The Editing Process as an Exercise in Humility


One of the most humbling things I’ve experienced in my writing career is the process of editing my work. I’m not talking here about spelling or basic grammar…I’ve always been good at those things, much to the annoyance of my children. Here, I am talking about the process of turning a first draft into a polished work. The word needing emphasis in that last sentence is WORK because the process requires a great deal of it.

The Great Self-Deceptions in Life

My education and work life provided me with no exposure to the rigors of copy editing my own writing. In school, the teachers followed the syllabus and marked for grammar, spelling, theme and the odd dangling participle. Professional scientific papers are more concerned with technical obfustication and rigorous citation of references than in good writing (try reading any published scientific paper without a double espresso and a supply of no-doze tablets on hand). Professional presentations make such poor usage of the English language and grammar in the ubiquitous ocean of PowerPoint files that it is a miracle anyone in the business community is left who can construct a complete sentence without reverting to bullet points.

And I’m not even going to mention blogging…

It wasn’t until I began my career as a fiction author that I learned what a crappy writer I really am. It’s quite embarrassing, actually how lousy my first drafts really are.

I know that every writing article and book out there tells the writer that the first draft is shit and its purpose is to just get the words on the computer in the first place. They tell us that the real work of writing is in the editing and, until recently, I scoffed at that.

After all, I was the kid that could pump out an A+ paper in school in the first draft. I have come to the realization that my success was not so much an indicator of my own literary brilliance as it was a reflection of how poorly everyone else in my  classes wrote. The system and well-meaning praise from friends and loved ones about what a good writer I am have deluded me into BELIEVING that I actual WAS a good writer.

Learning How to Self-Edit

Up until recently, my understanding of editing was to proofread for grammatic boo-boos, spelling and the flow and content of the story, the characterization, the plot… After all, I read a lot and have a good vocabulary. I knew what read well and what sounded awkward. It wasn’t until I began to study and realize the process of real editing that I came to understand how horrid my first drafts really are.

Some writers have the privilege of access to a dedicated editor who can point out all of the messy work needed to turn a steaming turd into a magnificent work of art. The cost of this critically necessary wisdom can range in the thousands of dollars. Unfortunately, my current financial situation does not allow me any such luxury, so I have been relegated to learning how to do the work myself.

Many people warn that you cannot objectively edit your own work. I will admit that the process of being objective is a challenge if you begin from the premise that your work is masterful straight out of your head. Fortunately, I have been purged of all such delusions by exposing my work to one or two writers’ critique groups. Anyone who believes their work is anything but raw sewage needs to avail themselves of such a purgatory experience.

Species of Editors

Developmental editors, also called content editors and sometimes structural editors,  support the overall shape of the book being written. They exist to help with story concept development, building an outline and ensuring the work hits all of the major milestones of storytelling. People like Larry Brooks and Sean Coyne, both professional editors with decades of experience have written and spoken extensively on this critical topic. I’ve read most of their books and am currently availing myself of Larry’s unique editing services online. I will keep you posted on how that turns out. I have yet to get my first feedback from him and I am nervous as hell that he’s going to tell me to go back to my photography and forget about writing.

Copy editors focus on the guts of the writing; facts, punctuation, and readability of the book. They can double check names, dates, times, jargon, semantics and correct inconsistencies. They also work on the general flow of your writing and make sure the copy adheres to any publishing guidelines requiring following. Some will even proofread.

That’s right. Apparently copy editors are not expected to proofread. WTF is that all about?

Regardless of my little outburst above, I cannot afford one of these gurus either, so I am relegated to using more economic means at my disposal. Some of the more reliable methods I have discovered are technological.

AutoCrit and Grammarly are two online services I make use of to try to help me turn my turd into treasure. Autocrit is an online service that, for a modest annual fee, allows me to upload my work in progress and run it through an exhaustive set of tests and evaluations, searching for everything from an examination of the pacing and momentum of my work to adverb overuse, passive voice (a big one for me), indicators of showing vs. telling, filler words and much more.

