Return to the Extreme Pantser’s Guide: Meet the Internal Editor

(Work has Kate snowed under and she asked me to post this for her.)

You’ve finished your first draft, you’ve given it a decent amount of time to sit (trust me, for pantsers this is essential), and now it’s time to edit. As with all things pantser, particularly extreme pantser, it’s not that simple. Editor time is when you need to take this thing that’s lived inside your head for months, and put it through the shredder – and most of the pantsers I know (yes, including me) have major problems letting go enough to do this.

Probably the first and simplest tool in the kit for turning on your editor-mind is to phase-shift: to look at the piece in a different format than the one you wrote it in. Print-outs work for this. So does making a copy of the file and getting the copy onto your ebook reader or smartphone (preferably one with annotation or editing capability) and reading it there. The different format is usually enough to keep you out of writer mindset (or worse, “this is my baby” mindset).

Editing somewhere you don’t write is another tool that, while simple, works. The goal of moving is to put yourself somewhere your subconscious doesn’t recognize as writing-space. If you wrote the novel on your laptop while taking the train to and from work, don’t edit it there – or at the very least, don’t mark it up there. It doesn’t matter whether you mark up in approved editorese or not: you’re the only person who’s going to see this stuff, so you’re the only person who needs to worry about it. Highlights on a kindle with a one or two word note to say what it needs are just as effective as handwritten comments on paper, or comments embedded in a word processor file.

A word of warning here: if your word processing application uses any form of auto-formatting turn it off. There are multiple versions of Word in the wild, Word Perfect still happens, and then you’ve got Open Office and its clones, as well as any number of other applications that will create something more or less like RTF (aka “Rich Text Format” – which is text with fonts, bold, underlines and some other formatting, but not the fancy stuff). They don’t all use the same internal codes for anything that is not an obvious keystroke. What that means is that the beautiful file on your Mac ends up looking like someone threw confetti all over it with all manner of weird characters involving tildes and accents where you thought you had a quote mark.

Actually, that’s two words of warning. Do not use your word processor’s embedded comments feature. Not everything you’re likely to be playing with is going to be able to support that. My preference for this is to use something that won’t appear anywhere else in the manuscript as a flag character. So I’ll be writing along and there’ll be something like [add more description] in the middle of the text. That tells me what I’ve got to do and where I’ve got to do it. Sometimes it’s a plot note, sometimes flagging a really crappy sentence, and sometimes a note to remind me that a character’s name needs to change.

For stuff I need to research but don’t want to lose I use the same trick – a sudden burst of [research this] will get added to the story as I write. When I’m done the markup pass-through, I can search for [ and do what needs to be done. The benefit of this is that you can do it with anything, even Notepad (well, if the book isn’t too big – Notepad can’t read very large files. Although if the file is that big, you have other problems).

Okay, so you have your internal editor. Guess what? The editor popped over from Evil Bastard Central, and will cheerfully tell you what you’re doing sucks rocks, while leaning back in a recliner drinking your virtual booze. This is quite normal. I know it sounds like split personality, but heck, we pantsers already host a ridiculous number of personalities anyway. What’s one more?

Quite a few authors externalize the editor-mind, even going so far as to give it a name. Julie Czerneda calls hers the “Great Editor Voice” aka GEV, and posts interesting conversations between her and her GEV on her newsgroup.

You don’t need to go that far. If it helps to do something like this, go for it. Otherwise, don’t worry. So long as you can flip to editor-mind when you need to, that’s enough.

Of course, the other side of this is getting back to author-mind when you’re done with the editor-mind. That’s… interesting. It’s also crucial – you don’t want to be in editor-mind when you’re writing, any more than writer-mind is good when you’re editing. While the toolset is much the same, they’re used in different ways. The writer-mind is applying the paint, building the picture and framing it, while the editor-mind applies a scalpel to clean up the bits that got smudged, and takes the sander to the frame to smooth off all the rough places and hide the marks where the hammer didn’t quite go where you meant it to, and so forth. Not all writers are good at editing, and not all editors are good at writing.

Depending on how clean your drafts are (in the sense of dangling plot threads, odd byways you forgot to come back to, ideas that hit halfway through that you need to go back and seed and other such pantser oddities), you might not need much in your edit passes. Mine are typically pretty light: there’s a pass for plot/character issues where I’ll usually pick up most of the typo and grammar as well, and a second pass that takes a closer look at phrasing and tightening. After that will depend on what Amanda and Sarah, my long-suffering beta readers and in Amanda’s case editor as well, have to say. You might need dozens of passes to clean things up.

Or not. Pantsers have a horrible tendency to over-edit until there’s no life left. We really can’t edit our work until we’ve had a chance to forget it, and we’ve got to be careful about who we listen to. If you try to fix everything everyone says, you’ll end up with flat, rolled out tofu. Very dead tofu, at that. Instead, look for the possible problem that sits under what they’re saying, and work out how to address that.

And that, fellow pantsers, is that. Go thou forth and explore the pants.

14 thoughts on “Return to the Extreme Pantser’s Guide: Meet the Internal Editor

  1. Currently working on editing a ‘novel’ I finished a couple weeks ago. Going back and reading through it, looking for issues that I can fix. Or where things need to be expanded on. I too use square brackets to highlight things like [need name here], or the research one too. When I was writing I knew I needed something a little more, but I was on a tear. Comment, and move on to the next thread.

    I have had to work on that bastard editor voice a few times. Threatening to tie him up and dump him in the cold lake water seems to help for now. Trying not to listen to him telling me I suck. Luckily my first reader is loving what I am doing so far and I trust her more than my inner editor. 🙂

      1. My internal editor is a gentleman. We have an arrangement. He allows me to get the first draft finished and then I allow him to have free reign on that draft to get it into the best shape possible. My inner consistency nut and inner scientist, on the other hand, have to be chained to the wall, caged, and locked in the fortified (mental) basement for the duration of first drafting. Or I’d never get anything written due to research tangents.

  2. My first drafts are filled with /// Does this really belong here?/// sorts of comments.

    Yeah, this is where the old-fashioned low-tech markers are the best.

    1. I am slogging my way through what I devoutly hope will be novel #1. Time and other constraints mean that most of the first draft is longhand. My margins are getting to be pretty entertaining. Most of the notes are useful once I get to transcribing, but the ones that are enraged clusters of punctuation…not so much. 🙂

  3. I’ve been in editing hell with my fourth novel. Not helped by wanting to rewrite it from first person to third before getting to the end of the story. Still, I seem to be out of the woods, with an end in sight. Oops, what do you mean a ROUS has just jumped out and attacked me. 😉

  4. I do best editing something that’s had at least a few months to lie fallow. It looks a little different, and enough time has passed that I do better finding the plot threads that just…wander…off… And the typoos. It still hurt when I had to rip several chunks out of a book, write a new chunk and work it in, and dump a lot that I’d planned on for later.

    Having some books professionally copy and style edited also taught me a great deal about personal tics that needed to be removed (overuse of one or two words, different ones each time) and bad habits that can start creeping in.

  5. My internal editor usually tells me something sucks rocks on the first pass, so if I let it sit for a while, when my internal editor tells me something sucks, it’s usually right. In my book, there are three or four chunks I can point to as seriously re-written from the first pass to vast improvement, including the insanely awkward original ending scene to something that actually feels un-forced. The one that was really hard was at the beginning, because if you lose the reader there, you’re done forever.

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