Wednesday, February 04, 2009

On Editing

In a sense, when you start to edit a huge piece of writing (a smidgen over 100k), you are beginning again. This time, you are looking at it with new eyes. The heart must retreat behind its wall for the time being, and the head must take over. I have said it many times - write your first draft with your heart, write the second with your head.

But by heavens, it's hard. It's hard to take yourself out of the equation, to distance yourself from the characters you have created and fallen in love with, to look at things with an objective eye, and cut and slash and delete as much as needed, even if you love the words.

What you create, however, will be so much better.


There is one thing I learned from my last venture into editing a novel-length manuscript: you can edit too much. You can over-analyze and try and spit-polish every.single.word until you edit the very life and breath right out of your story. Your voice fades into the background and your characters have been wrestled into doing what you think they need to do to make the story work instead of letting them decide their direction.

But in the end, it doesn't work. At all.

Lesson learned. This time around, I'm not going to be so ruthless. I'm not going to edit my voice out of the story. I'm not going to agonize over every single word despite what some other writers might advise.

I tried it that way once, and in the end, I realized that my story wasn't mine anymore. I'd edited the heart out of it.

Solution? When the head (editor) gets too zealous, the heart must gently whisper in its ear. And the editor must listen and consider, then proceed to the best of its ability.

Only then will the true story be told.


  1. My writing teacher talks about the "law of diminishing returns" when it comes to editing. This happens when the major revisions have been done and the writer is now fiddling endlessly. More and more effort for less and less effect, and then the work suffers.

    It's a hard lesson learned, but a lot of folks never learn it at all. Kudos to you for keeping your eye on the big picture.

  2. It's a fine line to walk, but when done effectively, an amazing story unfolds. It's good that you're in tune with the distinction between heart and head, I'm sure you'll do a great job! Best editing wishes ...

  3. BRAVO! I love this post! and it's soo true! I too have had a hard time balancing my edits and keeping the true heart and voice of the story. I'm grateful to know I wasn't the only one! And good luck!

  4. Well, you already know what I think.

    I still laugh at certain points, and weep unashamedly at others.

    Something's still working. Hope it's the heart...

  5. You are absolutely right, Mel. It is a fine line, but one you get more comfortable with as you keep doing it.

    I try to keep a light hand on the editing. Yeah, perhaps a sentence needs some grammar work, but it sounds good the way it was written. Its okay. My biggest issues are continuity and reptition. That's what I'm after.

  6. Good post, Melissa :) I've just started editing something I haven't looked at in 18 months. OMG! I'm doing a major edit. I think sometimes we make jumps with our writing which can be translated into a much better piece of work with a BIG edit, but I'm also conscious that it is easy to kill your work. I worry I have done that with some pieces of work. :( Getting the balance you are happy with is the key.

  7. I am very lucky because my husband is the KING of technical writing, so I go through the manuscript once and give it a good once over just to make sure it reads well, etc.

    Then I have him look at it with his technical eye, and he catches the mistakes... anything I got out of timeline, anything that is grammatically weird, etc. He does a good job of making my work technically good, but because he didn't write it, he always leaves my heart in tact. (Maybe it's because he loves me lol)

  8. You're very right! I have such a hard time just writing freely without holding a choke leash on it to yank every time I see something not going just right. Your post is just what I needed to remind me!!

  9. You're so right.

  10. I love what you said here. I tend to overedit too and lose what I wanted to say. Also love that statement to write the first draft with your heart--second with your head. I will do that for sure:))

  11. LOL, and I just wrote (but won't post until weekend) a post titled, "Question Every Word."

    The next post after that should be, "Trust Every Word!"

  12. Very nice. So glad you had the epiphany before edits on this ms. :)

  13. Great post, Melissa, and so true. It's all too easy to edit out the heart and soul of our writing. When we start a book, there's an exciting freshness to it ... we have to make sure that's still there when it lands on our editor's desk.


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