Today I want to explore the problems caused by over-editing your writing, and how to work on preventing yourself becoming hyper-critical. A great deal of my experience as a writer has been fraught with difficulties, and few less so than dealing with the issue of editing - I hope these few tips will help you, or my experiences will at least push you towards a solution. The trick, I imagine, would be to simply write something flawlessly the first time - and to be able to approach that piece of work in exactly the same frame of mind time-after-time, in order to prevent your mood affecting your reading (or writing). My problem, and I suspect yours, is that neither of these are possible.
You'll have heard the phrase:
Every artist is his/her own worst critic
If you haven't heard that before, then I suspect you'll see the truth in it. As egocentric as many artists (and specifically writers, in this case) are, they also tend to be very frail to criticism, and will try to avoid it by being most pedantic with themselves.
With so many potential avenues to walk with each novel, chapter, paragraph, sentence, word and punctuation mark - it's hardly surprising that with so many valid options available to us that we feel there's room for improvement!
I would like to meet the writer (but probably not really) who claims that every single mark on every page of his/her written work is perfect.
Tips, and how to avoid over editing your work
To help myself, and hopefully others, I have come up with two separate concepts that are going to become tools for me to assess my hyper-criticality and over-editing, and it is understanding the distinctions between these two concepts that becomes most important:
- Objective errors - mistakes that are genuine errors by any classical measure.
- Subjective errors - mistakes that are only in the eye of the beholder.
Understanding the difference between the two, and managing your reactions to them, is going to be an essential part of progressing from the hyper-critical state, and with producing well edited work.
Let's explore the problem a little, just to make sure we're on the same wavelength, and I'll talk about a rundown of events as they would likely occur for me.
(The relevance of some of the following will depend on the length of work, but for this purpose I'm going to be editing a short story of, say, 5,000 words.)
- During the actual process of writing I've been editing on a sentence by sentence basis, essentially as I've been writing. At the end of a chapter I'll most certainly run through everything I've done, looking for the more obvious and glaring errors. These are objective errors, such as accidentally using the wrong homophone, or literally missing the occasional word.
- I take a break. I take plenty of breaks with my writing - and this becomes one of the real tests of both your writing and your editing skills.
- When I go back to my writing - either half an hour later, perhaps later in the day, or even another day or week after I've finished - I find that what I'd previously "signed off" in my head is now littered with mistakes, poor word choice, deplorable syntax - but all of these are very likely to be subjective errors. Only when you've had opportunity to remove the ever-so-excited part of your mind from your work are you been able to spot these kinds of problems in your writing.
Nonetheless, moving parts of sentences around, choosing better words, adding in more description - these are all things that will undoubtedly make your writing better - but you have to remember that your writing was perfectly fine before you even touched it!
How to stop yourself being over or hyper critical
If you can arrive at the point where all you are correcting are subjective errors then you have already produced work that is readable, and is substantially correct!
- So - after each break you have returned to your work and gone through a cycle of 'corrections' to existing writing, and so the overall quality of your writing has also improved. Each sentence and paragraph has been scrutinised and shuffled until - in your mind - you are happy that the work up until that break is now sound.
- You return to writing, knowing that everything before you is correct and with your next writing you...
- ...go to 1 ^ , until your story is complete.
When you've finally completed your story, you should have a manuscript that is in perfect working order. Except, you'll excitedly want to start reading it and... what do you find?...
They will be all over the place, but what you have to remember - before you hit the bottom of the shame crater - is that a huge proportion of those things you deem 'errors' are going to be subjective errors. Let's have a good look at what that really means:
Subjective errors are those pieces of writing or punctuation that, for whatever reason, you think are inadequate or inappropriate. They are not essentially errors at all, but are perhaps suboptimal choices in your writing. Yes, it could be that a significant proportion of your readership might also think in exactly the same way you do but, even so, the sheer volume of possibilities afforded you by your lexicon and your ability to re-order a sentence will provide an almost infinite variety of solutions to your problems. See if any of the following rings a bell:
- You start reading your completed manuscript back from the very beginning - sentence by sentence, word by word, until you've re-edited everything you can possibly see.
- Then you read it again, from the beginning. And again you make edits.
- When you've finished, you'll be tired - so you'll take a break.
- Then you'll start reading it again, from the very beginning - and you'll still see lots of subjective errors still in place, things you'll believe will improve your work, and start editing again.
- Then you'll re-read just that last chapter because you're determined to get at least one chapter of this thing absolutely 100% spot-on... and you'll still find a few paragraphs that don't quite hit the mark for you, and you'll edit them.
- You'll move onto the next chapter - you might feel you've given due diligence to that last chapter now, and you'll feel happy that there can't be many more problems with it. This chapter though - boy, this is a bad chapter. Woah! Mistakes all over the place. Still, you'll fix those up quickly enough.
- You move through the whole story like this, chapter by chapter, until you've finished at last. Woohoo!
- You give it another read through from the start - still find a few things you want to change in the original writing, and loads more 'errors' in the material you wrote to fill the holes left by the first set of 'errors', and end up...
- ...going back to number 1 ^
It's a cycle, it's destructive, and it hurts. You have to learn to let go - it's the only way.
So, to summarise what it is I need to change to succeed:
- Accept that many of my '"Grr - this doesn't sound good at all!" moments' might be to do with the fact that I'm tired; or I'm hungry; or I've read the same thing ten times in a row; or my cat just walked into schrodingers box.
- Accept that my standards are high because I'm a good writer, but that I'm not necessarily the best reader.
- Accept that sooner or later I have to learn to let go.
I have a feeling there'll be more to this over the coming weeks, and when there is I'll post it up here so that you can follow it. In the meantime, if you do want to keep informed, please subscribe to my newsletter. I send it very rarely but it really helps to know someone out there is reading my stuff.