I once heard John Lescroat say that to write a first draft, put on your “genius” hat and to edit, put on your “critic” hat. I’ve always found the genius hat a lot easier than the critic hat—because the critic must have more than one hat.
In the years that I was trying to get published, I depended on writers’ groups to edit my work. And they came through, big time. In my last mystery writers’ group each member seemed to have her (or his) own specialty hat: Susan critiqued the arc of the story and characters, and made sure the clues were there. Ruth knew how thing should be organized, and the grammar that went along with it. Carole did killer line edits. (How embarrassing to find that I used the same word ten times in one paragraph!) John loved characters, and insisted that they play fair. And Martha asked the hard motivational questions: what does this mean exactly? Why did she do that? What if…?
With two books under contract, I’m trying to learn to be my own first editor. I find it easier to edit someone else’s work than my own. One reason is that I feel I have an obligation to find good things to say about someone else’s work—to generally be generous and kind. With myself, I don’t feel any such obligation and sometimes I overwhelm myself with criticism. But I think a good editor has to be reasonable and generous and kind to herself. Like John in my former writers’ group, I’m trying to tell myself that the book I’m working on is worth reading—with a few little tweaks.
It’s important, though, not to be too kind. For example, I always depended on others to gently point out “golden words” that needed to be cut—words that when I wrote the first draft seemed perfect, elegant, and even lyrical. As the manuscript changed, I worked around the golden words, carefully keeping them because they seemed wonderful. And suddenly I didn’t see them anymore. Now I am challenging myself to root out those words and admit when they no longer belong in the book.
My first book had been edited to the nth degree by my writers’ group before my publishing editor ever saw it. He found very little that needed work. But for the second book, I’m going cold turkey, trying to make myself be Susan, Ruth, John, Carole and Martha all rolled into one. Many hats—all mine.