Editing: The Art of Self-Surgery

editingYou know that scene in Master and Commander where Dr. Maturin has to fish a bullet out of his own belly?  That’s about how I think of self editing.  It’s messy, painful, and exhausting, but ugh, it’s gotta be done.

Between smugly typing THE END and hyperventilatingly clicking SEND, you will (or at least should) spend many many hours self editing.  How these hours are spent varies from person to person, like all other aspects of writing.  After a nice long rest of at least a month, here’s how my editing process usually goes down.

First, I set a deadline.  I, my father, my children, and all of my brothers absolutely require a non-negotiable deadline to do anything at all.  If it’s not pressing, it’s not happening.  I give myself enough time to get through the thing (typically a two to one ration of editing to drafting time), but not much wiggle room.

As part of my deadline setting process, I start with a fast read-through.  I try to finish in just a few days, at about the same pace I would read a really engrossing novel.  This allows me to take a big picture view of what I’m working with, making it easier to see any plot holes, dangling storylines, sudden changes in eye color, whatever.  I take detailed notes throughout this reading so I know exactly what the problems are.

Once I have my list of issues, I set a realistic deadline and get to work.  Working outside of chronology, I usually start with the easier problems first, the things that I can already see the answers for.  This allows me to work- and again immerse myself in the world- while still devoting a large portion of my brain power to thinking about the problems that I don’t have the solutions for yet.  As I did when compiling problems, I write down any and all solutions I can come up with- no matter how stupid they may seem.  Eventually, I can usually sift through enough pyrite to find a few good nuggets.

Hopefully, by the time I work my way through the simpler problems, I’ll have come up with the glorious, surprising, satisfying solutions to the trickier problems, too.  But the reality is that I typically spend about a quarter of my editing time fixing the easy issues, another quarter of my time sprinkled here and there just trying to work my way toward the harder solutions, and then a quarter on the bigger issues once I have those solutions, and the final quarter on the clean-up at the end.

This ‘final’ cleaning process is done chronologically, starting at the beginning and working my way slowly toward the end.  I tend to require the same tweaks in everything I write, and so I’ve developed a to-do list that doesn’t vary much from MS to MS.

Fix spelling and grammar.  Bit of a no-brainer, but when I’m pounding out a quick draft, I apparently have no brain.

Skim out crutch words.  Your list of crutch words will be different, but mine includes: suddenly; up; again; back; and like a bazillion others.  The internet is rife with lists of words to seek and destroy in your manuscript, so if you’re still not sure, just run a Google search and get that Find function ready.  (Also, Scrivener has a really cool Word Frequency thing under the Project -> Text Statistics tab, which makes it super easy to know exactly what words you use the most.)

Assess adjectives and adverbs.  I’m a descriptor junkie.  My speech is peppered with them, as is my writing (especially these informal blog posts you all suffer through).  In drafting, nearly every sentence has some useless fluff about exactly why this character was squinting, or exactly how shiny that character’s hair is.  Most of these get snipped, so those of you who have read my work and seen how many get left behind have some idea of how many start out. (Yikes!)

Beautify language.  In drafting, I am a huge fan of SVO.  She- kicked- his face.  He- ate- a sandwich.  These sentences- bore- readers.  Readers don’t want to see the same structure over and over and over.  So I take pains to vary sentence structure and length.  I clarify.  I remove unnecessary descriptions and add the parts I missed.  I read prose and dialog out loud and fix up the awkward tongue-twisters that somehow sneak their snickering way into my stories every single time, blast you silly sibilants!

And the newest addition to my final clean-up:

Change all double spaces to single spaces.  I know, I’m very late to the party.  But if there’s anybody else out there who has terror-laced nightmares of Mrs. Hardman in the fourth grade standing over your shoulder as you tentatively tap out your book report on- I kid you not- the typewriter, let’s all just take a deep breath together and move on into the 21st century.  Edit -> Find. Replace. Simple.

Once I’ve completed this cleaning process, I do another quick-as-possible reading.  If something isn’t up to snuff, I go through all the same steps again until it is.  Once everything is to my satisfaction, I start lining up beta readers, with the understanding that I will be going through the whole document again once I get notes back from everyone on all the bits I missed.  Ah, what joy.

Personally, I’m not a huge fan of editing, but I understand the appeal.  You get to massage your ugly draft into something beautiful; you can tune the language and deepen the meanings you only hinted at in draft mode; you can work in the foreshadowing and setup for that killer plot twist you came up with three-fifths of the way through the novel; you can seem like an intelligent person who actually knows how to spell.  Editing can be awesome!  So grab that red pen with ruthless delight.  As fantastic as your draft is, you’re about to make it a thousand times better.

Happy writing!

(PS- While editing this post, I nixed over a hundred words in adjectives, adverbs, and descriptive clauses.  Haha, I have a problem.)


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