There was a time I hated editing.
There was a time I thought all the fun was in ferrying my ideas into reality, in writing them on paper for the first time around.
I thought the thrill of discovery, and that strange feeling I experienced—of tapping into some mysterious sort of alternate reality—was all I cared about.
But then, blunt and irreverent, time barged in as it always does. And much to my chagrin it showed me I was mistaken.
In short, it happened the most obvious thing in the world. I began rereading some of the stories I had written. In particular, I began rereading them months after I had written them.
A change of perspective
The results weren’t exactly flattering. Indeed, in many cases I discovered my stories, that had seemed so damn fantastic to me on the day of completion, now presented a long series of disturbing problems.
For example, they showed huge holes in their plots. They were also peppered with non sequiturs. Worst of all, their pace was all wrong. They showed incredibly lengthy passages of boring stuff and absurdly short ones of interesting stuff.
The reason for the latter problem was that I gave the same amount of time to pretty much anything I wrote.
So when I worked on normal, not particularly pivotal scenes, I wrote too much and when I worked on important scenes I wrote way too few words. It was like my mind had a standard allotted time for everything I thought up.
The hero withdrawing money from an ATM? and The hero facing his nemesis bare-handed and drugged? The same two pages, of course!
Needless to say, nine stories out of ten sucked. Majestically. So much so that, hadn’t been for my stubborn memory I would have thought someone had substituted my works with someone else’s. Just to pull my leg.
I’m probably exaggerating a bit here. But I’m doing so just to make my point as clear as possible. That’s to say that the stories I believed to be next to perfect in the heat of creation weren’t even acceptable when reread with a cooler mind.
Of course, they had interesting premises. They had potential. And now and then there were passages that shone through the dirt like puddles after a storm. But, in the end, most of them sucked on one level or the other.
Editing skills – the basics
I must admit that for the first few years I considered editing as a sad necessity. But when I began to compare the different version of my stories I realized that even though editing could be grueling, if done properly bore fruits.
In fact, even the simple act of rereading a story just once allowed me to address a series of important and problematic aspects of it.
So much so that when I rewrote it and then compared it with the first draft, I was left wondering – why on earth hadn’t I written it that way to start with?
Improve your editing skills – a short list
Over the years I’ve refined the way I edit my works. I think the process I follow these days gives me a reasonable balance between productivity–the number of ideas I turn into actual stories–and accuracy–how much close each story gets to tell what I had originally envisioned.
But each one of us is different, so feel free to take what you find useful and discard the rest. No offence taken.
1- Time offers perspective, so use it.
When you finish a piece, refrain from going back to the beginning and edit it immediately. This advice is as old as the hills, but I believe it’s essentially true.
Of course, there’s no way to defeat the curse of knowledge to accurately imagine what would be like for a reader to read your story for the first time. But letting some time go by can certainly help a lot in that respect.
I fact our memory is far from perfect, and we change continuously. So, in a manner of speaking, when we read the same story on two different occasions we read it like two (slightly) different people.
However, if you wait for too long a time before rereading your work you may discover the story is too cold for you to work on it in any productive way.
Usually I let a story sit anywhere between a couple of weeks and a couple of months.
2- Don’t work in a linear fashion
I don’t know about you. But when I write I usually follow a sort of progression.
The first few thousand words can require me a couple of weeks or even a month.
Then, as the story progresses and I can see more and more clearly my characters, their desires, and the world they live in, my pace increases exponentially. So much so that then I can write the last twenty thousand words of my story in less than two weeks.
I never considered this as a problem. Not in a first draft.
But when I edit my work I tend to do the same. The closer I get to the end, the faster I go. This would be all nice and fine if the quality of my editing didn’t suffer from this acceleration. But the reality is a bit different.
I do tend to get somewhat sloppy when I feel I’m close to the end.
As a result, after the first pass of editing I carry out at least a couple more passes, but with a caveat. I start at 1/3 and 2/3 respectively of my story and edit it all again. In this way I can give my full attention to all parts of my story.
3- Embrace organic editing
I mean, when I edit I never read my work dozens of times, each trying to target a particular word or problem. The reason I dislike this approach is simple. Linguistic choices have always to be evaluated in context.
For example it’s absurd to make sure you replace all instances of “replied” or “growled” with “say”. Or that you avoid inversions at all costs. In some places “said Morrison” instead of “Morrison said” could be the only way to make a sentence flow. And on some occasions characters do growl.
Indeed, if you edit too selectively you could lose sight of the bigger picture.
This organic, or holistic approach, is also used by athletes. For example, runners train running a lot. Of course, mileage varies quite a bit between different runners. But in any case, any runner’s weekly mileage is a lot higher than any amateur runner’s.
Ok. Ok. Writers are not athletes. But they are humans. So, having to take my chances, I decide to go with the athletes.
4) Don’t read out loud
This one seems paradoxical. After all reading aloud what you have written is a great way to discover a lot of mistakes hiding in your writings, isn’t it?
Yet, you should bear in mind that a book is primarily written to be read silently. So I believe it should be edited accordingly.
To be precise I’m not exactly against reading out loud in itself, but against the natural inclination every author has to turn reading into some sort of performance.
I mean, have you aver experienced listening to an extremely skilled actor reciting a piece of writing and making it appear much more well written and powerful than it really is?
That’s the power of performance. A power that doesn’t reside only in what is written but in how it is delivered. So if you decide to read out loud your works, make sure you read it in a way as plain as possible.
5) Editing is styling
Editing your work doesn’t mean transforming your writing to make it fits someone else’s ideal of good writing.
Editing is for making your writing even more yours. So you have to learn to ditch all those improvements that, though reasonable, have nothing to do with the way you want to write.
For example, Joseph Conrad may well be considered a great writer. And that’s fine with me. Provided nobody forces me to read more than one page from his works. I mean, he’s simply not my cup of tea.
The same goes with Hemingway. I’ve read some of his works and I appreciate his style. But I don’t want to write in his way.
I want to write the way Stephen King writes. The way Jeffrey Eugenides writes.
I want to be able to create such vivid images as the ones Vladimir Nabokov created in his Lolita.
About Stephen King, years ago literary critics said he had no literary merits.
Now they’ve changed their mind.
All I know is that I deeply appreciate the way King writes.
It clicked inside my head when the critics considered him a hack and it clicks now they consider him a master.
So what matters isn’t what critics think. It’s what resonates most with you.
The Frankenstein metaphor
The first draft is like wiring your Frankenstein creature to a lighting rod and wait for lightning to strike. Editing is all about what comes next—the soul-wrenching story.
Because it is only thanks to editing that your monster, everybody’s monster, becomes fully human. A work your readers can understand and relate to.