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This Writing Life: Taking the Pain out of Editing

28 April, 2011

It will have been pretty clear to anyone reading this blog over the past few months that editing has been a huge part of my life recently. I’m still fighting towards the end of my novel (and the editing will have taken longer than writing the first draft did, by the end) and I’ve also recently been editing some short stories that are in desperate need of a polish before I start submitting them.

Now, editing has long been the bane of my writing existence, and I suspect the same holds true for many writers. It simply can’t compare with the sheer joy of creating a new story. However, I’ve recently come to a new appreciation of editing and I wanted to share my methods here.

Find what works for you.  I’ve discovered that, more time-consuming though it is, editing with pen and paper is more effective for me than editing on a computer screen. My preferred method is to print my story out (double spaced, attractive serif font, big margins, single-sided) and scribble all over it in bright pink or green ink. Everyone’s method will be different, so find the one that works for you to make the whole process easier.

Keep a first draft copy safe.  Much of my dislike of editing, I’ve discovered, lies in the fear that I might inadvertently ruin my story. Perhaps I’ll strip out all charm of the first draft, or I’ll change to a different plot that ends up not making any sense. There’s a very simple way to overcome this particular fear: keep an unedited, first draft copy of your manuscript to which you can revert. Knowing that you can always go back to the original means you can treat your edits as an experiment. If you like the results, keep them. If you don’t, just get rid of them and try again.

You can always edit more.  A similar fear comes from the uncertainty of not knowing whether your edits will actually make your story perfect or not. Now, no story is ever truly perfect, but telling myself that never helps. Instead, I choose not to treat any editing pass as final. If these edits aren’t perfect, I can always go back and do some more. There is, of course, a temptation to fiddle endlessly, which is a whole separate problem, but treating each editing pass as just another step in the process rather than the irrevocable end takes away some of the paralysing need to be perfect.

Remember your goals.  This is an important one. The whole point of editing is to MAKE YOUR STORY BETTER. This is what I tell myself when I’m really fed up: this story will be so much better when I’m finished, so I’ve got to keep going. As a writer, you want your work to be as good as it can possibly be, and editing is the way to achieve just that.

So, these are the methods I’m currently using to get myself through the dreaded edits. What other ways have my readers found useful?

  1. Brett James Irvine permalink
    2 May, 2011 7:37 am

    I tend to edit on my laptop, on a copy file of my story. I structure my writing in folders with names like “first drafts”, “editing”, “completed” and so on. My original is in first drafts and…you get the point. I used to be a very nervous editor, terrified of changing anything in case I deleted my beautiful, beautiful words. I got over that, and now I see editing as tightening up my writing. Each edit takes my story by the hair and drags it closer to the finish line. My only method for editing – go sentence by sentence, paragraph by paragraph, and don’t stop until it’s done.

    • 3 May, 2011 10:39 am

      Hi, Brett,

      It sounds your like method of keeping your files safe is similar to mine. I think keeping multiple versions of a story is vital – and that’s something I’ve learnt from experience!

      I sometimes edit you like do, too, but sometimes I know my stories need ripping apart and putting back together in a different order, or with a completely different plot. The cutting-and-sticking of a physical manuscript that I’ve been doing lately has been useful for that, but it’s extremely time-consuming! I think, with future novels, I’ll try to do that bit of the process on screen rather than by hand.

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