Sunday, February 17, 2019

How to Write and Publish--5a--Editing

You need an editor.

Sorry to break it to you.

Remember that post about the lovely idea in your head that looks a bit less attractive when it’s on paper? An editor can help you restore your work to its original intended vision.

Yes, there's self-editing, and you need to do it thoroughly. Some writers are sure that if they’ve been over their own work fifteen times, an editor couldn’t improve it.

Those of us who have bad experiences with editors conclude that we can do this better ourselves, thank you very much.

Once you’ve worked with a good editor, though, you will love her, appreciate her, rely on her, praise her in the gates, and weep when she retires.

We all need someone to look at our work and catch what we’re missing. Self-published shorter pieces such as blog posts might need only types 1 and 2 below. Longer works, either self-published or sent to a publisher, need more kinds of editors.

Here is a chart about different types of editors.

Here are some of the “editors” you need:

1.       The cheerleader.

My friend Ilva sent me an email the other day and said she loved the excerpts from The Eye that I posted. She loved The Eye back in the day, she said.

That’s not the only thing Ilva has ever said about my writing. Not by far. Ilva has read my form letters, newspaper articles, and blog posts. She always says the same kinds of things: I love this! I understand! You made me laugh! You made me cry! You are wonderful!

Every writer needs an Ilva, someone who thinks everything they write is amazing. Maybe your mom is this person for you, or your best friend.

I noticed on Facebook today that my old friend Heidi linked her daughter’s blog and said, My daughters writing... so good!!! I can identify... I love your honesty and putting it in perspective!"

You need someone like that. You know deep inside that not everything you write is breathtaking and beautiful. But you need That One Person who lives under this delusion that you and your work are just astonishing, always.

Go find your Ilva.

2.       The practical skimmer.

We learned long ago that things work best if I don’t expect my family, especially my husband, to be my editors. [There is one exception to this which I’ll explain later.] Paul doesn’t think or express himself or relate stories like I do. He doesn’t find the same things funny.

In the form letter days, lacking a critique group, I would get Paul to read my writings. He would work his way down through a long letter without changing the expression on his face. “It’s fine,” he would say.

“But isn’t it FUNNY?” I would wail. “That part about Matt and his experiments—I was trying to make it funny!”

“I guess, but I already knew about it, so I couldn’t really laugh.”

This did not make for marital harmony.

Over the years, a lot of people have asked if I made up incidents for the newspaper, or embellished things that happened. I could always tell them, no, I didn't, because Paul in particular and also a few of his offspring have a pathological dislike for exaggeration, and they always brought me back, grudgingly, to the bare facts.

For example,when I wrote about the grass seed harvest almost 20 years ago, I said that when the cleaner is running, the warehouse shakes and rumbles.

"No it does not!" said Paul. "It vibrates and hums."

How could he!? That was so far from reality!

We compromised. If you go read page 149 of Ordinary Days, you will find that the warehouse vibrates and rumbles when the cleaner is running. 

Another time I had Paul read a poem I had posted on my blog on Thanksgiving. I thought it expressed the deep feelings of my heart. “I don’t really get it,” he said. “It seems like you're asking for sympathy for your hard life."

Oh mercy. That wasn’t my intention at all. So I deleted the poem. That afternoon a niece told me she had read it and related to it, but when she came back to re-read it, it was gone. So I posted it again, feeling vindicated, and got more response than for any other poem I’ve posted, I think.

We finally settled on an arrangement where Paul read my newspaper articles before I sent them off, but only to correct any glaring flaws, maybe about seed cleaning or family history or theology. And of course, to check any inclination toward over-inflating the truth. In addition, if I mentioned Paul or any of the children, they got to have veto power before the column went to my editor.

Paul is good at catching the glaring errors. If I don’t expect him to do more than that, we are both happy with the arrangement.

Find yourself a Paul who will read your article and say, “It’s fine,” and then you know it is.

3.       The critique group.

The idea of a writing group is to share your work with peers. You read their work and find ways to improve it. They do the same to yours. You all share questions, advice, and motivation.

A good critique group member has a sharp eye for detail and is also kind, honest, punctual, supportive, and humble. He or she will point out flaws in your work without ever making it personal and take your suggestions with similar equanimity.