One of the most eye-opening things this program has shown me is that my writing contains a lot of passive voice and repeated words and phrases that make the work choppy and amateurish. Below is a screen shot of a page I am working on. I have come to dread reviewing the visual assault of red, green and blue markers of the cleanup needed to make my work smell better.

Autocrit screen shot

I’ve used this program enough to learn what my tendencies are and that is a good thing. My writing actually comes out of this process in a lot better shape and certainly improved over what I could have accomplished without the guidance. I am starting to have some hope for my work.

The proofreader is self-evident by the name. They are responsible for checking line by line that every single word is spelled correctly and not a comma or punctuation mark is awry. These are the least costly of editors, but still require funds to access their services. I suppose well-meaning friends and my own eye can serve some of this, but there are some things that I tend to miss regarding capitalization and a few more obscure grammar gaffs.

After the pass through Autocrit, I run the work through Grammarly to catch spelling that I missed and fix up some of the grammar. It comes as an add-on to my Safari browser and also as a free app on my desktop.

The final acid test for my work is to hear it read out loud. The easiest way for me to do this is to use the native text to speech facility on my Macbook, though if you insist on using the PC environment, programs like Dragonspeak are available. I will also be sending out copies to beta readers when the final version of my opus is completed, later this month (contact me in the comments section of this post if you might be interested in becoming a beta reader for me).

The cheap person’s compromise

While all of the above accomplishes much, I am fairly certain that none of it can replace the paid services of a dedicated and competent editor. Unfortunately, until I begin to make some money from this effort, I am forced to use what I can afford. Someday, when I am rich and famous (or, at least, making something close to enough to cover my expenses) I will avail myself of such professional services though I anticipate that the methods I have listed above if applied first can make the editor’s work that much better as well.

What I have learned

I have come out of this humbling process with an appreciation of how difficult the craft of writing well is. I have learned that while my first drafts are not the literary exemplars I may have once deluded myself into believing them to be, after a lot of hard work, the editing and revision process can turn it into something readable, and perhaps even enjoyable to spend some time with. I remain hopeful that others will agree.

Pax Vobiscum


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  • Nancy Shaw says:

    Here’s what I’ve learned about editing over the years.

    1. When you have finished your first draft – you are at best 50% through the process. If you don’t spend at least as much time editing as writing that first imperfect draft; you really don’t understand the writing process.

    2. Think of it as ‘scaffolding.’ Writing is like erecting a building. When you build a structure; first you put up the scaffolding. Then you remove it and presto, there is a a building. Preliminary drafts are like that; usually overwritten and going down poor paths. Having said that, you need the scaffolding to be able to erect the building. Scaffolding is important, even if you do end up removing it. Same with writing.

    3. Be prepared to remove the passages you are in love with. Admit it; there are some words, phrase, sentences, paragraphs or chapters that you are madly in love with. But in reality, they don’t contribute to the story. Every writer has those moments. To be a truly outstanding writer? You need to recognize that keeping the reader in the story is more important than a clever turn of phrase. Kill your beloved babies.

    4. “Voice” is more important than proper grammar. Bad grammar can actually contribute to a story if it helps build a character, scene or story. People have written entire novels in poor grammar to great success because it helped to contribute to the tone. Poor versus good grammar should be a choice and done sparingly.

    • Doug Pruden says:

      How very true, Nancy. I find that there are as many ways to write as there are authors. I tend to be a plotter for my first phase, laying out the scaffolding of my story in point form and rearranging it until I am satisfied with a general direction. Each scene is then planned and written, often evolving and changing the direction of the original blueprint. I find I am constantly tweaking my outline to bring it into line with what has flowed from my head. In the end, the product is largely cohesive, and requires the appropriate amount of editing, polishing and small rewrites, but the work is largely completed. So far, this is my technique and I am sure it will change over time.

  • Steve says:


    How did the editing services of Larry Brooks you used work out.


    • Doug Pruden says:

      Well, that was an interesting exercise. We went back and forth on it, but he had a lot of stuff on his plate coming up and we decided to discontinue the consultation. He refunded me most of my money, which I thought was cool. Since then, I’ve done a lot more reading/learning and have decided to just plod forward and learn from my experiences.

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