Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Beware the Editing Nazi

Last week, a bad thing happened. Something I’ve never seen addressed in a writing blog before. I don’t know if that means it’s rare, or if it’s something no one likes to talk about. But I figure that I can’t be the only person this has happened to. So, for what’s it worth, here’s my experience with the Editing Nazi.

I was supposed to be proofreading my latest novel. Everything else was finished. My betas had approved the plot, voice, tone, etc. I’d done all the line edits. And the proofing should’ve taken only a couple of days, two weeks at the most. And I was on schedule. But then, a lot of stress hit my non-writing life. And then I found an error in my novel. It wasn’t a big mistake—it was small. Small enough that two experienced betas and four other readers and I had all missed it. Most likely, anyone who read the book would’ve missed it.

But the error freaked me out. Enough that I opened the door to the Editing Nazi. And without me even realizing it, I went from proofreading to questioning every sentence, every verb, and punctuation mark. Now there’s a place for that—and you end up with Teflon and stainless steel sentences. Perfect, when you don’t want anything to stick—when you’re writing for technical precision.  (I suspect EN stems from my days working at Harcourt in the Academic Press division and subsequently working as a technical writer.) But you have to be careful when you  become the EN with fiction because it can destroy voice. And if you lose the voice, you lose the story.

Thankfully, I have a beta who has seen me turn into the Editing Nazi once before. I had a lovely short story that I subjected to the EN. Then, I resent her the “fixed” short. She emailed me back and said, “Uh, I hope you have the original short saved somewhere because you just edited the heart and soul out of your story.” Yeah. Thankfully, I keep old versions.

So last week, when I told my betas that my proofread was turning into an edit both of them, expressed concern—both said, “Um, what are you doing? The novel doesn’t need an edit.” And the beta who’d read the short gave me a “writing intervention.” Basically, she told me “Put down the red pen, and back away from the novel.” She had a gut feeling that I’d become the EN.

I was sure I hadn’t. But I promised her that I consider it. So I decided to read passages to my family at dinner time and ask them which they liked best. So I did. After the first passage, they all liked the old version. But I wasn’t discouraged—it was a fluke. Until I read the next passage, and they liked the old version better. So, I asked why. They all agreed that the version they liked sounded like Mark, my main character. Whereas in the second version, it wasn’t bad, it just didn’t sound like Mark, more like some narrator somewhere telling the story.

After I stopped beating my internal EN with a brick, I knew I’d learned an important lesson (again). Unless I’m channeling Mark, I have no business working on the novel. If I go in without the voice, I’m no longer the author, just someone mucking about in the text.

So I enlisted Mark’s help and together we bound and gagged the EN. We’ve agreed to lock the EN in a dungeon and throw away the key. But I know just how resourceful the EN is in escaping. And I’m so thankful for betas who watch my back—my writing swat team who will shout from their megaphones, “EN, we have you surrounded. Drop the red pen and back away from the novel. No one needs to kill a text today.”

And yes, I do have old versions of the chapters I “fixed.” It shouldn’t take long to paste them where they belong. BTW, am I the only one with an evil alter ego?


  1. I can totally relate to this! My EN got the better of me when I learned I needed to shorten my book considerably to meet the usual word count guidelines for the genre. My CPs told me I'd gone too far, and I eventually added back in about 2K words where the best voicey bits had been sacrificed.

    Now I ask EN to focus on spelling, homophones and punctuation--she's good at making sure those areas are OK without stripping away voice.

  2. I'm going through the editing process and I can't believe how many mistakes I never saw!

  3. I definitely keep older versions of chapters, with file names like 999 old chapter 3. And whenever I land an agent or editor, I'll keep the old versions of the manuscripts before all the changes, so I'll have versions 1.0, 2.0, etc.

  4. We all have evil twins ... sometimes a whole set of quintuplets! ... the trick is, to keep the dungeon well stocked at all times!