I write long. It’s what I do. My sentences aren’t tight. The meander and go off topic and then veer back. I can make a sentence go on for a whole page. I overuse commas. I love asides and parentheses and em dashes. When I’m writing a first draft, or even a second, I can get a little out of control. And then I have to take out the red pen. That’s when the agony begins.
A big part of being a writer has nothing to do with writing. No, I’m not talking about marketing plans or query letters or blogs. I’m talking about editing, re-writing, re-plotting, and cutting, cutting, cutting. If you write long, like me, the editing process will inevitably involve lots of red ink and teeth grinding and dramatic sighs as you try to wrestle your manuscript into submission. The bad news: It’s very possible that paragraph you love is next on the chopping block. The good news: There’s a way to handle the chop without sobbing uncontrollably.
Here are my top 4 tips for surviving the editing process.
Don’t Believe In Your Own Genius
Remember that part in Fight Club where Tyler Durden says, “You are not a beautiful or unique snowflake”? Well, keep that line in mind, because you’re going to be saying it to your manuscript pretty soon. Editing becomes a whole lot easier if you let go of the idea that every word you write is the best, most unique, most wonderful thing ever. Writers do most of their work in a bubble with little outside encouragement, months of hunching over a laptop in some forgotten basement, alone, frantically plotting and typing and hoping. Of course it’s important to be positive and buck yourself up while you’re toiling away in your own personal diamond mine, but don’t take it too far. Telling yourself the words on your page are going to blow everyone away might make you feel great while you’re writing the first draft, but it can really mess with your head when it comes to tearing your manuscript apart and taping it back together down the line. So, don’t put your book on too high of a pedestal, unless you want it to hit you on the head on the way back down.
Stop Looking Back
When I was writing the first draft of my first book I got into the bad habit of obsessively re-reading the chapters I’d already written and tweaking them to perfection. I know this was a bad habit because when it came time to edit out paragraphs, or whole scenes, I found it really painful. All that tweaking and polishing gave the text a sheen of permanency. After a while I couldn’t imagine certain scenes being written any other way. Like a movie you’ve watched a hundred times until you have the lines memorized, the dialogue I’d written seemed familiar and meant to be.
Editing that book was like murdering my pets.
We’ve all heard the tried and true writer’s rule, “Kill your darlings.” I believe in this rule. Some of the scenes I loved in that first book had to come out due to a plot shift, and some paragraphs had to be cut because the heroine wasn’t sad anymore, but angry, so her sorrowful flashback to the day her beloved childhood friend died no longer made sense. We all have to lose some gems during the editing process, but the loss doesn’t have to be agonizing. If you want to cut down on the pain, wait until your final draft to make your book perfect.
Make Sure You’re Sure
As much as it might pain you to cut characters or sub-plots out of your book, it can hurt even more to realize you have to put them back. Nobody likes to find out that they went through a torturous ideal for nothing, so it’s a good idea to make sure you have all your plot changes mapped out before you begin to avoid editing haphazardly. Or if you write in parts like me, at least be sure you’ve got all of Part One figured out before you take out your red pen. Realizing you don’t have to kill off Uncle Pete might sound like an amazing gift, until you realize that due to other plot or character adjustments you have to re-write all his scenes anyway. Writing a novel takes long enough as it is, don’t lengthen that process with indecision.
I Hit Save, Right?
I hope this goes without saying in the digital age in which we live, but don’t ever edit your manuscript without first saving a copy separately. I know I just cautioned against changing your mind, but it’s possible you’ll decide to keep the brilliant paragraph you just deleted. You don’t ever want to find yourself in the position of having to rewrite any part of your book from memory. Not only do I periodically email myself a copy of my manuscript (just to be safe), I also save a version of it before I begin each new draft (just to be doubly safe), and instead of deleting long passages I move them to the very end of my document for easy access (just to be triply safe). Some writing programs save drafts for you automatically, but it doesn’t hurt to take these precautions yourself. Trust me, I once lost a portion of the book I was writing as my final assignment for a university creative writing course due to sloppy saving. It’s not fun.
For all the writers out there currently in the middle of an edit, I feel your pain. Keep in mind that those darlings you’re killing right now will probably be a distant memory by the time your book is well and truly finished. And if they’re not, you can always slap a book cover on top and self-publish them as a companion title to your book, creating some extra income! Now there’s a great reason to edit with enthusiasm, if I ever heard one.