On Editing

Now that I’m neck-deep in editing duties for the rest of the summer (year?), I thought it a good time to talk about my approach to mining my awful first drafts for something a bit less reprehensible.

The ability to edit your own work is an empowering tool, but don’t dare to think that your own skills, single-handedly, are enough. Unless you have a ridiculous command of grammar, sentence structure, plot development, and character arcs, treat your own edits as nothing more than a first pass and then hand the manuscript over to the professionals.

You need multiple sets of eyes going over your work multiple times. When you’re editing, you need to be merciless, but, odds are, you’ll still be wearing your kid gloves and harboring some reticence over what scenes should be trimmed (or cut altogether) and how clunky the dialogue may be. You need a trained word-murderer on your side who lacks compassion and pity. That’s how final books are made – with tears, blood, and booze, on the wrong side of a pointed blade in a dark, stanky alley, next to the rotting corpses of dead beatniks.

So, editors, yeah. They’re pretty damn vital and very helpful.

When I’m writing the first draft of any work, I’m aware of the crutch-words I lean (way too) heavily on. The whole point of the first draft is just to get the story down and produce the work in full. Finishing the damn thing is the only goal a first draft has, and, by nature, it is going to suck. It will be imperfect and crass, but not impossible to salvage. You need to get some distance between yourself and that first draft. I tend to let the work sit for a while, maybe a month, before returning to it for the second draft. This gives me plenty of time to forget about the story and come back to it with fresh eyes, and as a more critical reader.

Now, one caveat – when I say I’m aware of my crutch-words, I mean I have a vague notion of what they are in general. It’s always a bit of a surprise when I learn how frequently I rely on any given crutch-word in that first draft. Sometimes, I even discover new ones depending on the nature of the work at hand. But, that’s why it’s a first draft.

While the work is festering, I’m working up a spreadsheet of known crutches and tallying up those heavily used filler words and constructs. You’ll have your own crutches, of course, and likely you’ve got crutches you aren’t even aware of (but a good editor will certainly make you aware of it!). After working with a content editor for CONVERGENCE, I came away with a much stronger grasp of my deficiencies as a writer, so I have a better idea of what I need to watch out for and what needs to be weeded out. Below is an example of one of the spreadsheets I keep between first and second draft for my own first-pass edits. This will be modified again between draft 2 and 3 when my editors come back with their notes, but it’s a solid place for me to begin. It’s also a measurable illustration of progress, in addition to the lovely red marks, slashes, and notations of Word’s Track Changes (another very valuable tool that I highly recommend using).

Draft 1 Draft 2
like 198 80
look 188 54
it was 186 71
so 173 67
just 127 42
only 119 37
well 113 48
there was 97 28
blood 86 40
dead 61 39
there were 47 29

The numbers for some of those words and constructs, such as ‘there was’, ‘there were’, and ‘it was’, are still pretty high in draft two. I’ll be able to knock them down further as I go through the second draft and continue my first-pass edits, and further still with the help of a skilled line editor. With a handy thesaurus, a bottle of Jack, and a straight razor, I’ll be able to tighten things up even more. There’s no easier way of getting rid of shitty “There was…” sentences than by slashing and burning the whole damn page away. Or you could just, I dunno, figure out a more active construct for your phrasing. Whichever.

Another big stumbling block for me is the dreaded infodump, which is throwing a hell of a lot of dense information at a reader. It was a sticking point in earlier drafts of CONVERGENCE, and my content editor helped me overcome a lot of these problems. I was only vaguely aware of how serious the problem was as I worked solo on the first few drafts, but wasn’t quite sure what to do about it. Of course, the biggest problem was in thinking that all of it was necessary to tell the story even though I knew it was problematic.

So, side point: trust your gut instincts and look at your work critically. If you get a tingling sensation telling you something isn’t quite right, then get to the bottom of it. Figure it out, manipulate it, see how things flow by deleting stuff. While it’s important for you to know the world you’re crafting as a writer, the reader doesn’t necessarily need to know every little detail. Odds are, your manuscript is a lot more flexible than you realize. This is also where that old adage of Show, don’t tell comes into play. Say your characters are walking a long distance in that epic fantasy behemoth you’re writing. Are you better off writing about their blood feet, starving bellies, and drop-dead exhaustion, or do you want to tell the reader that from Point A to Point B it is 111,578,357 kilometers and attempt to describe, in excruciating detail, soil composition, the shape of every freaking rock and plant along the way, the contents of each person’s rucksack, Bloshnarfrog’s love of pickles and how many rotting teeth he has, and the 11 millenniums of history between those two points? Be judicious, but also be smart; try to put yourself in the reader’s head and ask yourself, does any of this shit really matter to the story I’m serving?

OK, back to that infodump problem. Naturally, it turned out all those little details I was throwing in for page upon page? Damn near all of it got edited right the hell out of the manuscript. What little was left was more evenly distributed, broken up with dialogue, and heavily modified. So, if you read my book and found yourself frustrated by the infodump…be glad you didn’t read an earlier, unedited draft.

Infodump was big on my mind when writing EMERGENCE, and, given the nature of first drafts, I wasn’t quite sure how untamed it would be. It didn’t take me too long to discover how bad it was and to set about correcting it. A part of me thinks I wouldn’t have known to really be on the lookout for it if not for my previous hurdles with CONVERGENCE. Instead, it was at the forefront of my mind, and I was determined not to repeat some of those same huge mistakes.

And there’s the good news – editing is a cumulative, educational experience.

A few years ago, I had taken a copy editing course and was able to apply some of that knowledge to my own writing. While it helped, my own efforts paled in comparison to a professional editor. Before submitting my work to Red Adept, I’d probably gone through three or four drafts of CONVERGENCE and had read through it multiple times, marking it up and making lots and lots of changes. The sample edit I received from Red Adept when shopping for an editor contained nearly 250 revisions in a 1,000 word sample and 25 comments/notes in four pages of material. This bit of evisceration was humbling and entirely helpful. So, again, I must stress the importance of having a professional editor on your side.

I learned a lot just from that sample edit. Notes from the content editor and line editor made my weaknesses even more apparent, and gave me a great place to begin making corrections to build a stronger manuscript.

Those notes from CONVERGENCE helped me get through the first draft of my short story CONSUMPTION, and built a very solid foundation in preparing my first-pass edits on EMERGENCE. Of course, those notes are only a starting point. My new manuscripts are very different beasts than CONVERGENCE, and each will have their own unique flaws and problems and wrinkles that only an editing pro will help catch and correct.

Much like the first draft, the second draft’s goal is not to create a perfect, final manuscript. It’s only to get closer and closer to a far-flung, likely unreachable, ideal. These are baby steps of varying sizes. Even with some short-hand knowledge of the editing process under my belt, I know there is still a long road ahead of me before I can say this book is finally done, but I will, at least, be just a little bit closer.

On Editing

3 thoughts on “On Editing

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