CAN A WRITER SELF-EDIT SUCCESSFULLY FOR PUBLICATION?
I keep getting into online discussions with editors (cui bono?) who insist that no writer of fiction can or should self-edit. Not for publication, they say. And they cite the example of so many self-published books which are full of typos and grammar mistakes and spelling errors as proof.
Yes, there are many self-published books which need better editing. According to Sturgeon’s Law (Theodore Sturgeon, 1918-1985, American SF author and critic):
90% of SF is crap, but then 90% of everything is crap.
My paraphrase, but it will serve. It is now being applied particularly to self-published work, but applies to traditionally-published work as well. We can argue about the percentages, but the point is that much work gets published without meeting someone’s standards.
Some of us care. A lot.
I happen to believe that the best gift an author can give herself is to learn to self-edit well enough for publication.
The reason is simple: If you can learn to produce quality work all by yourself, the READER gets the unvarnished best the writer can produce, UNALTERED by someone else.
Voice unaltered. Tone unaltered. Style unaltered. Judgment unaltered. Story unaltered.
The thing which makes a particular writer unique is preserved for the delectation of the reader. Artisanal. As all writing should be.
And it only comes from really being aware of what you write – and why.
Okay. Now that we have the WHY, let’s have the HOW:
Think of the best quality in published traditional work. You should aspire to better that standard.
This is not an easy task. There is learning. And failing. And getting appropriate feedback. And yes, making mistakes in judgment and execution.
But setting yourself a rigorous process, adding to that process as you learn, and following that process isn’t that hard. It just requires becoming aware of the difference between the story in your head, and the story on the page, and not quitting until the difference is as small as you can humanly make it. We call this ‘work.’ Hard work. I have made a contract with my readers that I will do this work before they get to read what I write.
It is work that is rewarded by making you a better writer. Big reward. Useful reward. And, in the long run, it will save you money, frustration, and dealing with people who don’t get your vision for your own work.
Enter the final mechanical stage.
Once I have used everything I have learned about writing from my teachers, books by Sol Stein, Donald Maass, Blake Snyder, the Dramatica team, and all the reference books off- and online, I have a scene or a chapter which needs to be cleansed of dead skin.
It isn’t ready for the beta reader until it is finished, but my ‘finished’ needs the final mechanical stage. I use AutoCrit for this purpose. As close as I can get to the original AutoCrit program which is basically a counter of terms and a comparer of those terms against a database. There is a new version; I’ve learned to ignore the new parts because the last thing in the world I would pay attention to is a program telling me what to write. Writing is my job.
I want the mechanical editor to tell me what I’ve done, in a very black-and-white way. I want it to count for me, because counting adverbs is the most boring thing I can think to do by human. Or counting the number of times a four-word phrase (each possible four-word phrase in my text) is used. Or counting the number of times I have used words or phrases (and showing me where they are). And making a list of unusual words.
For this I use certain specific sections of AutoCrit.
After pasting the text in, I visit the following menu items:
Strong Writing: Adverbs, Cliches, Redundancies, and Unnecessary Filler Words.
Word Choice: Generic Descriptions, and Personal Words and Phrases.
Repetition: Repeated Uncommon Words, Word Frequency, and Phrase Frequency.
For all of the above, I ignore the program’s nagging (such as ‘Remove about 3’ when it somehow decides that I have too many occurrences of ‘that’), because for me, AutoCrit is only an automated counter doing the dirty work for me because I’m too lazy to do it myself (and know that humans given mechanical tasks make huge mistakes because they get BORED).
I do NOT use other sections. Why? Because they judge me. Or someone wrote a little piece of text to put there that sounds just like it. Once we go from comparing the number of times I use ‘that’ to the average for fiction in their database, I have all the information I want from an algorithm.
Pièce de résistance: how to use the information.
This is the writer’s job: every single counted detail from my text, generated easily by a program, is now subject to the final test: Is this the way I want it?
In other words, it’s back to me. Not with suggested ‘improvements.’ Just counted, and displayed for me to decide if it serves my final intent to have the text stay the way I wrote it (remember, I considered it pretty much finished before I tossed it into AutoCrit).
If it shows me clichés from its database that I have used, I have to decide if the character using the cliches uses cliches. Some do, some don’t. Clichés are neither good nor bad. For some characters I will keep the cliché but try to make the sentiment unique again – which leads to some pretty interesting substitutions from that subconscious brain.
If it shows me I have used one of my personal words a certain number of times (my worst lately tends to be ‘get’ and its variations ‘got’ and ‘getting’ and ‘gotten’ – all of which I’ve input to my personal words file in AC), I will decide 1) if there are too many, 2) if they are the only way to say something (rare), 3) if they have a literary intention (parallel structure often leads to word repetition the database can’t account for),…
Generic Descriptions usually have to be separated into two piles: those in dialogue (and even those benefit by tweaking) which mark a specific character; and those in the internal monologue where I dump what other people use a narrator for (It was a dark and stormy…), ie, description. I may have a very good reason (really) for using the generic description, but it doesn’t hurt to be reminded to check.
I never, ever, use AC’s Homonyms tab, because it is excessive, and I can spell, and have NEVER yet found myself using the wrong homonym. Okay, maybe two or three times in the 3.5 MILLION words I’ve put through AC, but NOT by using the Homonyms tab. Too much stuff to process – there are a lot of homonyms in English, and they will find all of them and offer what seems like every other word in a red box. There must be a better way to do that mechanically (don’t mark every ‘you’ because it might be ‘ewe’); meanwhile, I put those words I might misspell by accident into my Personal Words file (though, thought, through, thorough).
First, examine every single kind of counted word or phrase that you might not otherwise catch, and
Last, decide whether and how to fix it: you’re the author – it’s your baby.
It still takes time, and a lot of effort, and a lot of thinking, and going back and forth to Scrivener with the text of a scene.
I find I can do about 5-10 corrections at a time, after which I save the results in Scrivener, get a fresh copy of the text, paste it into AC, and re-process that tab/menu/submenu.
All other types of errors – spelling, punctuation, point of view consistency, chronology and plotting, content (was this character a red-head?) – should have been eliminated (by me, the spellchecker, and a dictionary/thesaurus) before I use AC.
But I care – and I’m not using my beta reader except as a first reader. For what should be finished work, so she has as clean an experience as I can make. I don’t want her pristine read complicated by anything that distracts her from the flow; when she tells me something doesn’t work for her, it is going to be taken very seriously.
And that is how I use AutoCrit (I have a Lifetime membership – worth every penny) to do what no human editor should be asked to do (count) and what I don’t want an editor to do (change ANY of my words, which includes suggesting I change them). They may not be happy about this, but it is the least traumatic way for me.
I really should stop even clicking on those ‘everything needs an editor’ posts. Their authors, some of them editors, hate people like me.