Friday, September 11, 2009

The Beam That Is In Your Own Eye: The Art Of Self-Editing

Here is a quote from the bible that I have thought about recently: “And why behold you the mote that is in your brother's eye, but consider not the beam that is in your own eye?”

The answer to this question is obvious: Because we can see the fault in others easier than we can see the faults in ourselves.

With regards to writing, this is the problem every writer faces.  Namely how to tell if what we have written is any good?  More importantly, how do we spot what is not good and correct it? It is easy to read another’s work and tell what is good and what is not, to spot flaws and find faults.  It is extraordinarily hard to do the same for yourself.  To use a metaphor, we can spot the motes in others eyes, but not the beams in our own.

Writing is the art of putting words on the page, editing is the art of judging the quality of those words and finding better alternatives for how to express the work’s content.   The first draft of a story, usually the worst draft, is pure writing.  From that point it is the task of editing that dominates the writer’s efforts.  The final draft is often a result of pure editing.

There is no doubt that Shakespeare was a great writer, but he must also either have been a great self-editor or worked closely with a great editor whom he trusted.  

It is only recently that I have come to fully appreciate the skill of editing.  A few months ago I began an arrangement with Nicole where she would write a little every day, send it to me, and I would then edit her work and send my suggestions back to her.

Originally, I saw this as a way to break a cycle I perceived in Nicole’s efforts to write.  In her first chapter, for example, she would see big problems, but was unable to trace those problems back to their source.  Her efforts to fix the big problems would fail because she could not spot the small problems that led to the big ones.  Eventually she would become frustrated and toss aside all she had done and try to rebuild the chapter from scratch.  Again small problems would be introduced, leading to big ones, and the cycle would begin again.

To expand upon my previous metaphor, she could see the beam in her eye, but not the motes. I, being divorced from her efforts, could spot the motes.

This process of continuous editing as the work was being created allowed Nicole to contain her small problems, and the result is that the big problems never formed in the first place.  It allowed her to complete her best draft to date.

But what did I get out of this process?

I must admit, to my own great surprise, I really enjoyed editing her work. It was, and still is, a fun and surprisingly relaxing exercise.

But beyond that, the effort of trying to sort out her mistakes and errors improved my ability to edit in general, which in turn has influenced my self-editing efforts.   Each writer has their own peculiar quirks, but there are also common mistakes that most writers make.  I came to see certain mistakes Nicole made as ones I was guilty of myself.  To continue the metaphor, seeing the motes in her eyes made it possible for me to spot those in mine.

For example, in one section she used the name of one of her characters, Jake, to start five consecutive paragraphs.  Each sentence, each paragraph, in and of itself was fine.  But starting each paragraph with the same word over and over created a repetitive pattern that became distracting and disrupted the mood she was trying to create.  I pointed this out to her and she corrected the problem.

Then I read my own work and noticed how often I did the exact same thing, starting off paragraph after paragraph, sentence after sentence, with the same word.  Now I carefully look for that mistake as I read through my own chapters, and when I spot it I edit the sentence or paragraph to eliminate the problem.

Another example was when Nicole had an extended sequence where someone experienced increasing pain.  She used the word pain so many times she became sick of it.  So I helped her find ways of expressing the sensation without using the word pain.  (On a side note, try expressing the fact, multiple times, that someone is in pain without using the word pain.  It is surprisingly hard to do.)

In my own work, I now see more clearly when I use the same word over and over to express or describe something.  I am able to spot the problem before someone else points it out to me and correct it quickly.

There are many problems I still can’t spot by myself, which is one of the reasons Nicole has recently been returning the favor and editing my work on a regular basis.  I hope she finds it as beneficial to her self-editing skills as I have.

Editing is a skill, and an art.  It takes time and effort to master, and self-editing takes even more time and effort.  Mastering the art of self-editing is a requirement for taking a work from a rough first draft to a publishable final draft.  One of the great benefits of the writers group is that is helps us all become better editors.  And the continuous editing I am doing for Nicole has helped me even more.  It is an exercise I strongly recommend as a way to become a better writer.


  1. While I agree that you are sometimes your own worst editor - and critic - it isn't what you miss that seems to be the biggest problem with this group. More often than not, it is the constant editing, re-editing, re-editing, and so on that plague our group that is the real problem. Sometimes, we edit too darn much, to the point where we just can't seem to stop. Even when the others in the group tell us that the writing is good and another edit isn't needed, we don't like to heed because we feel there is more editing to be done. We need to learn first how to stop before we learn how to begin again.

  2. I agree that re-editing the same work over and over again is a problem we need to avoid. That wasn't what I was advocating. I was talking about how editing someone else work can make you a better editor, which ideally reduces the number of times you may feel the need to re-edit your own work.