Be your own ruthless editor!


All writers have to be a bit schizophrenic I think. It is a craft which requires you become not one, but two people, a writer and an editor.

The writer is the ‘you’ who provides the words, he or she is free-thinking and open-minded, working on blank pages where anything is possible and ideas can roam wild. The editor comes along afterwards and has to be someone who doesn’t care for the feelings of the writer one jot, only for the quality of the work.

427px-Ernest_Hemingway_1950_cropThe editor has words to judge and judge them he must because, as Ernest Hemingway pithily put it: “The first draft of anything is s***.”

He didn’t mince his words did he? But then, this is a guy who fought bulls for a hobby – his inner editor and inner writer were no doubt tough enough to slug it out with each other without too many hurt feelings.

When you have your editing hat on your job is to take the words given to you by your flighty writer and hone them so that they are as good as they can be.

Here’s another quote for you about the writing and editing process. Samuel Johnson advised: “where ever you meet with a passage which you think is particularly fine, strike it out.”

On the face of it that’s a curious piece of advice – why would you cut something you consider to be good? But it gets to the heart of the relationship between your inner writer and inner editor. The writer believes the passage to be good – the tough but fair editor realises that, in the context of the work as a whole, it is not.

It’s very important to establish some distance from what you have written when you edit it. You need to approach it as though it is by someone else – someone you are indifferent to.

479px-Zadie_Smith_NBCC_2011_ShankboneI think it was Zadie Smith who suggested that, as an editor, you should read your own work not only as a stranger would, but as an enemy would – eagerly looking for mistakes, seeking to put the work down and decry it as inadequate. That’s how hard you need to be on your writer self in order to produce work which is as good as it can be.

Sometimes it helps if you have left the piece of writing in a drawer for a while before you rewrite it – that way you can come to it fresh and so edit what is really there, rather than what you thought you wrote. You can look on a paragraph you once thought particularly fine and decide it is surplus to requirements.

AlexanderPopeAlexander Pope advised would be writers: “Keep your piece ten years.” (basically in the hope they would leave him alone for that long.) That might be a little excessive but a few months might not be a bad idea.

Another trick I feel helps me when I abandon my writer and become a ruthless editor is to make two versions of the piece I am editing. The first I put aside in a folder, untouched, the second I work on. That way, however ruthless my decisions turn out to be I can always go back to what I originally wrote if I choose too – I have done nothing irrevocable. It is surprising how seldom I go back to the original version.

My editor might be a tough task-master, but he is very often right!

Song of the Sea GodDon’t forget if you get a moment to take a look at my book Song of the Sea God.

You can look inside to read the first few pages free and download a free Kindle sample for UK readers here. And for readers in the USAhere.


29 thoughts on “Be your own ruthless editor!”

    1. So long as you can distance yourself from it I’m sure it will go fine! We all still need another editor after all this of course – but this is about getting your work as good as it can be before that stage.

  1. Great post, Chris. I like the idea of keeping two versions. Sometimes I make changes I regret, and then it’s too late. One of the problems I find with editing (and why one day I would like to able to afford to hire an editor) is that after extensive editing, I lose the feeling I had for my work when I first wrote it. The editor in me is pretty strict and after revising and reading as often as I do, I end up with a pretty jaded view of my books. It’s only the encouragement of my proofreaders that keeps me from ditching them in the end.

    1. That can happen can’t it Val – I think we have to accept it as part of the process. I saw in interview once with RIchard Curtis who said that. when he writes movie scripts etc he has to put a symbol by the side of the text to tell him how funny the jokes were when he first thought of them – because he knows that by the end of the writing and editing process none of them will seem funny to them so he needs reminding of how well they worked when they were fresh to him!

  2. Great advice throughout this post Chris! I especially love the idea of “honing words until the are as good as can be.” I will be mindful of it as I edit the 3rd draft of my book.

  3. I like to two versions…what I do is edit as I go, then walk away for at least 3 weeks..then come back with a fresh eye. Seems to work. Though it’s still aamazing what an editor (not me) manages to find…

  4. I agree you have to be the harshest critic of your own work Chris. Only then does the writing improve. I think it’s also important to be ruthless with structure too. When I did the initial drafts of my novel I edited the writing over and over but it took a good professional editor to point out the structural flaws. I sliced and chopped away and I don’t think I’d have found a publisher if I hadn’t.

    1. Though this post is about the editing you do yourself I couldn’t agree more that you do need another set of eyes, my publisher for Sea God found all sorts of stuff in there I’d missed. Good point too on structure being an issue – it’s not just the words which need editing, it’s the whole book.

  5. I like Zadie Smith’s view best. The problem is, of course, that some writers are self-indulgent. They see themselves as The Big Writer, and think that plonking down a four chapter piece about cookery (because they just love to cook) in the middle of a romance novel is necessarily as fascinating for the reader as it was fun for them to write. Re the host of self-published books that need a good edit, another problem is that everyone’s in a rush to publish the first novel they write, without realising that it CAN take a long time to learn structure, how to edit properly, etc. If I’d published the first three I wrote, I’d have a lot more uncomplimentary reviews than I have 🙂 Not saying all debut novels shouldn’t be published, btw, just some!

    1. I agree – I have a early effort in my bottom drawer which will probably never see the light of day plus countless short stories which fall into the same category. I think if you are a writer looking for a publisher you have no choice but to edit your work to a standard where it stands a chance of being accepted, but, in these days when more and more authors are choosing self publishing as the right route for them they still need the discipline and self awareness which will allow them to accept only the best they can do before pressing ‘publish’.

  6. I agree with the Ernest Hemingway quote completely. I was horrified when I went back to start editing my novel and realised how truly terrible it was and at the task I had in front of me to make it into something I could inflict on other people. I am new to writing and find it’s very difficult to take the writers hat off and put the editors one on – and I know I need to be a lot more ruthless.

    1. I see it as a very satisfying part of the process – it’s where you get to make your book good! I’m not in the camp which says first drafts don’t matter and you should just dash them off, but I do think editing is the time you take control.

  7. I am the worst editor ever! Thanks for the advice – will try and put it into practice. I might actually buy two hats just to emphasise the difference between Writer Me and Editor Me. I’m thinking a baseball cap and then a trilby…
    Soph x

  8. Hi Chris great concept to essentially have two minds in the service of creating one great product. I will work on that and make sure I have the right hat on for the occasion.

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