Monday, February 1, 2010

How an editor helped me take my writing to the next level

By Karen Harrington, authorJANEOLOGY

When I was little, my mother had a silver dressing table mirror. It featured a normal mirror on one side and a 5x magnified mirror on the other side. Me and my sister liked to make funny faces into it, seeing how big our lips looked, viewing our tonsils at the back of our throats. Even, dare I say, looking up our noses. For us, looking into this mirror was amusing. Of course, for my mother, it was a beauty tool.

As I've entered my 40s, I see the value of this kind of mirror, although it’s no longer as amusing. Well, sometimes it is, but not for the same reasons. No one likes to hold up a mirror to their flaws. But often it’s helpful to see the finest, smallest details in sharp focus. Dare I say, it reveals things you didn’t even know were there and promise to God were not there yesterday!

In some respects, it wasn’t until I put my sentences in front of a 5x magnification tool that I really took my writing up to the next level. The tool I used wasn’t a mirror, but an editor. A damn good one. And now that I’ve magnified the writing, viewed the small details and imperfections, can I ever go back to writing as before?

What happened was that I’d written my second novel. I’d given it to valued readers for critique, revised it and written several drafts. Only then did I think it was ready to go out into the world. I sent out query after query to agents and publishers. To no avail, I received a tidy stack of rejections. Then one day I happened upon a website that offered a free, five-page critique and edit of one's novel.

I sent in my pages. In two days, they were returned with edits, comments and suggestions. The editor read the first 15 pages of the manuscript and gave comments on my writing style in general.

After reading through the edits, I pictured what the entire manuscript would read like should she go over every sentence. I held the image of my novel as a purse. Her edits would create the draw-string at the top, tightening and pulling it together.

I scraped together the funds for her fee and sent off my novel for her full edit. What I got back was overwhelming. Deletion here. Rewrites there. Notes that I’d taken a paragraph one sentence too far. Highlights on inconsistencies and verb tense. A notation that I’d given two characters “thin, wiry hands.” A whole chapter towards the end of the book had a cruel X mark through it that just said “No.” Gulp! “And I PAID for this!

She told me to go through the book a little at a time, taking on a few pages a day. I followed her advice. By the time I got to the chapter marked X, I fully agreed that it had to go.

In two months, I’d completed the edits. By subjecting my writing to an uber-magnification via an editor, I’d taken not only the novel, but my writing to the next level. The horrible “chapter X” was replaced by a satisfying scene which brought the entire story into sharp focus and added extra urgency near the book’s end.

I geared up to resubmit the new and improved manuscript. In two months, I had two offers of publication. The result is my debut - JANEOLOGY.

I love telling people this story because it reminds me of the value of another set of super objective eyes. And I’m now able to put a magnified mirror on my writing, putting on my own editor’s hat. The edited draft became the basis of a personal editing checklist, which I use to this day. I’m not afraid to put a giant X over a section or chapter. Only through thorough objective editing can I see the finest, smallest details of my writing.

If you want to know, I worked on my upcoming novel with this same editor. We worked through it thoroughly, again taking a great story and bringing it up several levels. In the process I told her “This edit seems so much slower, much more challenging. I’m questioning EVERYTHING.” She replied, “For some reason, the better the novel the harder the edit. Plus, you’ve raised the bar on yourself. You know you have to do better. You know you can do better.”

She’s right. Now that I choose to put my writing in front of a 5x magnified mirror, I can see the finest, smallest details in sharp focus with my own eyes. And it’s all because I invested in an editor. A damn good one. And that, my friends, is how I took my writing up to the next level.

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Sun Singer said...

Nice story and an interesting way to learn via somebody who is not as close to our work as we are by the time we believe we have a salable draft.


Scobberlotcher said...

Malcolm -

You are so right. It takes someone very removed from your writing to give you a real birds' eye view. The best editor is someone who isn't afraid to hurt your feelings and I haven't found a writing group or family member who won't be merciless. :)
Thanks for commenting!


DebraLSchubert said...

How true! I first worked with an editor about a year ago, and it put a whole new spin on my writing. I had no idea I was doing so many things wrong! Since then, I've gotten an agent and am gearing up for my first submission process. (Yikes!) I seriously doubt I would have come so far so fast without an editor.

Robin of My Two Blessings said...

Great advice, Karen. Will have to look in getting an editor when get to that point. I'm really going to have to read your book this year.

a gracious plenty said...

thanks for this post. i have been seriously considering using a paid editor. i just can't get any useful info from readers who know me. thanks for encouraging me to take the plunge. i feel like it will help.

Scobberlotcher said...

Gracious -

You are quite welcome. I hope you do take the plunge. It was the best investment I ever made. IF you want to know, the editor I used was with A-1 Editing. You can find them on the web. Best of luck to you!

K. Harrington

Ad Hudler said...

Yep. Good advice. We all need to remind ourselves that our writing can ALWAYS be better. There is no such thing as a perfect book ... although "Charlotte's Web" comes close.

Deborah Carr said...

I think to really grow as a writer we have to banish egos and realize how a fresh perspective and keen editing eye can take our words and make them shine.

My best learning experiences came with the greatest number of red marks and slashes. How can I get any better without correction?

Anonymous said...

Having someone provide criticism isn't a crutch like some may believe -- no, it's truly what allows you to look at your creation from a different point of view.

external hard drive recovery said...

Amazing words and it is awesome way to learn through such medium which is not relevant to field.