I’ve spent a lot of time on this site talking about the difficulties of writing – how hard it can be to sit down and consistently put pen to paper. But after the writing is done, there’s a whole other step that I wanted to take some time today to touch on: editing.
Now editing is the bane of many writers’ existence and for good reason. To sit down and purposefully dissect what you spent so much time assembling is not just a daunting task, but often feels counterproductive. Of course, editing is anything but – it’s the only way to improve at our craft and it’s the only way to truly make our writing the best it can be. But in order to do a really great job editing, there are a few things you need.
You’ll need time in a couple of different ways. First, you’ll need time away from your work. The best edits are done when there’s a bit of distance between you and the words and the only way to get that is to walk away from the manuscript for a while. This can be hard, especially when you feel like you’re on a roll, but trust me, it’s for the best. If you edit too soon after writing, one of two things may happen: (1 & Best Case). You’ll feel like everything you wrote is perfect just the way it is and barely needs to be touched. Viola! You’ve done it! (2 & Worst Case). You’ll feel like everything you wrote is unsalvageable crap and you need to throw it all away and start over again.
The truth is usually somewhere in between. Give yourself the time you need to figure that out.
But you’ll also need time because editing is not going to be a quick process, or at least it shouldn’t be. Editing is where the work of writing really happens and it can take two or three or twelve passes at a work before it’s truly done. Depending on the length of your story, that could mean days or months of editing work. Be patient with yourself. Put in the time now and you will not regret it in the end.
Just like it’s important for every writer to have dedicated writing space, I think it’s important to have dedicated editing space; a place you go when it’s time to whip out that red pen, whether that pen is literal or metaphorical for you. I’m also of the personal opinion that if you edit on the computer alone, you’re missing something from the process. Don’t be afraid to scribble yourself post it notes, flashcards, or spread out pages of story around you while you work if that’s what it takes. Just make sure you have the space!
- Multiple copies
I think most writers have learned this the hard way, so I’m putting this here so maybe someone else doesn’t have to. Never edit in the same file you wrote in. ALWAYS save a new file and perform all your edits there. Doing a new round of edits? Great! Save ANOTHER file. This will make it easier for you to really let loose with the cutting and reworking aspect of editing, when you know you always have your original you can fall back on if you hate what you’ve done. At certain stages of editing, I’ve even created brand new documents just for cut scenes. I almost never end up going back to those files, but to have them at the time feels awfully good.
- A strong voice
I mean this both literally and metaphorically. As a writer, having a strong voice is key during the editing process. You should know what the work is trying to say and how you want the story to sound in the end, that way you can work towards that. But you should also keep some water on hand, because your voice should get tired when you edit. If you’re not reading your work out loud at least once while you edit, it’s my opinion that you’re doing something very wrong. Reading aloud helps you hear what sentences are working and which aren’t, what dialogue comes off flat and what enriches character, where a metaphor captures a particular mood or image really well and where one derails the moment, and all kinds of other valuable things. If you’ve never read your work out loud go back and do it now! I guarantee you’ll be surprised at what you hear!
- Someone else
In the end, there’s only so much editing of our own work we can do. Having someone else, whether it’s an independent freelance editor or a trusted friend, look at our work and give their feedback is a key step in the writing process. They will catch things that we won’t, that we can’t, because we’re just too close to the work, no matter how long we’ve let it sit for. It’s probably the scariest editing step to embark upon, but it’s also potentially the most rewarding. When someone else looks at our work, they find things that we can improve upon, it’s true, but they also see things that we’re doing well, things we haven’t noticed, but should appreciate! It’s one of the best feelings in the world.