You need to find a group that’s roughly at your skill level. If you’re a complete beginner, you’ll feel lost in a group with Francine Rivers and Jane Kirkpatrick.

I’ve been blessed to be a part of a few different writing groups. First it was one of Verda Glick’s Writers Workshops by Mail. Verda had designed an efficient system: all our submissions circulated in a package. When it arrived, I read the others’ comments on my story and put in a new one. I also read the others’ work and wrote a page of comments for each. I dropped out of this group, regretfully, when I began writing for the newspaper because I couldn’t keep up with both.

I think I wrote to Verda, in the beginning, and asked her to add me to a group.

Sheila Petre, a writer and editor from Pennsylvania, says:

Many non-internet-using Anabaptist writers are part of writer’s workshops by mail, groups who trade editing skills with each other. Each scribbles her opinions on the other’s manuscripts using a separate ink color. This is my favorite kind of editing to give or receive. 

Later I took a write-your-life-story class, and after the term was over we kept meeting for about a year. I still run into one of the women on occasion.

Then there was Red Moons, a semi-professional group that was a great help in writing for a secular audience. There was a copyright lawyer in the group and one who wrote for National Geographic Traveler and led the group, so the resources were plentiful. The leader had read my columns in the paper and invited me to join. When the leader and the meetings moved an hour away, I stopped attending.

For the last six months I’ve been a part of the Fictitious Five, a group of Christian fiction writers. Two of them have 3-book deals with a publisher, so they know what they’re doing.

One week, we email out new chapters to all the others. We read, add comments, and print them off. The next week, we meet at Pat’s house. When it’s my turn to be on deck, everyone takes a 5-minute turn talking about my paper. Then it’s Amanda’s turn, and we each talk about hers for 5 minutes. And so on. I am new at fiction and this group has been invaluable. They see things in my stories that I would never catch, but they are kind. For instance, last week Pat noticed that I had the word “placed” three times in one sentence.

Amanda, one of the Fictitious Five, invited me to join the group. She and I had met back when she owned a small bookstore, and she knew I was interested in fiction.

If you want to be part of a writing group, don’t wait for an invitation. Libraries often have information about groups in the community. If you know any local writers, ask them if they know of a group you could join.

Maybe you can start your own group, in person or by mail/email. Decide how similar the group needs to be. Is it ok if the members are writing fiction, nonfiction, articles, books, Christian, and secular? If not, decide your specific parameters.

The key to success is clarity about expectations: how often do we meet, and where? How much do we write for each meeting? How long do we discuss one chapter? What kinds of help and information do we need?

--more information on editing tomorrow--


  1. I really enjoyed your article. Critique is something I have always feared but know i need. Photography and writing are things I have done for many years but have never considered myself very good; better than most I suppose but still very novice. Thanks for an inside peak at that world. I will look for a group that fits and give it a shot.

  2. “It’s fine.”
    Your husband sounds like mine. I show him a poem or something I’ve written. He reads it and says that. ��
    He is a voracious reader, so maybe it is fine. He just reads different books than what I write. Grisham, Lee Child etc.
    I’ve been enjoying this series of blog posts. Thanks for sharing!

    1. This is soooo funny because guess what favorite author Paul is reading right now...yes, John Grisham.

  3. Your description of Paul reminds me so mich of my husband, Justin it's almost uncanny.-LaDonna

  4. Thanks so much for doing this series, and for doing it now. The timing is not a coincidence.

  5. My husband is the one who always thinks my work is amazing. And my group is a Poet's Group. I love the editing I do for several different people, but you are so right that we all need to hand our own work over to someone else...for some reason I read what I meant to write instead of what I actually wrote! I am so enjoying this series! Thanks...

    1. Yes! That's it exactly: we read what we meant to write!

  6. I hope every aspiring writer is taking notes! This is super helpful, and spot on. Joining a writers group is the single best thing to improve one's craft. In my experience, each member has their specialty. Whether grammar, logic, catching repetitive usage, or a gift for vivid descriptions, each writer helps fill the voids in the group. Thanks for putting all this valuable experience into one place.
    -Gabriel Burkey