How To Know You’re Doing It Right

The first time I held a job with the word “Editor” in the title was ninth grade–I was chosen as editor of my junior high school newspaper. Primarily it meant I typeset the columns, by hand, on an IBM Selectric.

I also held various editor jobs on my college newspaper over the course of five or six years. (I was on the 9-year plan for a bachelor degree, because I had trouble choosing which one I wanted; that’s how I ended up with enough credits for a doctorate, and minors in math, physics, English, history and music.)

When I decided to learn how to write novels, I studied characterization, point of view, plot structure, and all that other good stuff, but I always figured I sort of knew how to edit. I had all that experience with “editor” in the job titles, but then, writing fiction makes you neurotic. I don’t know why. It just does.

I signed up for an online class about self-editing last month, with lessons based on the James Scott Bell Writers Digest book, Revision and Self-Editing.

The very first exercise we had to do was to read the work in progress from beginning to end like a reader; we weren’t allowed to edit or rewrite anything during the read, just make a note of it.

My notes basically said I needed to rewrite the second half of the book (on page 137 I wrote, “this is where it falls apart, rewrite from this scene”), because I realized about about the mid-point that it had the wrong protagonist; it was really her story, not his.

But other than that, I can heave a sigh of relief, because I found out I’ve been doing it right, going for tightness and coherence of story over interesting side trips into backstory or fabulous conversations that don’t quite move the plot forward.

I can describe the hero’s and heroine’s character arcs in one sentence, name the main turning points of the story, and even describe how the last scene mirrors the first scene of the book. Writing the synopsis took about fifteen minutes.

It’s a good feeling, to have someone else verify you’re going it right.

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