if I write about crime)
I've told everyone I'm writing...
If those thoughts have stopped you from writing what seemed to come most easily or joyfully, it may be that you need to LET GO so that you can LEAN IN to the book you are really here to write, and become a charismatic author.
Journaling around this can be a very effective way to identify any stories that are holding you back. Stories about what you MUST do or SHOULD do or CAN'T do.
Let it go! And observe what now becomes possible...
If you’d like support with the mindset of self-editing, if you’d like a mirror to help you see your work clearly, or help tuning in to where your story wants to go, I’d love to help. Contact me here to start the conversation by telling me about your writing.
A literary scholar, Georgina found her super-power as a developmental editor and book coach after becoming a mum in 2013. Now she helps writers use their super-powers to rise above the words on the page and make their novels as good as they can be.
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