Vision: A Resource for Writers
Lazette Gifford, Editor
Vision@sff.net

Self-Editing: 
Why It is a Good Thing

By L. Ruben Willis

Ó2002, L. Ruben Willis


For many years, I have had the displeasure of going through a singularly frustrating experience – reading a published short story or novel and discovering a glaring spelling or grammatical error.  This frustration fueled my feeling of “I can do better at this than they are – and they are published!”  This feeling was one of the reasons I turned from the role-playing hobby to a more structured form of storytelling.

After a few years of experience, including a two-year-run as a fairly successful author of fan-fiction, two fanzine articles, and a job editing a friend’s first novel, I made a rather eye-opening discovery.  Editing is hard work!

Fortunately, there are a few things that the writer can do to self-edit.  These items include:

  • Always edit before submitting your work – even online.

  • Critically read what you’ve written after you write it.

  • Watch your tenses.

  • Don’t blindly trust your spell-checker/grammar-checker.

  • Have a beta-reader.

  • Always be willing to revise your work.

One of the biggest flaws I found in the fan-fiction community was the tendency of many writers to post without ever editing.  This was most obvious because many fan-fiction sites do not require any sort of editorial process before a work is posted – the submission process is as simple as typing a reply in a message-board thread.  Even fanfiction.net, which is one of the largest general fan-fiction communities in the online world, has no editorial standards for submissions.   You need only to submit the document in the proper file format.  The resulting pieces are frequently poorly edited.

You may ask, “How does this apply to me?  I write original fiction, to be sold to X magazine or publisher.  I’m not some amateur writer who doesn’t care about how his work looks when it is read.”  However, a poorly edited submission can easily end up in the wastebasket, without being read.

This means it is necessary to do some level of editing before sending your work off.  The first step in this process is the author’s self-edit.  As an author, you need to acquire the ability to look critically at your own work.  This ability will allow you to catch the myriad errors that crop up in the process of day-to-day writing.  These errors, uncaught, go on to the next person who reads your work, and can impact their qualitative impression of it.

One specific area that demands special notice is that of verb tenses.  How many times in normal conversation do we hear someone use the wrong verb tense?  How many popular songs abuse those same rules?  Thirty or more years ago, such improper speech would have drawn scorn.  Nowadays, improper verb tenses are often viewed as an acceptable part of normal conversation.  What we hear repeatedly from others can have a tendency to slip into our everyday speech (we never entirely outgrow the childish propensity for repeating things we hear from others), and then into our writing.  It can be very grating to read a manuscript written in past tense that keeps slipping into present tense.

It is common for people who do their writing in a word processor to rely solely upon their spell- and grammar-checking software.  Often, such reliance ignores the fact that such software is relatively simple in construction, utilizing an abridged dictionary of words and a simplified set of grammar rules.  Such software is not set up to handle all the intricacies of one of the most complex languages in the world – English.

In addition, most computer spell-checkers are not capable of handling spelling within context – which means that the computer will not do well catching some of the most common of spelling errors – homophones.  The computer will accept such mistyped snippets as “two be or not too bee” and “hear and now”.

Some word processing programs try to overcompensate for the typist’s errors.  The program will automatically edit what you have typed to meet up with a match from its built-in dictionary, regardless of whether the edit is warranted.  This AutoCorrect function can be extremely frustrating, and applies to both spelling and grammar.  Save yourself a lot of frustration – either take the time to make sure all of the default settings that your word processing program refers to are set up exactly the way YOU want them, or turn the darn thing off.  If you don’t, you will regret it, believe me!

Now you are telling yourself, “I’ve re-read my work, and caught all of those errors that made it past me as I was writing.  I’m good to go!”  However, you are not ready yet.

Every one of us is human, which means that errors could get past us, especially if we are less critical of our work.  A great tool that you can use before submitting your manuscript is to ask a friend, relative, or other person that you trust to read your work.  This person is called a beta-reader.

Beta-readers are very important, even if they do not have any knowledge of the craft of writing.  The beta-reader can read something, uncolored by the preconceptions that of the author.  They most likely do not know all of the background for what was written, so they will look at your work on its own merit.  They will be able to say whether your piece works for them as a reader.  To you as a writer, they are representative of the people you want to understand your writing.

Input from beta-readers can be extremely varied, depending on their level of knowledge about writing.  Some beta-readers will only be able to offer commentary about how smoothly a story was told, while others may very well be able to give you a near-professional level edit.  As writers, it is useful for us to seek out both types of beta-readers, because the former will offer comments about how well we are conveying our ideas, while the latter will give you valuable insight into corrections that need to be made before submission.  You might notice that many published authors even acknowledge their readers in their work when it finally sees print.

Finally, you get input back from your beta-readers.  What do you do then?  This is time to roll up your sleeves and do something that tugs at the heartstrings of many writers.  It is time to revise.

Revision is an ongoing process.  More than once I have heard a full-time, professional writer state to a workshop that “my work is never done – I am always revising.”  It is one of the hardest truths in the writing profession.  Just like a gardener needs to prune his rosebushes, so too must a writer tend to his work, even after it has been created.

Because revision is a necessary process for the writer, the inability to revise can be a major stumbling block for the aspiring writer.  It is easy to internalize your work, and to view every cut as a wound to oneself.  It is even easier to become overprotective of your work, refusing to even consider revisions that are suggested.

Each work we create is akin to a diamond in the rough.  It takes polishing and strategic cutting to get a dull lump of crystallized carbon to take on the scintillating form and luster of a gemstone in a jeweler’s store.  To bring that diamond to its full brilliance, cuts and polishing are often necessary.

Similarly, editing may very well be necessary to make your work the best it can be.  Being totally unwilling to revise can trap your work in a static form that will reduce its chances of seeing print.

After you have revised, you may want to go back through the same checks that you made before, watching for other errors that made it past before, as well as errors and inconsistencies that crept in while you were revising.

Once you have self-edited to a level that you are satisfied with, send your work off.  The chances are that your prospective buyer will be more impressed by your polished work than he would have been with your first rough draft.  That increases the chance of your work seeing print.  And that is what I call a good thing.