Edit All the Words

It’s that time of the week again for more writerly advice: this go ‘round it’s all about editing, mainly because I’m in the middle of editing and revising a huge chunk of my work, so it’s right there on the top of my mind.

Editing is a topic that doesn’t get the street cred it deserves, most writing posts tend toward the craft of writing, yet remain strangely silent on the craft of editing—and make no mistake editing is a craft unto itself. In fact the skills that make you a good writer, don’t always make you a good editor. Good writers learn to silence the nagging voice of the inner critic, learn to shut-down the screaming maniac yelling from the peanut gallery. You know the one I’m talking about, it’s the voice screaming, “You suck. Your work sucks. That last sentence you wrote? It’s the worst sentence in the history of writing.” Make no mistake, that Negative-Nancy will kill you when you’re spitting your word vomit onto the blank page—it’ll lock you up. But there is a time and place to unleash that psychotic A-hole living in your brain, and that time is called editing.

But how exactly do you edit? I’m active on a lot of writing forums and I often hear young writers asking for advice on this topic. A lot of the time the answers I read are uber-vague and seem to make editing out to be this quasi-mystical process, closely akin to word-smithy magic. Maybe something along the lines of: “Editing is just making the words not suck,” or “writing is rewriting is rewriting.” Though there is truth in both those claims, that’s not actually practical advice for young inkslingers bogged down in the word trenches.

So instead of any flashy, quotable words of wisdom, I’m just going to lay out how I edit books. Bear in mind there is no right way to edit (though there are probably a few wrong ways to edit)—if you do things differently, that’s cool. To each his own, I say.

1.Ground Zero: Before you even think about editing, give yourself, and your work, permission to suck. Right now, stop and say the Wreck it Ralph Bad-Anon Creed: “I’m bad, and that’s good. I will never be good, and that’s not bad. There’s no one I’d rather be, than me.”

Like I said above, learning to turn off the inner editor while you’re writing is important—it allows you to get the story out, without getting drawn into an endless loop of write, delete, rewrite, delete. But that means your first draft is also going to SUUUUUUUUCK. That’s cool. Give your first draft permission to be awful. If you get done writing for the day and find yourself thinking, “Gee, I suck, I’m the worst writer since that dude who wrote The Eye of Argon,” just remind yourself that its okay to be bad.

The reality is, everyone writes terrible first drafts—except Lee Child who only writes one, perfect draft … we all secretly love and hate you Mr. Child. The real point is, write your book and finish what you start, regardless of that nattering inner critic. Generally, I write pretty fast, not agonizing over each word or sentence as I go, but rather just splashing the words onto the canvas. Just get the story out, know its going to blow, and accept that fact like a writerly Zen master.

2. First Draft: I break my book up into sections, generally there are three or four major “parts” to any given work. For example, in Cold Hearted, there’s the Winterland section (part one), the police station section (part two), the Hinterlands section (part three), and the big battle (part four). Once I finish each major section, I go print out the story, edit that section, input changes, and then move on. This helps me to both remember the material I’ve already covered before moving on to a new section, while also making a first draft that is a little cleaner for the next round.

3. Second Draft: Once you finish the first draft, you’re ready for the big first edit. But before you start that, take a break. Seriously, once draft one is complete, pop a bottle of Champagne, treat yourself to a fancy dinner, and give yourself a week or two off. Try not to think about the story. Watch TV. Play Skyrim. Go to the gym. Write something else. Whatever—just stay away.

When your time is up go back and read the whole thing, front to back, without editing anything—preferably do it in as few sittings as possible. This will help you get a better feel for the overall story, and will help you spot blatant plot holes, character issues, or writing tics (often repeated words, phrases, or action tags that get overused). Then go back and fix the “big picture issues”—that’s what the second revision is all about.

Don’t sweat the small details too much. Sure, go head and correct obvious mistakes, but don’t worry about tweaking every word or sentence; focus instead on getting the story right. After you finish with your pass, you might even consider sending it out to a few early readers, ask them to give you feed back about big picture story things: plot, theme, characters, writing style.

4. Third Draft: During this draft round you’re going to hone your book. You know, take it to the gym—burn off that extra flab, tighten up its literary pecks, get some tone into its scrawny plot-arms.

Do this round in sections, just like if you were actually going to the gym: first cut the fat. Look for purple prose (overly flowery language) and cut it. Long, needless exposition—slice, slice, slice. Info dumps or repetitive scenes: tell that extra baggage it’s time to see other people.

Then move onto other areas. Look only at dialogue—read it out loud, look for ways to make it flow more smoothly. Move onto characters; make sure each is fully fleshed out with motives, desires, and agency (they actually have an effect on the story). Identify your theme (the underlying thing your story is really about) and try to find ways to clarify that message without hitting the readers over the head with it.

5. Fourth Draft. This is it. The home stretch. Likely by this point, the thought of reading your words one more time will make you want to vomit—probably, you feel like digging your eyeballs out with a spork. But hang in there, this is The Final Draft. At least so far as your own self-editing goes. This is the polish draft. My suggestion is to print out a paper copy of your story, read it out loud to yourself, and mark it up with a good ol’ fashion red pen as you go. Examine every word, fix every ugly mistake you spot, make sure those sentences are tight, strong, and compelling. Polish that puppy until it shines.

Congratulations, you’re done. The book is not ready to publish yet, but it is ready to send out to agents or send on over to a professional copy editor.

6. If you’re self-publishing you really need to hire a good copy editor. Seriously. It’ll cost you some money (anywhere from $600 – $1,000 or even more, depending on which editor you go with), but it’s worth every penny. Send your MS over to that editor and listen to their suggestions, that’s why you’re paying them after all. After you get it back, input the changes, and send it off to a few beta readers who have a keen eye geared toward proofreading. Let them read it over for any minor mistakes the editor (or more likely, you) missed.

P.S. I know some wise guy or gal is gonna read this post and be like “there are a million typos, how ’bout to edit your blog before offering advice on editing.” To which I reply: “I don’t care. I repeat, I’m bad, and that’s good. I will never be good, and that’s not bad.