Writing is just one step in getting your work published. You might have spent weeks researching the context of the piece you’re writing and now, finally, you’ve written the final word.
You lift the sheet of paper from the printer and hold it up against the light like you’re auditioning for a part in The Lion King. It’s done! Finished! The publishers and competition judges will be thumping your fists against the study door any minute!
If only it were that simple (note: editors do not bang doors down, you go to them).
As an editor, nothing gets me turning the page in disappointment like a piece of work which clearly hasn’t been reflected upon – and believe me, I want your work to dazzle me. I want to cheer it on all the way to publication. Punctuation marks may be scattered in confusing places, like ants teeming over a picnic blanket (while I’m aware there are no hard and fast rules with punctuation when it comes to creative work, you still need to show me that you know what you’re doing and why you’re doing it). Tired, overused adjectives may reappear again and again with no effort to work those words any harder. Nothing has been questioned, or challenged, or subverted. I don’t feel compelled to continue.
Instead, the work serves as a door groaning open onto a room clammy with stale air.
So, how can you make sure you’ve given your work the best chance before submitting?
1. Read Your Work. Then Read it Again…
…and again and again. Not solely on the same occasion; we all know that feeling when we’ve stared at a word so long that it starts wobbling into some unfamiliar shape. Read it at different times throughout the day once you’ve finished.
Then read it again tomorrow. Things will change.
2. Now Read It On Different Devices
Whether your first draft was written in a notebook, on your phone or directly onto a word processor (or even scrawled onto the back of a serviette), type it up so that you are able to access it on multiple devices. I often find that after I’ve written it onto a Google Doc on the laptop, most of my editing occurs when I’m viewing it on my phone late at night or early in the morning. Sometimes I will even handwrite it into a notebook after typing it. The act of handwriting slows down every word and really allows me to question its rhythm, placement, or indeed its necessity.
3. Seek Feedback From A Trusted Friend
We all need our good writing buddies. As I’ve previously mentioned, no writer is an island. The writing community is full of people who know the value of honest, constructive feedback and want to see their peers flourish.
Ask a few friends whether they have time to give your work a quick read (and do ask them first; there’s nothing worse for anxiety than an inbox stuffed with dozens of pieces of work all awaiting “just some quick feedback” when you have impending deadlines). They’ll be able to provide you with a trusted response from the reader’s perspective and flag up anything which may need further clarification.
4. Read Your Work Aloud
I can’t stress the importance of this one, yet it’s something I ignored for far too long. Poetry in its earliest form was created to be spoken aloud. The words were meant to be heard rather than read and for this reason, poetry had to have a strong sense of musicality and rhythm.
I’m not saying your poem has to read with all the catchiness of a long-remembered nursery rhyme. However, even when writing in free verse, some words and syllables will stand out as jarring once read aloud. By overlooking this myself, I would often change words midway through doing a reading, simply because they wouldn’t fit the rhythm that naturally occurred when spoken aloud.
Save yourself the panic of it happening onstage by reading aloud before deciding the poem is finished. If something jars, change it.
5. Question Your Words
Ask yourself: why this word? Why this turn of phrase? Is this really the best way of saying something out of all the possible ways you could say it?
Sometimes certain images and words will reappear over and over because they feel safe to us. This is where the point above about feedback from friends can be useful (thank you Lee Prosser for noticing things in Small which I hadn’t realised I kept repeating!).
I recommend having a notebook on the go at all times to collect any lines from other writers during instances where they’ve totally surprised you with an unusual image. Knowing what works can really inspire you to start looking at things in new ways.
Make the most of an online thesaurus. Sometimes just looking for words related to something you’re trying to say can bring up something new or unusual, and take you down a rabbit-hole of related words. It may well help you say something better. Why settle for “push” for example, when you can have “thrust”, which offers more movement? Is “turn” the right words or would “whirl” make the poem more lively?
Don’t go overboard; you need an ebb and flow. I’ve come across poetry so packed with complicated words that I have absolutely no idea what the poem is even about. But in those parts of your work where you want to really strike an impact, work your words as hard as you possibly can. Don’t settle for less.
6. Keep Perservering
Writers, and creative people in general, frequently make themselves vulnerable to criticism and rejection. It’s part of the process, and unless you’re willing to thicken your skin, grit your teeth and keep on persevering, then you’ll find yourself putting down your pen faster than you can say “We had a very high number of submissions…we regret to inform you…”
If you’re lucky, you might get some feedback from a publication or competition that will shed some light on why the work was rejected. This might give you a hint as to how to improve it for next time.
Whenever you receive a rejection, go back to that rejected piece. Don’t just submit again everywhere and put it down to luck: was the work really the best it could be? Without building upon feedback or probing deeper, you’ll make it incredibly difficult for yourself to grow.
Sometimes, however, the time and the place just wasn’t right.
Don’t tell yourself you’re a bad writer because of a disappointing rejection. We all deal with rejection. Even the biggest writers will be turned away at times, something which I often forget when I’m beating myself up over the second “no” of the week. (For more advice on dealing with rejection and disappointment, see my previous post.)
I certainly couldn’t be without the valuable and honest critique of a good editor when it comes to honing my manuscripts, even after that initial submission. Now in the final stretch of edits for my second book Small, it’s a surprisingly different and stronger piece of work than it was before my editor had picked at its bones. Things are sharper, clearer and more confident than they had been before. There’s no real end point to editing, and while I know I will never achieve perfection, it’s a good editor (shoutout to Susie Wildsmith) who can support you and provide the feedback you need to make your own unique voice stand out – without stifling or changing your initial meaning.
Hiding behind comfortable, familiar phrases? The editor will find you and pull you out, urging you to do better. The process can be uncomfortable, but no one ever said writing was easy. This is why you need to be looking at your work in the editor’s, as well as the reader’s shoes.
There’s no end point to learning and developing in writing; nor, indeed, is there ever a point where we stop learning in life. Value your opportunities to grow and be kind to yourself. If you’re working with determination, dedication and an open mind, you’re doing it right.
Now get that red pen out.
If you want more help on self-editing for writers, my ‘Editing Skills for Writers’ workshop still has places. I’d love to have you join me!