Editing. There seems to be no middle ground on this subject. Some people find it crucial while others think it’s a waste of time. I’m firmly in the former camp. To me, it’s one of the most important parts of the writing process—right up there with outlining and actually putting the first draft on paper.
I’m lucky enough to work with one of the best editors in the business, but that doesn’t mean I make her do all the heavy lifting. Before I deliver my manuscript, I’ve already gone over it with a brutally critical eye. An ego bruising activity for sure, but it’s fascinating to watch my book change—and improve—throughout it.
Because I’ve been posting lately on social media about putting the finishing touches on Total Power, I’ve received a lot of questions related to my editing process. It’s fun to talk about the craft of writing every now and then, so I decided to share some thoughts on polishing manuscripts…
Don’t Become Infatuated With Your Own Words
For me, a first draft is where I flesh out the ideas and characters from my outline and turn them into something recognizable as a novel. I keep moving forward at a pace of one chapter a day no matter what. Even if the pages I write are awful, I never look back. Why fix a chapter early on when you may discard or fundamentally change it after you’ve had an opportunity to see your story as a whole? The important thing with first drafts is to get them done. Don’t fall into the trap of endlessly honing an unfinished work. That’s quicksand.
Normally, I complete two drafts before my manuscript makes its way to my editor. The first is typically riddled with notes to myself which I denote with a ?? so I can find them easily. What do those notes contain? Just about anything you can think of. Warnings about boring sections and bland characterizations, ideas that popped into my head while writing, additional research that I need to do, continuity issues… The list is endless.
Cut Or Keep?
Over the years, I’ve attended many conferences in which I’ve helped aspiring authors hone their manuscripts. One of the biggest points of contention is when I suggest that they trim some of the fat to tighten up their work. “I’ve cut as much as I can,” they say. “Everything else is critical.”
No. It’s. Not.
Ask yourself this: Does every sentence on every page have a purpose? Do they help propel the reader through the plot? Enrich a character? Provide necessary information? If not, then they probably belong on the cutting room floor.
Admittedly, it’s emotionally draining. The stuff you’re whittling might actually be good. And even if not, you worked hard on it just the same. Believe me, I understand. If I assembled into one pile all the pages I’ve eliminated over my career, it’d be as thick as one of my novels. So, roughly a year of my life in the recycling bin.
Despite having been a novelist for half my life, I find myself—and others—falling into the same traps. Here are a couple that are pervasive.
This can be on a micro level—repeated words, sentences, and paragraphs—or grander issues like redundant character descriptions and settings. It might even be something as high level as action sequences that play out in similar ways over and over.
In fact, there are obvious examples in this blog post. Did you notice that I used the cliché falling into a trap twice? Or that I used the word process four times in less than a thousand words? Both jumped out at me when I was editing and would normally be fixed.
Is it possible to find three words to impart what you’ve said in six? Most people don’t realize it, but everyday conversation is littered with unnecessary chatter. Don’t let this carry over into your writing. The bloat will drag down your story.
Sadly, this is the opposite of what we learn in school. Everyone remembers being assigned a 1,200 word theme and doing everything possible to pad it to that length. When I was young, my favorite subject matter was Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Five words out of the way every time I mentioned his name.
The problem is that, when you enter the real world, the opposite is demanded. Novels, emails, business communication—everything—is about getting to the point. No matter what you write, you want readers to zip through it to the end. Not to fall asleep in their chair.
Why say a myriad of when you can just say myriad? Both are grammatical and you get the same point across with one-third the words. If you told your reader that a character is blond on page two, there’s no reason to belabor the point on page ten. If you’re writing a gunfight, broad stroke the weather. No need to fire off several paragraphs on the color of the sunset—no matter how poetic they are.
In the end, a writer’s job is to keep readers riveted. Make sure every word does just that.