The Writer's Station
Atlanta, GA

Editing Your Book: Become its Reader Instead of its Writer

burn your manuscriptI ran into a little writing wisdom last week that made me sigh.

I sighed because I knew it was true.

I sighed because the nugget of wisdom focused on what’s probably one of the hardest things about the entire writing process.

Here’s the wisdom delivered by English writer, Zadie Smith. Smith’s novel, White Teeth, was included in Time magazine’s 100 Best English-language Novels from 1925 to 2005 list. In other words, Ms. Smith can write. Yet, this is what she had to say about the writing and editing process:

“When you finish your novel, if money is not a desperate priority, if you do not need to sell it at once or be published that very second – put it in a drawer. For as long as you can manage. A year or more is ideal – but even three months will do…The secret to editing your work is simple: you need to become its reader instead of its writer.”

Smith goes on to say, “ I can’t tell you how many times I’ve sat backstage with a line of novelists at some festival, all of us with red pens in hand, frantically editing our published novels into fit form so that we might go on stage and read from them. It’s an unfortunate thing, but it turns out that the perfect state of mind to edit your novel is two years after it’s published, ten minutes before you go on stage at a literary festival. At that moment every redundant phrase, each show-off, pointless metaphor, all of the pieces of dead wood, stupidity, vanity, and tedium are distressingly obvious to you.”

Dead wood?




If Zadie Smith is “frantically” editing her novels even after they’ve been published, then what hope do I, unpublished and untested, have?

Well, actually, it’s not hopeless. You see, as much as I’d like to hit “publish” on my story right now, I don’t need to be published this very second. I want to be, oh how I want to be, but I don’t need to, and that offers me a little breathing room. Breathing room that some writers just don’t have.

As I write this post, I’ve got first drafts of two novels sitting in a draw. I started writing my current WIP (work in progress) about a year ago. The first version of that story differs so greatly from what I have now, that it’s surprising even to me. Setting it aside for weeks at a time helped that story immensely, in ways that probably only stepping away from it for long periods could have.

I recently attended the Georgia Romance Writer’s Moonlight & Magnolia’s Conference. New York Time’s Best Selling author, Marie Force, was one of the speakers. Her talk was both motivational and fear inducing (more on the fear inducing in a later post.) One of the things Force emphasized was taking the time to produce your best work. Particularly if you’re working on a series (which I am.) If you’re working on your series, the first in that series has to be the best thing you’ve ever written (until you write the next thing.)

Readers don’t come back for writing that’s “just okay.” They come back for great. And for most of us, being great will take time. Lots and lots of time.

Photo: Flickr

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