Conquering Editing Ennui: How to Break Out of the Slump and Finish Your Book
Updated: Jan 3, 2021
Every author gets there eventually. It’s your fourth time working on chapter sixteen, which you started hating two drafts ago. You know Jill needs to get into the room, cry about her dead brother, and decide to go on a date with the guy who will end up disappointing her. Sounds simple enough, right? Wrong.
Keeping the words fresh and flowing while editing and rewriting is one of the hardest challenges authors face. How can you stay inspired, or even remember what inspired you to write the damn book in the first place, when you’re five or seven or twenty months into writing a novel? Is it even possible? Before you start obsessively searching online for statistics on how many authors abandon their books halfway through the editing process—a word of advice: Don’t ever go down this thorny road! It’s fraught with danger and depression—here are a few tips on how to get through the dreaded Editing Ennui. (Alternate names for this condition: Drafting Doldrums, Second-draft Slump, The Dismals, Weary Writer Syndrome, Longhand Lethargy, I-Should-Have-Listened-To-My-Mother-And-Become-An-Engineer Disease.)
Go To Your Happy Place
One of the things I hate about spring is how much it rains. That’s because I like to take a walk before I sit down to edit a new chapter of my book. I find this time alone with my thoughts helps me clear my head and get ready for the task ahead—namely, hours and hours of sitting at my computer hacking away at my book. The walk puts me in my editing mood.
Of course, not everyone likes to take walks (though I’m not sure WHY). You might like to listen to a particular song before you start working, or drink a nice cup of tea, or maybe do some exercise. The point is to do something, anything that gets you in the writer mindset. It’s basic Pavlovian conditioning. If you do this thing every time right before you begin editing your mind will get accustomed to it, and hopefully it will make the editing a little easier. It also helps if your walk or tea or exercise or whatever puts you in a better mood and gives you a chance to think about your book. Watching TV isn’t the best choice right before you start rewriting because your mind will be occupied with the show instead of your story. That’s called PROCRASTINATION. I could write a whole other blog post about that one! (Preview: The thorny road of useless internet searches lies within the kingdom of Procrastination.)
A piece of advice you’ll often find in articles about conquering writer’s block—a similar but slightly more torturous condition to Editing Ennui—is to make sure you understand what you want to write completely before you start writing. So, you know you can’t stand Louisa’s holier-than-thou attitude in this scene. Louisa has to be different. Good start, but you can’t just sit down and start writing a whole new Louisa right this second. If you try to rewrite Louisa without thinking it through you might find yourself staring at a blank page for hours as your faith in your writing abilities dwindles away. What you need to do is refocus.
Before I start rewriting a chapter, I like to jot down the essential elements of the chapter first. What do I want to keep from the scene that’s already written? What needs to be changed? What absolutely needs to happen in order for the next chapter to make sense? I might even include some dialogue I want to put in there. And if I’m making any major changes, I like to put down on paper what they are, what it means for the character on the whole, and why it’s important. Making a mini outline of the chapter also can’t hurt. Once I’ve done this, it might be time to begin writing. Maybe. Unless every sentence I put down still sucks.
Every writing teacher I’ve ever had has said a good writer has to keep reading. Read the greats. Read your favourites. Just make sure you keep reading. It’s very, very important. What they failed to mention is that reading also facilitates another hidden, less-often recommended tactic that can help you through a bad case of Editing Ennui, namely stealing your inspiration from others.
I’m not saying actually plagiarize. That would be unethical, very lazy, and let’s face it, you WILL get caught. But is there a law against stealing inspiration? Nope, not that I’ve heard. When I really can’t get the words flowing, I like to grab my eReader and bring up THAT book. You know the one. It’s the book that made you want to write this book. It’s the book that made you want to become a writer in the first place. It’s the best book ever written. You love how this author writes. You love every chapter, every paragraph, and every sentence. My advice to you is to disappear into that book. Read and read and read until you can feel the words themselves rolling off your tongue, until you believe you wrote the words to begin with, until you can hear those characters talking in your head. Not only will put you in a better mood—you might see a theme here. There’s a reason I called it Editing ENNUI—but reading the great words might just get some great words out of you! Read the book whose rhythm you want to copy and that rhythm may make it to your page. Read some hilarious dialogue and you might find yourself coming up with the best jokes of your life. Steal some atmosphere, some writing style, and even some confidence. I promise, I won’t tell on you.
And Cheer Up, Dammit
Getting down on yourself isn’t going to help you. In fact, I can almost guarantee it will destroy your will to write and crush any inspiration that was percolating inside you. Writing a novel is a grueling task and if you’re going to finish your book—and I believe you ARE—you need to stay positive and believe in yourself, just like your mom always said you should (when she wasn’t pushing you to become an engineer). You’re never going to be able to make that crappy chapter better if you’re in an even worse mood than you were the first time you wrote it. So put a smile on your face, focus on the goal of that finished manuscript, and get to work!
And remember, nothing is more awesome than reading an amazing book, the best book you’ve read in a long time, and being able to say, “I wrote that.” Trust me, I know what I’m talking about.