Editing is a trial by fire. Sure, it takes hard work and responsibility to write the first draft, but who finishes their story and thinks, “Yay! I get to edit now!” No, it is far more likely they are thinking, “Woohoo! I’m done!”
We are far from done, my friends. I firmly believe it is the editing process that takes that great idea you had and put on a page and turns it into what it was meant to be. Editing makes your story.
Many people hear editing and think of correcting spelling and grammar or simply deleting chunks of text. Don’t believe that is the case, or you will not see the potential editing has for you. Think instead of content editing. A lot of my editing process is actually adding, exchanging, altering, and, especially, rewriting.
Don’t fall for the trap of thinking that what flew from your fingers the first time is infallible because it’s what your character simply “decided to do.” I’m a firm believer that your characters can show you your story, but you simply can’t believe they’re perfect. It could have been that you woke up upside down in bed that morning, or that you put too much creamer in your coffee. Draft one will be far from what you set out to do, so don’t settle for it.You will make mistakes, and it is okay to look at something you wrote and think, “Actually, my character wouldn’t do that…”
But where do you begin? I know from my own experience that there are times I look at a piece and I see everything I need to fix as if the words themselves are waving their hands at my face and saying, “Hellooo!? What on earth were you thinking? This would be so much better!” But there are times when I look at the piece, and I don’t know what to do. My mind is blank, I’m vaguely unsatisfied, but I can’t put my finger on it. This is actually a good thing. It’s better to know there’s something that needs fixing than to look at a piece and firmly believe it is pure gold on the first draft. I have experienced this as well, and it is much harder to take the dirt you are holding and turn it into gold when you believe it already is. Yes, it’s yours, and yes, it’s precious. But it’s dirt! No one’s going to read it!
So what do you do? I have two suggestions and, remarkably, they work together seamlessly. First, you need to take a step back and distance yourself. If you try and edit your piece right after it is written, you will be too close. You won’t see what you need to do. I can’t say there’s a set amount of time you should take away from the story. It could be two weeks. It could be a month. It could be much, much longer. But if you peek at it, and you still don’t see anything wrong, put it away again. Creating a story is not fast food. You don’t throw it in the microwave and make it ready for the world in five minutes. It takes time. Let your story marinate in the crock pot for a good long while. When you pick your story back up and read a line and think to yourself, “I could rephrase that and make it so much better,” then enough time has passed.
Now, what do you do in that time? This is my second suggestion. First, don’t stop writing. Do writing exercises, write short stories, begin planning another book. Secondly, read. Explore the worlds of other writers. What this does is it continues your growth as a writer. Then, when you look back at your piece after putting it away, you are better than you were before.
But the other thing I want you to do in your time apart from your story is share it with someone. You need, you need, an outside perspective. Think about it, you write a story to tell a story. It is your story, but when you tell it, it becomes theirs. If everything you wrote makes sense to you but does not connect to anyone else, you’ve failed as a storyteller. But I know how it goes. We’ve all been here. We give our story to someone, usually a friend or a relative. We wait in eager but nervous anticipation for them to finish, but we try not to bug them. Then they tell us they read it.
“Really? What did you think?”
“I liked it.”
And that’s all you get. You poke, you pry, you ask questions, but they only look at you blankly and give vague answers, and then you wonder that maybe they’re just saying they liked it, or, “Of course she liked it, it’s my mom!” It’s such a disappointing experience. Don’t blame your poor test subject, you only asked them to read it after all. You must ask them for more.
So this is what I do, and I wholeheartedly suggest you use this and even change it to shape your needs. I find my willing lab rat, and I give them this chart along with my story:
! = piqued my interest
: ) = amused me
^_^ = made me laugh out loud
0_0 = shocked me
!!! = good writing
+ = effective
> = pulled in
? = don’t understand
% = continuity problem
# = unorganized
\ = could be improved
@ = awkwardly phrased
… = unsatisfying
– = Turned off
X = not believable
: = disconnect
__________ = reading break
If they have a hard copy, I ask that they underline a part and draw the symbol by it when it does one of those things for them. If it’s an electronic copy, I ask them to highlight it and insert a comment with the symbol. Anyone can do this because it is purely based off of their reaction to my words. You can get rid of some of these if you don’t find them helpful, add more, replace symbols (they were a little arbitrary, but they make sense in my head). Now your reader has a task that is easy to follow, and when they give you back the copy, your eyes will be opened. If you hadn’t known where to edit before, you certainly will now. You’ll realize that a certain part you thought was hilarious actually wasn’t amusing at all or that something you thought was profound actually came out a little awkward. You also receive confirmation of things, knowing that the part that was meant to be surprising did its job or that you actually are funny as all get out. It is also suddenly easier to ask questions, to look at your guinea pig and say, “Why do you think this part was unsatisfying?” or “What was it about this part that pulled you in?” And then you are not just improving your story, you are learning.
I truly hope that this process is helpful to you and that when you return to your story, you will begin to think, “Yay! I get to edit now!” Because there is nothing more satisfying than seeing your work reach its full potential.
By Rachelle Clifford
Images from FreeDigitalPhotos.net. Image credtis in order of appearance: Change Adapt and Grow, Stuart Miles, nokhoog_buchachon.