Love it or Hate it? The Art of Editing.
Some people hate editing. They think the magic lies in creation not correction. Some people love editing. They think it's when they can find the magic and make it come alive.
Me? I have a love/hate relationship with editing. I love editing my nonfiction work because it so vastly improves how well my ideas are communicated. But I hate editing when it comes to my fiction writing. It's just so hard to know whether you're making something better or worse. I'm pretty sure I made my first novel (the one that's deep in a drawer) much, much worse with my editing. And getting editorial input can hurt as much as it helps.
But edit we must. It pays to be a relentless, hard-ass editor of your own work. You come off as more professional, and you learn how to write better in the long run. Here are my personal top-ten editing rules:
1. I Take Time Off: I try not to edit new work on the same day that I have created it. I can be much too ruthless if I do that. When I have had a break (even just 24 hours) and gained some perspective, I see my work with fresh eyes. This is necessary for me to be appropriately tough on myself.
2. I am Dogged, Relentless, Absolutely Anal: I go back again, and again and again, even when I think I’m done. Chances are, I’m not actually done the first, second or even third time. I hold myself to high standards. Writers are a dime a dozen, and I want to distinguish myself.
3. I Always Edit on Hard Copy: I do first edits on the computer. I always print out a hard copy when I begin deep revisions. Something about pencil on paper, seeing the work in a different format, triggers the editor’s eye. Some writers change fonts when they edit their work in order to see it differently.
4. I Take it a Chunk at a Time: I read each and every scene and ask myself, What am I trying to convey here? Have I achieved that? For nonfiction, I do the same for each chapter and each sub-section within the chapter.
5. I am Looking to Slash and Burn: In re-reading, I am mostly looking to cut extra words, scenes and/or characters. Anything that is repetitive must go. Most agents/publishers want fewer words not more. Then I look at where I need to add more detail, more action or more facts.
6. I Step Back: I take a macro look. What are the big themes? Is the pacing good? Are my anecdotes varied? Does the book/ story/ chapter begin and end where I want it to, and are the beginnings and endings connected? Are the settings varied enough? Here is where I look at continuity issues: crosschecking names, ages, descriptions, references.
7. I Step In Close: I take a micro look. Grammar, sentence structure, rhythm, errors that spell check might miss (it’s & its, their & they’re etc). I may need the help of a copy editor, since that type of editing is not my fotre. I look for “filler” words, or words I over-use, like: very, suddenly, so, surprise, look, turn, smile, moment. I vary the way I structure each sentence and look out for the passive voice. I read entire sections aloud to see how they flow. When I trip up, I detangle and/or cut.
8. I Get (and Take) Serious Feedback: After doing an exhaustive edit myself, I listen to the advice of a professional editor. Their objectivity and experience is invaluable. I am rarely defensive. Though I remain open to all suggestions, I don’t always implement them (instead, I'll offer another option). I don’t expect to be told how to fix things, just whatneeds to be fixed. And I only give work to friends to read if they have a specific expertise or perspective that could be helpful to me.
9. I Follow the Guidelines Like a Total Suck-Up: I use a cover page, put my name in a header on each page, number the pages, give a word count and save in Times New Roman or Arial 12 point. I read submission guidelines carefully. It can take me HOURS to check and re-check a document before submission. Errors invariably occur, but much less frequently. My goal is to have the presentation be (virtually) flawless, and to be noticed only for the content.
10. I Chill: If I’ve done the best I can, I try to chill. I have a nice meal, I watch a great movie, I go for a run. Everyone deserves to feel good about the level of effort they put into their work.
Katrin Schumann is the co-author of The Secret Power of Middle Children (Hudson Street, 2011), Mothers Need Time-Outs, Too (McGraw-Hill, 2008), and has written and edited numerous other titles, both commercially and independently. Her debut novel, The Forgotten Hours, is forthcoming from Lake Union in January 2019. Katrin has been featured multiple times on TODAY, Talk of the Nation, and in The London Times, as well as other national and international media outlets. For the past ten years she has been teaching writing, most recently at GrubStreet and in the MA prison system, through PEN New England. Before going freelance, she worked at NPR, where she won the Kogan Media Award. Katrin has been granted multiple fiction residencies. She has a regular column on GrubWrites and can be found at katrinschumann.com, and on Twitter and Instagram: @katrinschumann.See other articles by Katrin Schumann