Three years ago, I wrote a blog post about editing in which I said I had no coping strategies for editing.
This post sets out to correct this.
Contrary to a belief my brain holds, no writing is perfect in the first draft. When it comes out of you, like some awful word-formed baby, it is small and weak and amazing but not real yet, just like real babies. It needs to be nurtured and pruned, and believe me, it’s the worst thing in the whole world.
I like to create. I don’t like to scab-pick.
So, with that in mind, here’s a friendly guide on how I get through editing.
Step One: Rest It
I try not to edit while I write, but sometimes that’s an inevitability. I’m in a pretty good habit of re-reading my previous work, checking it and moving on. But once the thing is finished, it needs to lie and rest. Like roast beef. There is absolutely no point in editing a thing that you’re word-blind to (word-blind: a condition which affects writers, in which they become so acclimatised to their writing they see no fault in it). Go back to it an a few months, or years. You’ll have the benefit of experience behind you, and you’ll have lost your unconditional love.
Step Two: Re-read, Delete
Once the resting period is over, be brutal. As Loki says,
Okay, maybe not everything. But a lot of things.
Lots of writing in a first draft is intended only for you, the writer. It’s what I term ‘scaffolding’. It has to be there, at first, to help the building keep its structure, but, it has to come down eventually (unless your building is York Minster). You have to find the scaffolding. Remember, the only thing that needs to stay is what is necessary for your reader to understand your story. Everything else is what I call bumf. Reduce the bumf. Get rid of tautological phrases, adverbs, and those irritating ‘said’ words.
No, really, trust me. It sounds like a lot. But obey Loki. It will look bare, but OBEY LOKI.
Also, pro-tip: use the handy ‘Track Changes’ function on your Word document thingy. That means that you can see your progress, but also if you make a mistake, you can get that writing back.
It should look like this.
And that’s okay. Because then we get to:
Step Three: Roll It In Glitter
The nice thing about editing (the only nice thing about editing) is you can put things back in. There will be points in your work where you see an opportunity to do some better description, or maybe some dialogue that bugs you and needs an extra 50 words. And, because you did what Loki said, that’s okay. JUST MAKE SURE IT ISN’T MORE SCAFFOLDING.
How do you tell if it’s scaffolding? Simple. Ask yourself: does the reader need to know this? Can the reader figure this out for themselves? If the answers are ‘not really’ and ‘yes’, get rid of it.
You can put adverbs back in, but sparingly, like chilli.
Remember: glitter is awesome in small amounts. Too much, and it’s camp and cheesy. Got it? Good.
Step Four: Re-read, Approve
Go back to the beginning, read the whole thing, carefully, and get rid of everything you hate, and tick tick tick everything you love. If you’ve tracked your changes, this is super satisfying.
Step Five: Rest It, Test It
Leave it be. Let someone else read it. Make sure it’s someone you trust and admire, and make sure it’s a mixture of writers and readers. Take their feedback and criticism. You don’t have to agree with everything, but remember you’re precious about what you’ve written. If you find yourself agreeing, even a little, it’s true. If you disagree, find the proof. Thank everyone for their feedback, even if you’re going to ignore it. And take notes on it.
Step Six: Print and Prod
Now, change the font and print it out. Grab yourself a bunch of different coloured pens and highlighters and lock yourself up with no distractions. Read, carefully, and do the following:
Green highlighter: love this
Red pen: delete this
Blue pen: notes for changes
Yellow highlighter: move this somewhere else
Always question yourself. If you have questions, your reader will, too. And be mean to yourself. If you’re mean to yourself, you learn. It will look something like this:
Step Seven: Re-read, Write-Up
Same as above. Read, re-write.
REPEAT STEPS AS NECESSARY
Sometimes, it’ll be forever until it’s ready. Sometimes, not so much. THE WHOLE TIME, YOU WILL HATE YOURSELF AND YOUR WRITING. Don’t give up.
And if necessary, remember: