Peter John McLean

Professional editing, what I’ve learned from my first experience (Writing)

I submitted an 8500 word short story to a professional editor to have structurally edited and then line edited, which I think is a pretty cool approach to editing. For those of you as ignorant about this as I was beforehand, it goes likes this: First you hand them the story or novel you are so proud of, then the editor rips it apart and returns it with a report filled with ideas and suggestions on how you can fix it, then you apply whatever changes you want, and finally you send it back to be edited for grammatical and style and continuity errors line by line.

So I did that.

It’s worth mentioning that the story I submitted was not some bullshit I threw together in an afternoon while hung over and bored; it was the product of a month of relentless writing and editing (I actually took a month off from my regular projects to dedicate my full mental, physical, and sexual energy to this story) and I was pretty proud of it.

Of course, by the time my editor sent it back to me I was prepared to deny all that and say I’d barely even looked at the page while writing, because she found an amazing amount of errors. More importantly, she helped me see the different things that weren’t connecting, the way I had seamlessly told half of three stories instead of telling one single story (plotting is hard for me). (For those really curious, it’s a semi-invisible protagonist styled after Murakami’s work with a Gatsby style narrative; the protagonist is watching and not growing or changing).

The process of applying changes that she suggested has taken a lot of time. Lucky for me, she got it back to me right before Christmas and so I’ve had a lot of free time to work on it, though every time I would read her report I would be struck with revision-paralysis (a term I just made up on the spot to describe the frustrating feeling where you aren’t sure what to rewrite first and how it will impact everything else) and this revision-paralysis leaves me staring at my computer, a hard copy of her report in my lap, wondering how exactly one breaks up four paragraphs of necessary exposition and peppers them throughout the rest of the story. This writing business isn’t all haikus and drug binges, unfortunately.

I didn’t submit the story hoping that when it was finished I could sell it online for millions of dollars in profit. In fact, I doubt I will submit it to any literary journals (though I might). It’s longer than most journals really want and probably doesn’t have enough layers of metaphor compared to what some of these literary reviews publish. Hell, I might even put it on my blog so it doesn’t just collect dust on my hard drive. The purpose of sending it for editing wasn’t to improve its chances for publication. I did it as a learning experience.

And I learned a lot from it.

It is not possible to become a great player without having learned how to analyse deeply and accurately.  –  Mark Dvoretsky


Chess mastery essentially consists of analyzing chess positions accurately.  –  Mikhail Botvinnik


By strictly observing Botvinnik’s rule regarding the thorough analysis of one’s own games, with the years I have come to realize that this provides the foundation for the continuous development of chess mastery.  –  Garry Kasparov

I decided to submit a story for professional editing based on an important lesson I’ve learned in my chess playing life. Careful and deep analysis of one’s own work is usually the fastest and strongest way to improve. Similarly to how a person who only plays blitz chess and eschews longer time limits, tactical and positional study, and careful analysis of a position is generally unaware of his limitations; a writer who writes and writes and self-edits and writes and writes and writes is inferior to a writer who seeks outside analysis and pays close attention to his mistakes.

I think most writers should consider sending pieces of writing to serious professional editors for both a structural and line edit. It’s an opportunity to see glaring errors in plotting and story as well as less obvious ones such as weak or cliche characters, meandering dialogue, or other issues that pop up. Personally, my editor found mistakes with basically every writing factor in existence (except point of view) and I’m able to use her analysis to focus specifically on issues that I have. I may not master creative writing through this one exercise, but my ability to write short stories is seriously improved by it.